The Importance of Changing Mediums: Why We Need More Polymaths in the 21st Century

When Picasso got bored with painting things as they appeared, he began experimenting with colors and shapes — an endeavor he would pursue for the rest of his life.

Photo Credit: Tim McFarlane via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Tim McFarlane via Compfight cc
My grandfather, the painter, loved Picasso. In his house were abstract oil paintings, attempts at mimicking the master. Because of these paintings, I always assumed Picasso just painted things a little weirdly. But that wasn’t the case at all.

By the age of 16, young Pablo had conquered the realist’s palette. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his museum in Barcelona. There, you can see the drawings and paintings a teenager did that look so real you can almost touch them. Leaving that museum, I had a newfound respect for the artist and man.

Picasso learned the rules before he broke them. And as he got older, he needed a more creative challenge. Maybe we all do.

The rise of the new polymath

During the Renaissance, if you had more than one craft, more than one way of doing things, you didn’t have a “bad brand” or ADHD, as we might conclude today. You were a polymath.

Leonard da Vinci was a polymath. A painter, sculptor, architect, and inventor, he was not content to stick to just one craft. In his latter years, he even designed war machines and torture devices for the king of France.

That’s like the Department of Defense calling up Georgia O’Keefe during the Cold War, asking her to consult on developing thermonuclear weapons. It just wouldn’t happen.

Today, we don’t praise what Emilie Wapnick calls multipotentialites. That is, people who have multiple skills they love and may not be comfortable doing only one of them for the rest of their lives (she explains more of this in her excellent TedX talk).

The trick, I think, in doing this effectively is to not try to do everything but to give yourself freedom to focus on more than just one thing. Look at the areas that interest you and find common ground between them.

In other words, don’t be a jack of all trades. Become a master of some.

How the past prepares you for the future

For seven years, I worked a job at a nonprofit that in many ways felt like a distraction from my true calling. I wanted to be a writer but instead spent my days managing people.

I was learning new things like how to use social media and email marketing to tell compelling stories. And I learned how to work with people, motivating them to reach a common goal. I also had to manage a budget and learn how to look at a spreadsheet.

Now, as a full-time writer and business owner, not a day goes by that I don’t use a skill I learned during that seven-year apprenticeship. I wouldn’t have chosen this path, but I can see how everything I’ve done so far has prepared me for where I am today.

And as I’ve grown more comfortable with writing, I’ve started dipping my toe into other mediums, like event planning. It’s a little scary to do workshops and large-scale conferences, but I’m excited to learn a new form of artistic expression.

The lesson? Our past can prepare us for our future, if we learn to embrace our present and never stop growing.

The work is never done

After Walt Disney mastered the animated short, he tackled full-length feature films.

When he had sufficiently wowed his audiences with that medium, he began shooting nature films. It wasn’t just the fantasy world that captivated him; it was the natural one. And then, he began the project that would consume him until he died.

When Disney got into the theme park business, he left behind movies almost entirely, letting others manage that side of the business. Occasionally, he would still peek in and see how things were going, but for the most part his focus was on Disneyland.

Now, Walt had what he’d always wanted: a project that would never be finished, something he could always tinker with. For a man who never got to be a boy, this was the ultimate dream — endless play.

The great artists, it seems, get bored with just one medium. They don’t want to be pigeonholed, no matter how successful they became. Just this weekend, I read about Jim Henson, the famous creator of the Muppets, and how he planned to build a series of theme park rides before his untimely death.

It seems we are never done creating, never done working, never done expressing what we have to share with the world.

The problem we face today

Too many writers don’t take the time to understand technology. Too many musicians miss the boat on a basic business education. And too many educators don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the culture outside their institution. In our culture today, we are in desperate need of more polymaths. 

We need more renaissance men and women. So where does that leave you? Probably a litte confused. Here’s my advice:

  1. Don’t long for a better life — live the one you have. “Wherever you are,” missionary Jim Elliott once said, “be all there.” Making the most of your current reality is the best practice for what’s to come. I write more about this in The Art of Work.
  2. Don’t get stuck in a single pursuit — create a body of work. Like Picasso, keep looking for other skills and interests you can develop that will complement your core. You never know where a new fascination might lead.
  3. Don’t be afraid to change mediums — keep trying new things. Sometimes, the way we get to our best work is by quitting something else. As evidenced in the life of Walt Disney, there is power in the pivot.

May you embrace multiple mediums and become your own version of a renaissance man or woman. It just might be the most satisfying thing you do.

When was the last time you tried tackling a new medium? Share in the comments.

67 thoughts on “The Importance of Changing Mediums: Why We Need More Polymaths in the 21st Century

  1. Haha, I love this post. Especially the bit comparing da Vinci designing torture devices for the king of France (I never knew he did that!) to Georgia O’Keefe hypothetically working on thermonuclear weapons. LOL!

    Also, it makes me feel better that you worked in your day job for seven years before becoming a full-time writer. I do like my job a lot. I’ve also considered becoming a writer, though, and it’s nice to realize that what I’m learning now will help me in the future, even if I end up leaving the field.

    1. I liked my job, too. This whole idea that you just take a giant leap is a myth. Most dreams are built gradually. Keep your job and build your dream, anyway, Natalie. The path will become clear as you take the next step.

      1. AMEN! Sooo tired of “the giant leap is the right way” talk. As you know, Jeff, I’m on that slow path… but it is clearing with constant effort. Thanks for saying that out loud about the myth. More of us need to be reminded of that. Excellent post.

    2. I had a similar experience working as a painter for about 7 years before we moved to Ukraine. The lessons I learned there prepared me for what I am doing here more than I ever could have imagined.

  2. Absolutely Jeff! It is so comfortable – clinging to the status quo. Fear often holds us back. In order to try and engage in new/other mediums, it is vital that we remain students – students for life. Which doesn’t mean we can’t master the mediums along the road. I’m studying/learning about blogging, amongst other things.

  3. Hi Jeff,
    I totally agree! I kinda realised this a little late in my life as you have but it’s important to not just focus on one skill for the rest of your life. Monotony kills us faster than boredom. Focusing on different skills and going with the flow is sometimes very productive and therapeutic at the same time.

    I loved your idea of how it’s important not to “settle” with a single craft and that we should explore different mediums. Exploring new interests never killed anybody.

    Great post Jeff!

  4. Thanks Jeff!

    This was a really encouraging post for me because recently I decided to take on the medium of video by vlogging. I enjoyed it but I also found that it made me feel a little bit guilty because it meant that for a little time I had to put aside some other mediums. I guess I find for myself that developing a new media also helps me to broaden my creativity and abilities to communicate through other mediums.

  5. Yep, this is me. Now I have a name for it (and feel liberated by it). Next question: how to host a website that reflects this without multiple domains or appearing to have ADHD!

    1. Check out Emilie Wapnick’s website, She is the one who coined the term and the person Jeff mentions about the tedtalk. She coaches people on how to do this. Good luck.

  6. Not entirely related, but have you read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work? It’s excellent and impossible to put down…

  7. I have dabbled in different mediums quite a bit in my life. I can’t say when the last time I tried something new was, but I do love learning new skills!

  8. Great post, Jeff. After years of being a horse farm owner and manager, a horse trainer, and a riding instructor, I’m now a writer.
    It’s been a big leap (quite honestly, I was pushed, I might never have made the jump on my own), but the years spent running a horse business have given me great things to write about.
    I’m now working with horse businesses who need help with their social media, web copy and content marketing; writing articles for horse magazines; and I’m getting ready to launch an online course for women called Find Yourself on a Horse – Empowering Women in the Barn and Beyond.
    I’ve learned to trade my riding helmet for several new hats over the past year and a half, and it’s been quite a journey!

    1. Penny, Do you have a website or facebook page to follow? Your background interests me as we own 6 horses and my 18 year old daughter is just starting a career in horses. I can be reached at Your course sounds interesting!

  9. Nicely said Jeff. It shows a breadth of understanding that belies your years. Today’s world is far too focused on picking a single niche and hanging on like grim death.

    Everything we do today, helps us in some way tomorrow. Life is a journey. My corporate career provided the knowledge that enabled my writing career. My writing career provided the confidence and research and sales skills to become a successful entrepreneur. My entrepreneur skills enabled me to self-educate and buy the passive income streams that pay for my life today, without having to work a schedule. Now I’ve moved beyond money and mentor others on how to speed the journey. There’s always something more. But we shouldn’t think of it as lacking something, it’s just an urge to grow into a bigger us.

    The “gaps” between all of these careers were filled with knowledge and skills that allowed evolution to the next interest and desire. The journey itself, is what turned me into a polymath. Everyone is a polymath in progress.

    This site attracts lots of writers and provides lots of great advice. But I can say from experience that there will be something else to desire after succeeding as a writer. There is always something more to reach for. But the upside of writing is that it allows us to read anything, interview anyone and then write about it — becoming an authority in the process. We can then use our “authority” to generate income, early retirement or anything else we want. Writing is the Super Power that helps build polymaths.

    Good luck to all!

  10. That’s me Jeff, a New Renaissance Woman: author, poet, storyteller,
    shaman, visual artist, performer, spiritual teacher, transformation
    artist. During my College years I was always pushed by peers and
    teachers who told me to make up my mind and focus. But I later realized
    that I was developing the tools of the shaman, who uses an array of art
    forms to effect transformation, healing and manifestation. In other
    words, there’s a method to our madness. Thanks for this, and for
    mentioning Emilie. She rocks!

  11. I changed roles in administrative medium from being a school principal to entering public administration. The basic rules are the same, but the people and issues that public administrators deal with require a completely different “pivot” direction. Great post.

  12. I left a career building fossil power plants to owning a small business to building solar power plants and now I write novels. I could not have written a novel twenty years ago. Your insights are particularly meaningful to me (and others I see). Keep up the good work Jeff.

  13. Thanks for the post Jeff! I’ve always loved trying new things, but recently I attempted the unthinkable for most people like me (an early-twenties female, working full time)…. My husband and I recently bought a home and we didn’t have enough furniture to fill it, so rather than running out and purchasing a bed, dining room table, patio furniture etc. I had the hair-brained idea to build them myself. I’m a business Analyst by day and I had no experience, skills and not many tools to start. My first project wasn’t perfect, but I learned from my mistakes and I got better as I went along. The best part? I found something that I really enjoy doing that I’m surprisingly great at.

    Taking this leap into the unknown inspired me to do something I would never have before considered. I’m preparing to launch my own DIY blog where I empower others to take on woodworking and concrete projects themselves and provide them the information and guidance they’ll need to be successful. I know there’s some stiff competition from other DIY bloggers out there, but I’m exciting to join that community just the same!

  14. I find this really encouraging. I can relate to the multipotentialities thing (and the “unique decisions”) that come with it but have often struggled with the difference between focus and narrowness. In some ways I can’t ever just do ONE thing (and for most of my adult life I have happily been doing multiple things) but I have to be really careful not to just do a little bit of everything, badly. It’s a fine line, for me. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post.

  15. Your comments and advice are bolstering my desire to write. I’ve written one short story and have e-mailed many people. I’ve been told to write a book by many people. What’s held me back is who would want to read about my life? My daughter and my boss told me to “just do it” and see what happens. So that’s why I turned to you to get tips on just how to get started. Thank you for the information.

  16. Last November, I tackled abstract painting in earnest for the first time. About a year before, I played around with it a little, but I tried full-on abstraction for a series just for the month of November. And I loved it so much that’s what I do now.

  17. I love to write and draw (pen and ink), play banjo, and learn foreign languages. Problem is, I haven’t found a way for any of them to turn into a career or at least a way to provide some sort of income. There’s my right-brained artistic/creative side and apparently, no sign of a left-brain anywhere 🙁 Then there’s the challenge of trying a number of things, never really getting good at any one thing.

  18. Love this post Jeff – absolutely spot on, and I’m finding this myself right now…in more ways than you might think. Really encouraging, thanks.

  19. I was always criticized for this in my youth as much as praised for being artistic. Made me appear to not be able to stick with one thing or finish what I start. By college, my family expected me to quit playing and get a real job where I would work for years, earn a pension, and retire cushy. My life turned out to be a series of life experiences in seasons through which I had opportunity to grow and broaden my skills. Now in my mid 50’s I finally have my name on a book spine. Still so much to learn. We never really arrive. Always the next new thing to conquer. An encouraging word. Thank you !

  20. I’m looking forward to meeting with you and talking to you.. l’m working on getting funding for my invention and I’m also working on my second invention but I do feel I have a great story to tell and you’re the perfect person teach me.

  21. Great post!! This explains so much…in light of this blog post, I understand why I majored in accounting and minored in writing. There is such freedom in thinking about my varied interests and skill sets this way. Very enlightening, thank you for researching and writing this!

  22. Jeff, thank you!
    Raised on a small farm in the NW of the US, an “ugly duckling” as a child. Too tall and horrible gold frames glassas from the secont grade and on..BIG inferiority complex.

    My calling and desire? ssto walk in obedience to God, wherever He leads. The surprises are countless.
    Soda jerk, clerk in a department store. Wife, mother,college student, pastor’s wife, teacher, missionary to Brazil (45 years), ESL teacher, language school, hostess, singing with praise combo (3 cds), sang before thousands (and I used to be afraid of speaking in front of people,) Also on outreaches in city plazas, on farms where people came walking in using their lanterns. No electriciy… began a children’s praise group (3 cds).. incredible experiences…taught on television (in Portuguese, yet!) and the list continues – even today. – and this writing course is one of them.

    Reading Work of Art touched a spring of understanding within me. Now, besides being a cultural marginal, I am a polymath and a multipotentiality. 🙂 I can’t take credit for any of it… if I’d known ahead of time, I’d have been scared stiff. But, as you shared, one step at a time, each experience the foundation for the next.

    Once again, I say thanks! and God bless!

  23. Yay! I’m so glad you wrote about this. 🙂 As a “polymath / multipotentialite / Scanner,” I’ve been so thrilled to find more writing about this lately. It’s been so freeing for me to realize that all my weird, varied interests are things to encourage rather than stifle. I loved the book “Refuse to Choose” by Barbara Sher, and I started following Emilie at Puttylike a little while ago, too. So glad to see you referring to her! Anyway, great article today, Jeff. I can say that all my seemingly disconnected experiences have added up nicely to create a fun life that’s full of all my favourite things so far.

  24. Thank you for the article, Jeff! My interests have been all over the map in the recent years, and maintaining them all has made an invaluable contribution to my personal development, as well as kept my life busy and interesting. I am a marathon runner, a blogger who writes about vegan diet and fitness, a vegan recipe creator, The trick is an aspiring bodybuilder, a creator of a line of handmade sock monkey toys for kids.

    I’m currently interested in getting a personal training certification, writing an e-book about easy vegan recipes, and exploring my abilities in creating fabric art. These seem like very different interests, but I wouldn’t be happy focusing on only one of them and ditching the others. The trick is to figure out a way to support myself financially through doing at least one of these so that I could finally quit my full-time job and have more freedom and time to devote to my interests.

  25. As an actress, singer and writer I am fortunate to spend a lot of my time creating. What I have noticed is that when I am really engaged in one aspect of creativity I become fired up about another. For instance, I’ll get home from an intense rehearsal for a show, and feel inspired to write. Creativity breeds creativity!

  26. Your article was profound. I am a 77-year-old author who has just published my first book on Amazon. It is entitled: “Retire on $1000 a Month: In Chiang Mai, Thailand”

  27. This is great, Jeff, and something I’ve been thinking about lately! and I agree with Margaret’s comment below. When I’m stuck in my writing, I switch to painting and suddenly my problem becomes more clear, and I have a solution. Thanks for the great post!

  28. This post so describes what I find myself feeling lately. I’m a musician at heart, but I’ve recently finished my first fiction novel and want to pursue other avenues of writing. I’ve got a blog, have a successful YouTube channel, enjoy reading; on top of running my own business, where does it end? Apparently, nowhere.

    I’ve found that stressful at times that it’s so hard to commit to one avenue of creative expression—especially when you feel you’ve got to please the multiple audiences across the multiple platforms you’ve built—and constantly find myself stuck doing nothing at all for fear of committing to at least SOMETHING.

    I’m definitely going to bookmark this post for future reference. I have a feeling I’ll be needing it’s wisdom often. Thanks for sharing, Jeff.

  29. Jeff…I jumped for joy (internally!) when I read ‘The Art of Work’ and identified with the chapter on ‘The Portfolio’ life. As a writer, public relations manager, pianist, vocalist, worship pastor, missionary (17 years in Europe) and most recently, a part-time chocolatier, I’ve never been happy with just one thing. I was always concerned that my curiosity was a weakness. Thanks to you for pointing out that it is a strength! See at the writer’s conference in Franklin next month.

  30. Wow! Im a polymath… and all this time I just thought I was crazy. Do I sing, play my guitar/write music, or paint? Im much better at using oil paints than I am at using a guitar but have never wanted to give up the music. And now I’m writing a book! Nice to know I don’t have to give any of these things up.

  31. Last time I did something for the first time?

    The last two weeks have been very full of firsts. After shopping and realizing that the $30 blouse I was trying on was basically a rectangle I bought some fabric and made a blouse without a pattern AND IT WORKED!!!! Never did that before.

    Drove 3100 miles from Texas to Delaware and back sharing driving with sons 16 and 18. Every time the 16 year old started driving it started raining and we entered construction!!!!

    Took youngest three children to NYC for their first visit, riding the Central Park carousel was a first for all of us.

    To finish off the week, after 44 years of my own unconventional knitting I learned from my German friend in Delaware the German style of knitting. Overcoming 44 years of muscle memory was challenging and while I will not continue using it, I will be able to teach my 10 year old how to knit properly when she is ready to pick up her knitting again.

    I try to be brave because I want my children to try new things. If Momma isn’t will, why should they be? (I also had my first Korean sushi.) It was a good week. THIS is a good article. Thank you for sharing.

  32. Great post. I am starting my third branch and am constantly making connections in my mind with previous paths in my life. At the start of a new pivot when everything is exciting, I love learning so that helps too. Now to finish getting my blog going, that would be even better!

  33. Writing IS my new medium. I’ve been doing the small business thing for SO long now…but finally I’m starting to write more and more. It’s not that it’s scary as so many people seem to say…it’s about time. That’s another hurdle that slows down or even stops the writer types I’ve met. I hate it. I want more time. Of course the more time I spend wanting more time…the less of it I have to work with. I love a good paradox. Wait. Maybe I hate them. Ha! (Whoops…got a little confusing and deep.)

  34. “you didn’t have a “bad brand” or ADHD, as we might conclude today” That’s it right there. Letting ourselves be what our internal compass leads us to and not allowing ‘experts’ or ‘society’ to define us. I’m on that journey and getting used to standing alone, not explaining myself to people who don’t get it, working in the background just because I will go insane if I don’t do it. I think this is one of the greatest things I’ve read ever!

  35. Thank for you making me feel normal again! I’ve considered my overdriven creativity to be a disadvantage all my life, leading me from one thing to the next, following multiple paths of interest at the same time. Maybe I needed to focus more or slow down or stopping chasing the rabbit down the hole. But now I know that my creative self is more polymath than disorganized and fully embracing this “title” will truly make my soul happy. The only challenge, for me, is to find ways to combine all my seemingly random interests into a new path. I’m currently a food blogger, life coach and motivational writer looking for a happy medium to pursue. The pieces haven’t all fit together just yet for me but I’m confident as long as I stay on course things will fall into place!

    1. I am with you there Christine and celebrate with you the freedom to keep OUT eating no matter what

  36. It is definitely refreshing to know there is nothing wrong with me, this post would have explained it all 16 years ago. My favorite artist Leonardo, I knew he was a polymath. I never thought to associate myself as one. Everyone I know told me I had to pick something and stick with it; because I couldn’t I must have had a problem. I think I’ll get started cooking up some crow casserole!

  37. Funny how life is. I have heard the word polymath a few times but I have never really inquired what it trully means. Now, I know it’s a word that applies to me. It is comforting to know that there is a place for the multi-skilled and talented people. The society tends to be judgemental of these sets though, one will have to learn to take one’s eyes off the people and focus on the gifts and the calling of God. One thing I am taking away from this is to learn see where everything connects and work them out. Not to be jack of all but a master of some. Thank you Jeff.

  38. LOVE this. I was told by a coach that I had the BSO syndrome. “bright shiny object”. Always transitioning to something new. Whew this post is great because I just got on Periscope today and LOVE IT. Something New. : ) I’m on there as Estherfink1 and LOVE it. For today anyway. Tomorrow, well that’s another day.

  39. If starting a blog that writes for fledgling writers poses as a new medium, then I’m most likely a polymath.

    But if not, wow, I see no other life outside books; no fun way to better impact without the blog.

    Yes, nothing is wrong with me, too, I want to believe. We just must be master of one.

    Master of one? Writing cuts it well.

    Thanks for sharing, Jeff.

  40. Another very helpful post and one which resonates with me in encouraging us to experiment. In setting up my blog, I was worried that I wasn’t specialising, but my key interests do overlap. It’s great to read that there’s a place for writers who enjoy a variety of topics and writing styles. I love learning, writing, and communicating!

  41. Interesting take on this topic. When I moved into mentoring writers from writing fiction and writing for magazines, I found that branching out helped my own writing too. The research you perform for non-fiction writing and journalistic articles can be a treasure trove for fiction. Thanks for the great post, Jeff.

  42. So I am not scatter brained after all! I have a lot of loves and have been telling myself I should really let some go. I like hot glass, jewelry making, but my greatest love is painting. I am interested in doing stained glass and airbrush work, I even bought everything I need for it. Just not the time to get to it yet. I was just thinking this week, maybe I should sell some of it. I think after reading this, no, the challenge to learn something new is good! And I do write, a little, I am not very good at it, but doing it anyway! I am writing a book about my son. I liked your discussion here. Great article. Thanks.

  43. I love this Jeff because it resonates with my life. As an encourager, I see myself building people up in their faith in many ways: writing, speaking, teaching. Although I’ve yet to get paid doing these, they are what drive me forward. Right now I guess u am practicing 🙂 and learning the skills I need.

  44. Thanks for reinforcing my feelings. I was and still being told to stay focused i.e. choose a medium and stick-with-it. Something I have never done. Boredom with wood sculpture made me learn welding. Boredom with welding lead me to working with acrylic sheet. Now with the knowledge of different medium I can combine and continue to improve on techniques I would have never gained if I had ‘stuck-with-it”

  45. thank you for reminding me that being a polymath is a gift not a burden. I have always considered myself a borderland, a gypsy at heart forever travelling physically and in my mind, constantly expanding, seeking, learning, questioning, becoming more than I am today. the struggle has always been that it creates confusion especially when my clients tell me they don’t know how to tell people what I do. how does one make that easier without feeling trapped in to one thing? it seems to make the difference in translation between being an expert in ones field and flighty.

  46. I’ve explored many mediums, from welding, textiles, painting and drawing, and glasseork. I’ve hopped quite a bit in jobs as well, from order processing to dispatch and post office work.
    I feel like I start new things all the time, but gave issues focusing on finishing.
    I think I’ll take a look at the Art of Work.
    And consider taking business administration classes.

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