My fascination with polymaths and how generalists make better leaders and problem solvers

I have always tried to do more than one thing. My ambitions and dreams kept changing as a kid and most of my daydreams were influenced by radio. Back in the early 80s, in the islands, radio was our link to the rest of the world. People of all ages listened to the radio. I remember wanting to become an agricultural field officer, meteorological observer and finally, when one day in 1987, there was an interview of the students of the newly opened School of Hotel and Catering Studies – and my mind was made up. My career was never steady, after the hotel school, I moved laterally more times than I went up. I did many different things, in the process ended up doing almost everything except getting a boat captain’s license or taking the night shift alone in a powerhouse. Everything else we do in a resort- I did!

Growing up, we are all familiar with the reference “jack of all trades, master of none” but that is definitely not one we will associate with some of the greatest knowledge powerhouses from history, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Ibn Sina or Ibn Khaldun. These giants knew what they were doing and they were experts in many different disciplines. They were able to draw upon their knowledge of one discipline and apply it in another to come up with revolutionary and original thinking. They were polymaths. Polymaths are those who have encyclopedic knowledge in many different disciplines. However, with the rigid structuring of the education system in the early part of the 20th century, many a curious student would have been discouraged from venturing afar and segueing into different branches of knowledge or learning different skills.

In Dhivehi, we have an expression that is “Fasmeeru kuriruh” which is used to describe someone who is good at many different things. One person who can do many things was valued in island culture and people were not afraid of trying new things or changing their trade. As a child, I saw a lot of people practice multiple skills in their everyday life. Starting from my Dad, who used to be a civil servant at his day job, kerosene pressure lantern specialist for the neighbourhood, barber to us, farmer on weekends. We did not have handymen then. Anything that you needed to get done around the house, you have to do it yourself. My grandfather, who was a blacksmith, was also equally adept at many things. One of the things that I remember vividly from my childhood is the memory of us looking forward to the arrival of my uncle Shathir (Bondobeybey), who at that time, worked as a tailor in one of the tailor shops in Male. He came home to Fuvahmulah every year for Ramadan and would spend the Eid with his family. He came, literally, bearing gifts for all. I and my siblings would get new clothes for Eid! I remember watching him put the walls up for his house, sew our clothes and work at his Achchangey (Blacksmith’s shed) most of the time by himself or assisted by one of his nephews. As kids, we also learnt that he played badminton and volleyball. He also played football. My uncle now, in his 60s, is still going strong as a heavy vehicle operator for the local municipal service provider. He still goes kattelhi (snake mackerel) fishing in the afternoon. His knowledge and skills are multi-dimensional and varied.

Then I see my father in law, now in his late 70s but still active as a 20 or 30-year-old. He was a Keyolhu (captain of the fishing dhoni) in his prime. He too did all the tailoring for his family for himself, still has a small Achchange (blacksmith’s shed) where he still makes all sorts of stuff and lately, he has been making fishing lures most part of the day. He is a skilled artist, his drawings, especially as my wife recalls, his depiction of island scenes, coconut palms, fish and birds can be very detailed. He carves things out of wood, makes all sorts of toys and utensils for grandkids, especially helping them with their school projects. These are just a few of the inspirations that I had and still continue to have to learn new things, to try and become and better at many different things instead of just being a specialist in one narrow area. Island culture is filled with inspirations of this nature.

Humans have endless potential to learn but most of us lack the motivation to learn new things. You may call it the fixed mindset or mere laziness. We can learn, unlearn, relearn and master many different skills. We can teach ourselves many new things in much less time than we can even imagine. With technology at our fingertips, literally, most of us do not have any excuses to live the boring one-dimensional lives that we live today. I have tried to encourage my kids to learn new languages, starting with just one more language – unfortunately, I am still not able to convince any of them.

We are not certain about the future and many of us speculate on what work will look like in the future. Increasingly, we see jobs that require more creative thinking than anything else. We see skills that can be learnt in a short span of time, skills that do not require years of specialization in greater demand, rather, passion and commitment is what is required. We see more Gates’s, Jobs’s and Musks who use passion and curiosity, more than anything else, to come up with great products that earn them the label geniuses. Maybe students need to learn at least 4 different skills or subjects instead of focusing all their energy on getting a one-dimensional degree in 3 or 4 years. In HR, this is sometimes referred to as the T shaped skillset, where each one of us has in-depth knowledge of one area and a shallower but usable set of broader skills in a number of different areas.

I have always advocated for more generalists in the hospitality industry. Instead of spending all your life specializing in F&B or Front Office, your GM ambitions will be better served if you spend time in other areas of the hospitality operation. At the end of the day, the primary role for GMs or hotel managers is to provide guidance and balance. GMs with narrow specializations or one-dimensional careers rarely get as much love as their peers with more exposure in different operational roles. Through experience, I realize that many of the challenges I have faced in the past would have been harder to overcome if not for my past roles in different departments of the resort operation. Been in all areas of the operation has made me a more empathetic and patient person when listening to HoDs speak of challenges and -especially when on the odd occasion – having to referee something between two HoDs with differing views on the same issue.

About Hassan Saeed

I am a lifelong learner. I learn every day and I learn from everybody I interact with - I live with this simple philosophy. My goal is to help spread knowledge and information that helps people get better every day. Learning should fit into everyone's daily routine. Learning should empower individuals to achieve more and drive them towards excellence and perfection.
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2 Responses to My fascination with polymaths and how generalists make better leaders and problem solvers

  1. kaainaai says:

    Very informative, in today’s world where specialists are always give the front face, generalists are never give the chance to shine.


  2. Pingback: Career insights: 5 reasons why I think generalists will achieve greater career success than specialists | Hassanfushi

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