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'The Polymath' will survive: Book review by Dr. Kamal Mahawar

M3 India Newsdesk May 23, 2019


Dr. Kamal Mahawar, Bariatric Surgeon and published author reviews Dr. Waqas Ahmed's new book, "The Polymath" which critiques a current decade problem of restricting people to choose only one field to specialise, thereby stalling opportunity and progress.

I am struggling to remember another book that has so fundamentally inspired me to think about the current world order as “The Polymath” by Waqas Ahmed. After all, the current world order encourages, even forces, us to be super-specialists. I know it too well in my day job as a consultant surgeon. The outcomes of an extremely complex task are better if you only do that repeatedly but what does an obsessive focus on narrow specialism do to your personality, life in general, and mankind is worth spending some time over and that is what Waqas has beautifully achieved.

In this neat and erudite expression of some of the finest thoughts I have ever read, Waqas takes you through the journey of mankind and the role of Polymath in it. He illustrates with beautiful examples from pretty much every civilisation in the world that it is those with multifaceted personalities who have defined the world and have also been able to achieve so much for themselves, challenging the notion that we always were specialists and that this is the only way to excel.

Waqas goes further. He argues that in this age of artificial intelligence, human beings will only survive if we let our natural instincts to pursue multiple things at the same time express itself fully. Survival in an ever-changing environment demands a number of skills in the same person and not in a large number of different individuals working in isolation. The Polymath can connect the dots and find solutions that an individual with an extremely narrow focus would simply be unable to see. Waqas challenges the “culture of people protecting ideas rather than connecting them”.

It is indeed interesting how anything other than an obsessive focus of a narrow field of specialisation is viewed as spreading yourself too thin and comes with a financial and social penalty rather than reward. The pursuit of anything other than your job is deemed as a selfish activity that the society would not remunerate. This is turning us humans into robots who are not living to their full polymathic potential and also probably preventing us from enjoying life to the fullest.

The default assumption in today’s world is that it is not possible to survive without a single-minded focus on developing one talent. Waqas reminds us that in this changing world, a diverse set of skills is more likely to keep you in the game than a singular focus on one activity. The Polymath shall survive.

Waqas calls for nothing short of a complete overhaul of our education system which ought to focus on “developing skills that can be applied to more than one domain” and challenges the "job for life" model. Appropriately, he points out that most of us will end up doing more than one, if not many, different job over the course of a lifetime and this means having more than one skills.

It, therefore, also makes financial sense to develop more than one skills. Many careers, such as those in sports and military, Waqas points out, are especially short-lived but even those in the so-called safe jobs may need to relearn and retrain. Even within a job, the requirements changing so fundamentally every decade that a failure to evolve and develop is sure to lead to financial ruin.

Waqas argues that the continued financial stability, indeed prosperity, of both individuals and societies can only be guaranteed through developing multiple skills that are going to be needed in this century. The polymathic mindset, he emphasises, “allows for a bigger, rounded, interconnected picture of the world” without which no society can live and survive. Waqas encourages humans to become inimitable and indispensable so that we can beat the machines we have developed.

In his comparison of the eccentric with the polymath, Waqas reminds us again to have the courage to break the mould and live life to the full potential. It takes confidence to break the stereotype and this book will give you that tiny bit of additional support the non-conformist in you may have been craving for.

The Polymath by Waqas is as significant in its ability to inspire the reader to live a more fulfilling life as it is in being a scientific account of history's most revered and successful polymaths. If you are looking for deep reading, this is the book for you.


Disclaimer- The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of M3 India.

Dr. Kamal Mahawar is a consultant bariatric and general surgeon practising in the United Kingdom. He is author of two books: ‘The Ethical Doctor’, published in 2016 by Harper Collins; and ‘Fight with Fat’, which has been published in April this year by Fingerprint publishing.

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