The Wicked Podcast

Dr. Angela Cotellessa: Polymaths (working title)

July 20, 2021 [email protected] Episode 55
The Wicked Podcast
Dr. Angela Cotellessa: Polymaths (working title)
Show Notes Transcript

Polymaths are the next specialists. Why is that and does that mean only Leonardo Da Vinci will get a job?

Author page: www.polymathsplace.com
Get the book: in production

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Music:
'Inspired' by Kevin MacLeod
Song: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3918-inspired
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Marcus Kirsch:

Welcome to the wicked podcast where we read the business books you don't have time for. I'm Marcus Kirsch. And I'm Troy Norcross. And we are your co hosts for the wicked podcast.

Troy Norcross:

So Marcus, I've adopted the Steve Jobs approach to clothing. I'm only wearing black t shirts from here on forward. What do you think? Well, I

Marcus Kirsch:

think unless it's an actual turtleneck, I'm not buying it. So I don't care if it's finally summer inside in London, and finally getting hot. Gotta be a turtleneck. I can borrow? I can lend you one. I got one here.

Troy Norcross:

Are you gonna turn it right? I'm not wearing a turtleneck in this heat. No. But another but the heat in my dress sense who's on the show.

Marcus Kirsch:

So today we have Angela quintessa. And her book, which still a working title. It's a book about polymath and the value of polymath at in organisations. So and she's just coming out of a doctoral work. So it's quite scientific. But interesting, because I think it's a very interesting angle on personally from a wicked problem perspective. However, also, in general, I think it's a really overlooked subject matter that I found very interesting. However, what were your insights?

Troy Norcross:

I think she really nailed it when she said that companies can really benefit the most from learning to spot. People in their teams and in their organisations that have polymathic or are forms of polymath. And yes, polymaths are somewhere on that spectrum. Not everyone is 100%, polymath or 0%, polymath and finding those people who are in deep polymathic in their abilities, make them suitable for different kinds of positions in the company, where there's ambiguity, where there's challenge where there's diversity required, and we're just a dead on deep knowledge specialist doesn't apply. The other thing that I took away, I do like the expression that for polymaths learning is their superpower. So whether it's learning from doing basic desk research, or whether it's 1000s of hours of practice, a classical guitar, there a whole lot of different ways that polymaths operate in the world, but they're almost always around learning a new skill. But what do you think? What were your takeaways from the interview today?

Marcus Kirsch:

So yeah, I, I'm somewhere on this spectrum of policy, for sure. Because I've been around for so many things and do so many things that I'm curious about, I'm sure I'm ending up somewhere there on a higher level without being a fully loaded Vinci for sure, that would be crazy to claim that. But what I liked about it, and also because I'm just being coming out of a week of doing research in a company that tries to develop a training programme for a new mindset for a new way of looking at sales and a new offer. And you can start at that level, just expanding the ability to sell something or look at the customer and identify better opportunities. And then you can go all the way to learning in general to make more time for learning and create new values in organisation. So learning itself, because of polymath, but also, because of everybody else, is really, really important. And a lot of organisations are never given time for learning. There are others, you know, let's just spend more time on selling the same stuff and just sell harder this year. But selling harder doesn't work anymore. Because especially with last year, the map just totally changed. So if you don't have an explorer learner to understand the map better the new map in particular, you're going to lose in this market. So not just for polymaths. But for everybody else's sake. give more time for learning. And then if you give more time for learning that will then naturally attract polymath who can then look at a problem in a more holistic way. And they'll learn and they're looking at lots of different aspects because that's what they're like doing. And you'll attract those high value people. Because as much as you said, you know, specialists and polymath, they might sit on two different ends, but they both can contribute to the solution. They both have value and we've just been focused on specialists for too much and further along. So

Troy Norcross:

learning just to be really clear, she pointed it out very early in the interview and I'm glad that she did. There is nothing about mathematics, specifically around polymaths. But anyway, let's stop clarifying. Maybe she should be doing all the talking Marcus, where

Marcus Kirsch:

should we go to the interview please? Hello everyone. Today we're here with Angela codesa Hello, Angela. Nice to be here with View and welcome. Thank you. Nice to be here with you. And as usual, we start from the top. So please tell our audience who you are and why you wrote the book.

Angela Cortelessa:

Well, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on modern day polymaths, which very quickly is just kind of a fancy word for a renaissance person, but I I aspire to be a renaissance woman myself. And so when I was in my doctoral programme, having to decide what to study, you know, I wanted to pick something I care about. So I picked to study modern day polymaths, which strangely, is a very understudied population. So I guess you could say I'm a researcher and a writer on polymath. You my doctoral dissertation sort of was the beginning. And then now I've written a new book.

Troy Norcross:

And that was a PhD around what?

Angela Cortelessa:

Yes, my doctorate is in human and organisational learning. And it's a Doctorate of education from George Washington University in Washington, DC, which is wonderful where I live. Hmm.

Marcus Kirsch:

So tell us a little bit about these strange polymath and why we're now talking about them.

Angela Cortelessa:

So one definition I like to provide is by Robert and Michelle route Bernstein. Bob. Robert is I think one of the leading scholars in the polymath he studies field. He has decided or suggested that polymath he is active engagement in multiple interests or endeavours, integrating vocations with avocations simultaneously or serially across the lifespan. So basically, what people get confused by the word polymath, they're there. They hear math and they think, what does this have to do with mathematics? If it has to do with mathematics? It doesn't apply to me probably. But it doesn't. The math is short for mantienen and Greek, which means to learn or learning. So polymath means many learnings. And it's kind of like being the opposite of a narrow specialist. It's being more general, but the term implies there's some depth to it's not just being a dabbler, or a scanner, you know, with very little depth. You've got you've got depth in multiple fields. But the key of being a polymath is that you have that versatility, that variety, in addition to some some expertise kind of being like a multi expert.

Troy Norcross:

Okay. And here's the next question. We talked about entrepreneurs, I deal with a lot of startups. Yeah. The question is, is an entrepreneur born? Or can an entrepreneur kind of learn the skills of being an entrepreneur and be made? And so the question for you is, is a polymath born? Or is a polymath, something that you can actually do the right things, multiple learning with depth in multiple locations, and grow into a polymath?

Angela Cortelessa:

Yeah, and this was one of the things I asked the polymath, who I interviewed for my doctoral research. And their perspective was that it's a mix of nature and nurture. Because polymaths are learners, I mean, they're they learn many things, you do probably have to have some certain genetic inheritance to, you know, to be good at learning. Some nature has to be there. But in my view, it absolutely is part nurture, like everybody could lean into their polymath, the more everybody can be more open to experiences, everyone can sort of tap into their curiosity more. For me polymath is not just for the elite, some scholars and some thinkers around polymath II think, you know, it's relegated to Leonardo da Vinci types and so it's for people out there, I'd rather make polymath up something we can all aspire to, and lean in towards, because I do think we can all be curious and open and learn and explore more of our authentic selves. So I think you can you can lean into it. The thing I will say, too, regarding some of the other thinkers, sort of relegating it to the elite, more, whereas I don't do that is polymath, he exists on a spectrum. You know, like, like many human phenomenon, you don't have to be at the far end of the spectrum to call yourself that word. But if anybody listening does feel uncomfortable saying I am a polymath, yeah, I get that. I encourage using as an adjective. So instead of saying, a polymath like I have arrived, it's a designation, it's a noun. You can make an adjective say I, you know, I like to be polymathic in my approach to learning and life and work. And so it's not quite so scary if you use it that way.

Troy Norcross:

Okay, so I'm gonna do one more question and I'm gonna give it over to Marcus. But again, it's it's a whole identity thing. People, I don't know, maybe people like me have been through the midlife crisis and certainly diverged from where they were, you know, in telecoms and wound up in cryptocurrencies. Other people started off in one form of industry, like, you know, not necessarily very good, but coal miners, who then until they need to retrain themselves to be accountants. And they didn't have a choice they had to learn, they had to do it all over again, the forced adaptation versus the embraced learning line in polymath.

Angela Cortelessa:

Well, to tap into the identity piece, you just said, I, you know, oftentimes when we think of identity, we think of it like it's fixed, like you, bam, there's your identity, and it's done. But that's not really the case, especially for polymathic. People, they may have multiple, even seemingly contradictory parts of their identity. At the same time, they sort of are comfortable with contradiction, they embrace that. They embrace paradox frequently, which allows them to think differently to think outside the box to be creative and innovation, innovative in their approaches to to work and the problems living. polymathic identity can be difficult, it can be difficult to explain, it can be difficult to own, it can be difficult for people to just be aware of because we don't really talk about it. And most people don't know that word. So the identity piece that you said, is an important part to understand even navigating socially with other people. How do you explain your the story of your identity, how your brand who you are, that's challenging, you know, regarding forced adaptation, so polymaths can be that way, from pure joy, and ease. And because they had resources, and they could just explore their, their curiosities with joy and ease. That's one way it happens. Another way it happens is they have difficulty and dysfunction. And so learning their way is a way out of the problem. I mean, really, if you think about it, how do you get out of problems, you learn your way out of problems. That's what we do. And so polymath II can be something that comes from joy and ease, even in family upbringing. So financial aspect is all stuff I heard in my doctoral research, or it can come from difficulty. It can come from both.

Marcus Kirsch:

So we work a lot in with organisations around change and transformation, which always includes some level of learning. And there's also the whole idea about DDD, constant learning organisation, or the learning organisation itself. And I think in times like these learning and adoption is a really welcomed trade. So therefore, I've quite seen people be able to to learn quite easily, I would say. And at the same time, I've seen organisations where the system just really suppressed it. Yeah. So has anyone an organization's like to then measure? So how many people can we actually take on on this new journey? And how many we can't? Because there's always been, will be a percentage that just can't? Or maybe won't? Who knows? But it's a big question. So maybe maybe to start with, you know, quite simple one, maybe the tear towards organisation and change. Has anyone ever looked out and said, you know, how many polymers? Could there be? How many how many people have that ability or that potential identic? population? Has anyone ever looked into that?

Angela Cortelessa:

I mean, I think I think people have wondered. But as far as I'm aware, there's no research that's been done. And part of the problem is we don't really have a good measure of what makes someone poly and exists on the spectrum. And there, it's like, where do you make the cutoff and IQ is not the cut off? This is not an IQ issue. Maybe there's some overlap with IQ. But we really do could use an assessment, some measurement, some certifying body, in my opinion, so that this could be a sort of way of distinguishing types of employees. In this is a little bit not answering your question, but it sort of is, in my view, organisations need to think differently about their talent, and about the positions. And Marcus, you wrote about this in in the wicked company, you wrote about team problems and wicked problems, and in my view, there's sort of parallel positions. is a job more dealing with Team problems, or are they dealing more with wicked problems, if you could distinguish those two categories first, then just logically that who fills those roles should be and work and think and be trained, and have different experiences as well. And the way I wrote about them in my upcoming book is that there are no words Who are the deep specialists, you pay them to know the answers, you pay them to become deep experts in your organisation and to go for them for you go to them for answers, they should be able to know, there's not a lot of ambiguity or volatility in their world. But there is this other type of role where you don't want to know more, because what they knew before, if they keep applying that logic to tomorrow will get you in trouble. So what you need in that role is a learner, you need a learner, which is what polymaths are. So I think about this, I call it the the two types framework that there are these two types. And so if you can figure this puzzle out in your organisation, which roles which types of people, and then get them to collaborate together like a hive mind, like a neural like network, then you're really gonna see some, you know, some game changing strategy potentially to stay competitive.

Troy Norcross:

So, you use the phrase on the spectrum? Yes. We talked about various colleagues, friends, public figures that are on the spectrum, which means they're varying degrees of bonkers and bunkers. Brilliant. You know, they're there somewhere on okay. Yep. That's, that's pretty common, I think. So I think polymath, again, can be somewhere on the spectrum from being a true learning, polymath to the I have polymathic ability and I might never use

Angela Cortelessa:

Hmm, yeah. And they're all you know, polymath is it's about being many things. And it can show up in many different flavours and fashions. In fact, one of the things I write about in the book is that I write about the spectrum concept. And I say that it's not just one spectrum, there's actually, if there were a polymathic spectrum, which there is because I'm writing about it, I guess I've proposed it to the world. And others may come along and disagree and refine it, which would be wonderful. But it's actually a spectrum of spectrums. Like there are different ways of looking like looking at how polymath II can show up in human beings. And I write about this in the book there, you know, even even just things like how aware are they have their own polymath. He is one of the subcomponents or how much breadth and depth do they have? Are they introverted or extroverted in their polymath you like there's just so many sub components about how that spectrum can look and be different from polymath, polymath, and the thing about polymath is, each person is so unique, it's a way of becoming individuated. It's a way of expressing your own leanness of becoming a

Troy Norcross:

human being Hold on. As a leader of a company, you've just scared the bejesus. Because, you know, at the end of the day, I've got goals, I've got okrs okrs KPIs, I've got all of these things. And I just need these people to get out and do things. And this polymath each something, someone. Yes, everyone wants innovation. Everyone wants kind of real massive transformation is the premise. To get there if you're Paulie mouthy, it's such a confusing journey. Where do leaders start? Where do they start on this whole journey of understanding polymaths in teams?

Angela Cortelessa:

Yeah. So I would say it doesn't have to be scary. Actually. It's tremendous opportunity. It's a tremendous opportunity. We live in an age of specialisation, where organisational leaders, HR professionals have been taught, hire specialists hire experts. And that's it. And that's what we have blindly done. And it's kind of worked for us in the past. But I think we're at a turning point, the world's getting more complex. I mean, are the issues we grapple with the competition we face, we can't just keep doing things like we did yesterday and and assume we're going to stay, you know, successful. So one of the things I think we need to do is is tap into polymathic talent, because what's happening right now, by the way, is polymaths are out there. They are out there. And when they apply for jobs, they are trading as specialists because that's what they feel they have to do, or or they give up on organisations and they become entrepreneurs. But I look forward to a day when people can bring their full skill sets their full talent where they don't have to charade and masquerade as specialists in order to get decent jobs with company and when companies can recognise that skillset, recognise that talent and instead of wanting people to be cogs and wheels, and instead of fitting, you know, round pegs into square holes, they actually look at the talent they have and figure out a way to tap into it to appreciate to leverage it. It's so wasteful if you think about it to happen. talent, and then only use a portion of it. It's a waste of money, literally. And it's a waste of human potential, which is very frustrating to many intelligent, capable polymath. So don't be intimidated, it's an opportunity, I would say, you know, a lot of the behaviours I would want to see from a manager leading polymathic talent, it's it's common sense in a way. And it would apply to any employee, like, figure out what what makes them happy at work, figure out what they want to do what they're good at. treat them like human beings, not automatons or machines. mean, it's not rocket science to tap into and use polymathic talent, you just have to be open to making some tweaks. And the way you make a polymathic employee happy is you tap into their superpower, which is their ability to learn and to be creative. You figure out ways to tap into those capabilities.

Marcus Kirsch:

So that's done. Apart from the fact that you know, like anything new in organisations, let's say if I just have to look at someone my background and design thinking service designs, service design, being a newish practice, to organisations, essentially challenges where it's often not fully understood what the value is, it has to still learn how to express that. How to integrate into group and team and what the overlaps are with other roles and responsibilities is often a challenge. Suppose this sounds a bit like there's even more of that. And it's a bit unclear of you know, what, what it is, but I want to pick up on the learning part, then because I'm literally just doing some research now for a global organisation. And they want to introduce something new, and they want to do a training programme around it. And it's all about learning, right? So interesting. They all know now there's a couple of little bubbles within this global infrastructure where people know and understand the opportunity. And at the same time, what they also know on what they also have seen, oddly enough, even through last year, when everyone was more inclined to change things because things change so much. But finally, few people actually a few more people actually went for change, and produced training. And then no one had time for training to the point where there was one example about sales and the sales dropped, because digital channels were so much more important, and no one was trained on those, no one knew how to go about it. So they did a training programme, put it out there, and then no one used it. And the reason for that was that people said, Well, we can't spend time on training, because we have to spend more time on selling more, because our sales are down. So they weren't allowed to try and to sell better. Because they had to sell more, which is a vicious cycle and ridiculous to listen to. But that just happened. So how do you how do you then tell companies to say, look, actually, those people in particular, if you don't let them learn, they're not going to work for you, you're gonna get frustrated very quickly. And the other thing is also, even beyond those people in teams, I found it in service design and design thinking a lot where there's more research now in the process that often the research is not acknowledged. And organisations don't even make time for research. It's also learning, right? So there's a lot of learning being suppressed for output. How do you go about and then say, look, you know, what's, what's the value here to let people more learn? How do you how do you how would you convince someone that this is, you know, better?

Angela Cortelessa:

So polymaths are good at learning. That's their superpower. They have voracious hungry minds. And you're exactly right, Marcus, if if they feel like they're not growing and learning, they grow, dissatisfied pretty quickly at work. organisational leaders can use that learnability to their advantage rather than suppressing it. And I want to say to learning isn't just training training is not the only way to learn. You know, there's a there's a place for training, classroom training or online training, that but that's only a portion of the way human beings can learn. I mean, especially for polymaths, they're very tend to be very self directed in their learning. And that could show up by reading a book or listening to an audio book or googling things or speaking with an expert and learning from them. So there are a lot of ways to think creatively about how learning takes place in an organisational context. So I want to say that the other way to think about learning is if you have if you had a resource that you could upgrade, why wouldn't you want to upgrade it? Why didn't you want to keep it cutting edge and fresh? That's what learning is for human beings. And so yeah, there is there is something to be said for sales and pressure and money and efficiency. But there Also something to be said for investing into your people. You know, improving the resources you have keeping the resources you have, by the way, because if you have people who want to learn and improve and get better and grow, and you don't give them opportunities to do that, then you may lose them. And then that's costly. So there, you know, you've got to balance the work demands a sales, the financial pressure, but you also have to consider how to keep your staff happy how to keep them engaged, how to keep them feeling like they want to stick around, because they're in a company that cares about their development, and, and tapping into their human intelligence like, like, they're real people that matter. So learning and is really important. And I know, you know, it can be a struggle for leaders to make investments and training, especially when there's financial pressures. But keep in mind, too, there are plenty of free ways for people to learn if you know if the money is an issue. And polymaths can find those opportunities very easily because they love to learn,

Troy Norcross:

then polymaths do love to learn and I love what you say it's their superpower. Yeah. And they're also very self directed what you said, Yeah, I've got a chemist who's learning classic piano, that's what they want to do. And then they have absolutely nothing to do with the business. It's satisfying their hunger for for learning, and exploring in or adjacent or not adjacent fields and skills and areas. We keep coming back to polymaths. And now we've got yet another label. So now I've got an HR form. I gotta call it I need to update the form. This employee is a polymath. Yes, no, wrong. scale, zero to nine, fine. So now we're good. Now everybody in the whole company is rated as zero to a nine on a polymathic scale. And as I said in the question, just being kind of flipped. Hi, my name is Jane. And I'm a polymath, you know, and there are other people that will take great resentment at people who are gifted learners. So there's a whole lot of social skills that have gotten on the polymath side, not just from leader to polymath, polymath with in team, how does that work?

Angela Cortelessa:

Yes. So real quick, I just want to say, for the person who wanted to have music and some sort of science, you never know, what sort of connections or inspirations could come I read something once about how someone was trying to find some sort of kink in some DNA, or I'm not, I'm not gonna explain this correctly, because I'm not a DNA expert. But there was some pattern in the DNA, they were trying to find where there was a problem. And they played the DNA, like musical notes. And when they did that, they could hear the answer, they could hear where the pattern was broken. So you just you never know how one domain can apply and inspire solutions and another that kind of analytical thinking. And also, it's a way just to keep people happy and engaged because they feel like Well, I've got this music over here. So I can deal with this sort of grind over here maybe. Now in terms of Hi, I'm Jane Jane, I'm a polymath and the resentment and the social awkwardness. Yes. We talked about identity a little bit polymath identity can be difficult to to identify, to even be self aware of in oneself, to explain it to others to, you know, it can be seen as being boastful, arrogant, exaggerating, to say, Oh, I'm a polymath, you know, so the storytelling you do around that identity is tricky. Even if that person truly is polymathic it can still be tricky. And the social implications can be difficult, like how do you explain how to explain it all to people at work, or wherever you meet them? But you know, you know, what's funny, though, is your question is, well, how, how do you avoid resentment towards these super capable, superhuman? polymaths? The thing is, you know, it's funny. The opposites true too, because what I heard from polymaths I interviewed is that so many of them feel imposter syndrome. When they compare themselves to the neuro specialists. They feel imposter syndrome, they feel self conscious that they weren't narrow and specialised and dedicated because in comparison, it's true, they may not have as much as much depth, they may not have as much expertise, but they have this other capability, which is being broad and versatile, which we also need. So you know, I think the this the way out of this problem is to talk about it more to build organisational cultures, where we realise we need low knowers and we need learners we need specialists and we need polymathic generalist and to talk about it to embrace both to figure out how to appreciate the difference talents that they bring And leverage them together. In collaboration, I think that's how we get we get out of this problem by talking about how both are important, neither is superior. They're just different ways of being in thinking. And, you know, and we need both.

Marcus Kirsch:

Lovely. As usual, we have more questions and time. And this is true this time as well. So I'm so therefore is my last question. So I'm, I'm bored. I believe it, I want to invest in it, I want to take the opportunity. What if I run an organisation? What would I start doing tomorrow? To take the first step?

Angela Cortelessa:

I would start with thinking about what types of roles do you have? Or where do you have roles, that sort of weak links, you know, they're, they're not as effective as you'd like them to be figure out are those positions, team positions are wicked positions, like you would call them in your book, Marcus. So figure out which types of roles you have. And then accordingly, which types of talent you put into those roles. And then once you do that, you figure out how to harness them in, in tandem in combination together. And one of the ways I suggest in my in my book is actually I referenced stent, staniel McChrystal, he has a book called team of teams. So rather than have fixed rigid teams, you have a team of teams that flexes and ebbs and flows in and out of existence based on on the needs of your organisation. And in though, in those sorts of stand up pop up teams, if you will, you need a mix of, of knowers and learners. And for the most part, I would also suggest if you have a project manager, putting polymathic talent as the project manager, unless that that project is very, very narrow and specialised, okay, maybe then, then a specialist makes sense to manage that project. But, you know, think in more fluid terms, especially if you're in an industry that's really tough, that's really volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, you know, think in terms of ebb and flow more than rigidity, think in terms of how can you create ambiguity as a leader, I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes having more ambiguity opens the door for these creative solutions to emerge more so than the leader saying, Do ABC directing micromanaging, even though they're not on the front lines, even though they really don't have a full grasp of the day to day problems, that's risky. So So having a team of teams, where there's a sort of ebb and flow in and out of existence can be really a good place to also start after you've identified the types of roles and the type of people that go into those roles. So just thinking the bottom line here is just think strategically, don't stick with the status quo of your organisational structure, your your, your, how you attract how you retain how you develop your talent, think in different ways, think think outside the box polymaths think outside the box, because they exist outside of the box, by the way. So if you've got some polymathic employees, maybe tap into their knowledge, see what see what they suggest in terms of, you know how to move forward and use their skill set, check with the people you've got, you know, be open, be open to change to good opportunity.

Marcus Kirsch:

Great words to wrap up, I think lovely. Thank you for your insights. Thank you for all these wicked thoughts and explanations. And thank you for your time, Angela. Well, it was such a pleasure to speak with you both. Thank you for having me.

Troy Norcross:

You've been listening to the wicked podcast with CO hosts Marcus Kirsch and me Troy Norcross,

Marcus Kirsch:

please subscribe on podomatic iTunes or Spotify. You can find all relevant links in the show notes. Please tell us your thoughts in the comment section and let us know about any books for future episodes.

Troy Norcross:

You can also get in touch with us directly on Twitter on at wicked n beyond or at Troy underscore Norcross, also learn more about the wicked company book and the wicked company project at wicked company.com