Polymath, Renaissance person - Why we all must become one

Polymath, Renaissance person - Why we all must become one

Summary: Vinnie Mirchandani believes so strongly that we all need to be Renaissance people that he wrote The New Polymath. Do you need to become one?


Vinnie Mirchandani, of Deal Architect fame, and I go way, way, way back. I became aware of Vinnie’s existence in the late 1980s or early 1990s when he worked at the Tampa technology center of PriceWaterhouse. As my competitor, I felt it was my duty to make Vinnie’s life a living hell. While each of has our favorite stories of how we’d one-up each other, we also got to develop a respect for the other.

Dave Duffield, then CEO of PeopleSoft and now CEO of Workday , was stunned one day in 1999 when I told him that Vinnie and I would like to discuss a business idea with him. He knew of our famously competitive streak and said that he’d pay money to hear the two of us pitching something together. That meeting was what launched the two of us on a dot-com that probably was a few years ahead of its time.

I learned a lot during that time. I used to think I knew a lot about the software ecosystem. That dot-com experience taught me that there were whole other areas of the space that I needed to learn (e.g., raising venture capital) and learn fast. I dove in and quickly got real smart. I had to become more of a renaissance man.

Flash forward about ten years and I’m still doing that. For this ZDNet column, I cover cloud computing software heavily when I didn’t a few years ago. I spend some of my hard-earned money every year going to a few conferences that I normally don’t cover or get invited to – all to get smarter or stay current with new thinking/things that are relevant to my career (or could soon be relevant). Everything I do is constantly being confronted with new innovations, new ideas, etc. I made a choice to keep re-inventing myself, my business, my knowledge and my skills.

I wanted to be more of a renaissance man as I could see that someone who doesn’t embrace change, as disturbing as it can sometimes be, gets obsolete fast. In my business, I trade in the currency of ideas, insights and knowledge. How successful could I be if I was still hawking some concept that someone pioneered 40 years ago? Not very.

I believe in the concept of the renaissance man/woman. Our business world just moves too fast and is too dynamic to have the luxury of non-changing constancy. Sure, I’m sure we’d all like things to slow down sometimes – it won’t happen. We’d like to see our competitors slow down their pace of innovation – it won’t happen. We’d like to spend more time just ‘vegging out’ – but we can’t. If we pause and fail to expand our thinking, we stagnate and lose relevance. When we’re no longer relevant, we cannot compete as effectively. We cannot charge premium pricing. We lose our advantage in the global market. Business leaders need to be renaissance people as their organizations are the creators of innovation; designers of more productive processes and equipment; and, the people who support the re-vitalization of their businesses. If they don’t do this, jobs disappear, economies stagnate and standards of living fall.

This preamble is my way of introducing Vinnie’s book, the New Polymath. A Polymath is a renaissance person.

Vinnie did an amazing job of researching this book. His companion blog, the New Florence , was certainly a great source of material. When you read this book, it could inspire you and make you feel that your firm isn’t doing enough. And that’s okay because even if your firm has done a lot, your business may need a little healthy dose of paranoia as it should worry about the newer things others are bringing to the market soon.

Vinnie lays out a lot of examples that he organizes via a mnemonic that spells out Renaissance. Since Vinnie’s not as prescriptive as I am, I was waiting for him to tell us, the readers of his book, why we should become a Polymath and how we become one. Vinnie lets the examples, and there are a lot of them, convince you that becoming more of a polymath is a competitive necessity.

When you read his book, you should feel humbled as you read of so many great things, great ideas, etc. so many others are discovering, learning and creating. That’s Vinnie’s plan, I believe.

I called Vinnie this weekend to tell him that I finished reading his book. I also asked him when he’s going to write the companion “How-to-become a Polymath” sequel and he groaned. I think he wants a bit of a break between books. But, that step is only important once people realize they, too, need to be more of a renaissance person. This book is Step One in the process. The how-to is Step Two. I get that.

I know there are millions and millions of people on this earth who just want a job that they only think about from 8am – 5pm Monday through Friday. To them, a job is the end goal. But, a job is not a career. Once they finished high school or college, these people don’t ever want to read another book for the rest of their life unless it’s some brainless romance novel or other guilty pleasure. These people aren’t renaissance people and they can’t be forced into becoming ones. However, this attitude towards continuing education is dangerous and economically ruinous as skills and educations have ever shorter life spans. If people don’t re-invent themselves periodically, they become obsolete.

The world won’t stop for these people just because they don’t want to learn anymore. That sort of thinking was a luxury in a different time when economies weren’t global, communication wasn’t cheap, the internet ubiquitous, etc. Today, the world changes at a blazing clip and people must possess a change capability equal to this.

If you don’t want to become irrelevant or obsolete, then you must become more of a polymath. If you need inspiration on becoming one, read Vinnie’s book.

Topics: CXO, Emerging Tech, IT Employment


Brian is currently CEO of TechVentive, a strategy consultancy serving technology providers and other firms. He is also a research analyst with Vital Analysis.

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  • More about Polymath enterprises, than individuals

    Brian, very generous. The book was meant to focus on Polymath enterprises which are bringing together 3,5,10 strands of infotech,biotech, cleantech etc into compound innovations like GE, BASF, salesforce.com. But of course, there are plenty of individual polymaths like Bill Joy, Nathan Myhrvold, Steve Jobs also cataloged. As you say, polymath enterprises need polymath individuals.

    In terms of style, I deliberately kept my voice low - so the book is not that prescriptive. Lord knows, between our blogs and our speaking, we talk enough. I do have some chapters with mandatory "lists" but tried not to dilute the interviews and profiles of the 100+ innovators.

    On a personal level, Brian you truly are a rare breed - you are handy with cars, in the garden, in the kitchen, amazingly well read on all kinds of matters - you are a polymath most of us in tech should emulate.
  • The "scientific citizen" (BBC "Reith Lectures")

    A more "socialist" view perhaps is represented in the BBC's "Reith Lectures" series this year, upon "Scientific Horizons". Martin Rees started by discussing the benefit of the whole population understanding at least some science and a scientific approachito knowledge, including innovation and progress - being "the scientific citizen" - instead of, for instance, believing anything that's in a newspaper. As far as I recall, he did this without dividing the world into Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon (elevator attendants). Evidently this was prequisite to his next topic, "Surviving the Century".

    Personally I expect that we will be wiped out by our own robots long before then, for good economic reasons, but it's nice to think about the alternative.
    Robert Carnegie 2009
    • The Singularity chapter

      @Robert Carnegie 2009 the Singularity chapter in book looks at advances in human health - personalized medicine, medical tourism, other advances and machines - robots, sensors etc - "The Internet of Things" and how they are converging. you are correct - humans are losing because as Dave Watson, ex CTO of Kaiser says in an interview in chapter, there is plenty of innovation, but adoption takes way long in healthcare