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In Pursuit of Polymaths: Understanding Renaissance Persons of the 21st Century Open Access

This phenomenological study focused on the lived experiences of modern day polymaths. The constructs of openness to experience, identity, self-directed learning, polymathy or multi-disciplinarily, and intrapersonal functional diversity were used to frame the research. The primary theoretical lens of this study is based on Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory. The inquiry focused on accomplished polymaths with careers spanning both the arts and sciences. The participants’ narratives provided insights regarding how they became polymaths and what their experiences as polymaths have been like.The population for this phenomenological study was found using snowball sampling (also called chain or network sampling). Interviews with thirteen participants were conducted using a modified version of Seidman’s (2013) method, focusing on (1) life history, (2) details of the experience of being a polymath, and (3) meaning making of being a polymath. Through applying Moustakas’ (1994) phenomenological data analysis methods, a total of twelve themes emerged. In addition to the twelve themes, textural and structural descriptions were presented that helped to elucidate the essence of polymathic experiences. Seven conclusions were drawn from this research: (1) to be a polymath, one must accept not fitting in the typical box and perhaps even embodying apparent contradictions; polymathy is being intrapersonally diverse, (2) polymaths are exposed broadly, think creatively and strategically, and juggle their many interests and obligations through effective time management, (3) being a polymath can make life richer, but it can also be quite difficult, (4) polymaths are excellent at being creative and solving problems creatively, (5) polymathy develops due to a combination of nature and nurture, and polymathy is maintained in adulthood by a willingness to continue to work to improve oneself through self-directed learning, (6) polymath identity is discovered from not fitting in; polymath identity can be difficult to fully own and to explain to others, (7) family and financial resources impact the emergency of polymathy. A number of recommendations for theory, practice, and research are provided as well.

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