‘It helps to be prolific, and a polymath’ - The thoughts of Balder Onarheim

The prolific & polymath

At Advertising Europe in March 2017 I was most impressed with a presentation on ideas by a Danish academic, Balder Onarheim, Associate Professor of NeuroCreativity at the Technical University of Copenhagen. I subsequently conducted two interviews with him.

I learned a lot from Balder. We discussed the connection between being prolific and lasting fame. It is already well known that being prolific is a significant factor in fame. Within the sub-universe of top flight performers in the arts for instance, the more paintings an artist paints, the more works an author, playwright or composer writes, the more likely it is that at least some examples of their output are going to be sufficiently outstanding to make the creator famous.  It is largely a function of numbers – the more plays, symphonies etc you write, it is inevitable that some will be of relatively modest quality. On the other hand, the shorter the odds on some of them being first class!

One of his most interesting findings is the high correlation between creativity and being a polymath. The polymath factor is a different dynamic altogether. I do not think enough is written about polymaths. Balder’s theory is that for someone to be a brilliant in business, and a talented sportsman, or a best-selling author and also skilled at playing an instrument, is not twice as good as one dimensional success, it's about five times as good, because it's unexpected.

I also feel that one of the reasons that polymaths are not celebrated enough is that they make people jealous.  Even intelligent academics, commentators, journalists and so forth resent it. Isn't it enough for them to be brilliant at this, why do they have to show us up by being brilliant at that as well!

Balder told me about a client of his, the composer Daniel Rosenfeld (who wrote the music and sound effects for Minecraft). ‘Daniel is probably the only creative person I know, who actually makes a living from being creative. He is a guitar player, who has pioneered playing the instrument on his lap like a Dulcimer, he is an excellent magician, a most accomplished juggler, and also a successful entrepreneur. Most of the other extremely creative people I know excel at everything from consulting to mathematics and physics. Idea-rich people have a constant flow of good ideas in a wide spread of areas. These are not cliché creatives on a big motorcycle, with crazy hair and swearing a lot.  The creative polymaths I know are also good cooks, and they also know how to fix a motorcycle engine without reading a book about it. Daniel is also a constant streamer of ideas. Daniel has more the classical sort of creative type of ideas. While you’re talking to him he suddenly gets a tune in his head and he’ll note it down. It’s more impulsive and artistic. Daniel is also notably prolific. He seems to have this never ending stream of ideas where, nine out of ten might not be useful at all, but he will still have them, and present them and try them out’.

‘If you look at a lot of famous Nobel Prize winners’. Balder told me, ‘they were also great musicians, great dancers, they wrote poems. The other thing about these people who are crazy skilled in completely different areas, they're also super humble about it. It’s just what they do.  They never thought about it as being anything particular. They happened to be great cellists, great singers and also the best mathematicians. That's just who they are’.

This piece is an excerpt from 'The Very Idea' by David Wethey, Owner of Agency Assessments International. To review David's book for our Book Club email [email protected].