What You Can Learn From History’s Greatest Polymath
The world has changed.
Imagine today if the president were caught skinny-dipping in the Potomac River… with another man.
Imagine the tweets, the late-night rants, the congressional hearings… and, oh yeah, the hush money.
It’d be quite the show.
Somebody would get rich.
But as we lean into our weekly series on history’s greatest polymaths – men that knew a lot about a lot – that’s exactly where our story will start.
It was the dead of winter, and two men were naked and diving into the frigid, brackish waters of the Potomac River.
But these weren’t just any two men.
One was the head of the nation’s young Forest Service… the other went home to the White House.
And while Gifford Pinchot was quite the polymath, it’s his swimming buddy Theodore Roosevelt we’re devoting our first essay in the series to.
But before we get into Roosevelt’s intellectual habits, we must remind readers why we’ve committed to this series.
It’s not about the men we’re studying… it’s about you.
You see, the research is quite clear.
The more we learn, the healthier, happier and more successful we become.
Our brains are crazy.
As with any other muscle, if we don’t use it, we lose it.
In particular, it all has to do with our nucleus basalis. As we age, it tends to dry up. The less we exercise it, the faster it happens.
Researchers now believe that falling levels of acetylcholine – the key chemical in the region – are directly linked to Alzheimer’s.
In fact, they’ve been able to treat the terrible disease (at least temporarily) by boosting acetylcholine levels.
Even so, prevention is the best cure.
The easiest ways to ensure our brains stay fit for longer is to exercise them often. And while studying the nucleus basalis, researchers learned that merely doing puzzles and crosswords isn’t enough to keep our brains healthy.
To do that, we must learn new things.
When we do… the health effects are numerous.
Learning to Learn
We can think of nobody that can inspire us to pick up a book and read more than the 26th president of the United States.
With a habit of reading several books per day (yes, per day) in various languages, Roosevelt was the ultimate polymath.
Not only was he a statesman among statesmen, he was also an expert in judo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and even an explorer.
Perhaps what we admire most about the man (maybe because we see a bit of ourself in his viewpoint) is his disdain for his formal education.
For a devout learner like Roosevelt, we’d expect Harvard to be quite a draw. If you want to get book smart, it’s the place to be.
But the man would later say it was one of the most awful times of his life. He recalled that he received very little from Harvard. It was much too rigid… too focused on minutiae and not the whole.
Perhaps that’s a hallmark we’ll see in all the polymaths we’ll cover. Time will tell.
But clearly it’s hard to cover lots of ground when a man’s focused on the details.
There’s no doubt Roosevelt covered a lot of ground.
He was a cowboy… a bureaucrat… a warrior… a boxer… and with at least 18 books in his name, a prolific author. Not to mention he was the nation’s youngest-ever president – sworn in at the age of 42.
But perhaps the role that gets the least press and yet showed Roosevelt’s pragmatic morals was his time as a New York City police commissioner.
That’s when he spent two crazy years fighting corruption amongst the city’s law enforcement.
But unlike what might happen today, Roosevelt didn’t immerse himself in academic police theory… he put on his boots and walked the beat – just as we’d expect from any great polymath.
His relentless pursuit of what was right made him notorious amongst the city’s underground leaders. The public backlash that erupted as he enforced city laws nearly ended his public career.
But the man did what he thought was right… what his well-rounded brain told him was right.
And that’s our point.
Roosevelt was a good man. He wasn’t born that way – just the opposite, in fact. But with hard work, dedication and the yearning to do better, Roosevelt indeed did better.
We can learn a lot from the man.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Read… a lot.
Do what your experience tells you is right.
And take your clothes off and go swimming whenever you get the chance.