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Specialists often recommend people specialize in one field of work or research to increase your chances of success. However, our newly published research shows that successful innovators follow a broader path.

We looked at careers Nobel Prize laureates, who are arguably some of the most innovative people in the world. We found that they are unusually likely to be what we call “creative professionals”. That is, they intentionally integrate formal and informal experiences from a wide variety of disciplines to provide new and useful insights and practices.

In fact, testimonials from laureates who were students of previous laureates suggest that creative polymath is a learnable skill. We have written about some of them in our books”Opening” and “Sparks of genius.”

Many of these laureates identify problems by looking at topics in new ways, or solve them by transferring skills, techniques and materials from one field to another. They often use conceptual tools for example, making analogies, pattern recognition, body thinking, play and simulation. In one notable example, Alexis Karel won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1912 for adapting lace and embroidery methods of transplantation surgery.

Psychologist, inventor and economist

Herbert Simon was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978 for “pioneering research in the decision-making process in economic organizations.”

He was a professor in several departments at Carnegie Mellon University. Colleagues often called him “Renaissance man” because of his wide range of interests and wide-ranging curiosity. Throughout his career, he made major contributions to the study of computer science, artificial intelligence, psychology and philosophy, and economics.

In addition to Simon’s research work, his additional interests are included playing the piano, musical compositiondrawing, painting and chess.

He often cited the intellectual excitement, emotional satisfaction, and new insights he gained from integrating his many passions with his work.

I can rationalize any activity I do as just another form of cognitive exploration,” he stated in his 1996 autobiography. He went on to add, “I can always watch my hobbies as part of my research.”

Geneticist, illustrator and cookbook author

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard combined equally diverse skills to win the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which was awarded to her “discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development.”

I am very curious and want to understand things“, she said in a 2003 interview, “and not only science … I also did music, languages, literature and so on.”

This included raids like illustrator, puzzle designer and author bestselling cookbook.

As a science student, Nüsslein-Volhard proved equally broad-minded, trying physics, physical chemistry and biochemistry before settling on embryology. Her many professional and personal interests have proven useful in devising new questions and methods, as well as in the pursuit of new results. She advises scholars to become similarly broad and idiosyncratic.

In a 2017 interview, she said: “You should avoid major areas as much as possible and change fields after earning a Ph.D. to be able to develop an independent profile and work on an original, self-selected topic.”

The value of creative polymath

We found that Karel, Nuesslein-Volhard and Simon are typical of Nobel laureates, but not at all typical of most professionals. In the composition our exploration of creativity over the past 20 years, we have collected information about the work, hobbies and interests of 773 laureates in economics, literature, peace, physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine between 1901 and 2008.

We found that the vast majority of awardees have or have had formal—and often also informal—education in more than one discipline, developed intense and extensive hobbies and changed fields of activity. The most important thing we found is that they are deliberately sought useful connections among them a variety of activities as a formal strategy to stimulate creativity.

Our analysis shows that scientists who receive Nobel Prizes are approx nine times more likely have training in crafts such as wood and metalworking or fine arts than the typical scholar.

And unlike most sociologists or other humanities students, Nobel laureates in economics mathematics, physics or astronomy are almost universally studied. About the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature three times more likely to be artists and 20 times more likely to be actors than members of the general public.

In sharp contrast to typical professionals World Health Organization see your passions as unimportant or even detrimental to their work, Nobel laureates see their varied interests and hobbies as important motivators.

As playwright and actor Dario Fo, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature and also an artist, said in an interview: “Sometimes I draw my plays before I write them, and other times when I have difficulty with a play I stop writing to draw the action in pictures to solve the problem.’

We found that most Nobel laureates made equivalent statements.

Education of creative polymath

We believe it is possible to contribute to the fruitful interaction of broad interests. One study found that people who go to college twice are more likely to exhibit creative behavior or become entrepreneurs than people who studied a single subject.

Another study found that having a persistent, intellectually challenging hobby— such as musical performance, acting, fine art exhibition, chess competition, or computer programming — is a better predictor of career success in any field than grades, standardized test scores, or IQ. Similarly, our own research has shown that academics with ongoing passions for crafts significantly more likely to file patents and to establish new companies than those without.

In our view, an increasingly complex and diverse world needs not only specialized experts, but also creative all-rounders—polymathic types who specialize in breadth and integration, who push knowledge beyond what people already think is possible.

The Nobel Committee will announce the winner of the medicine prize


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