“I want to do wardrobe. I want to do hair. I want to do makeup. I want to do writing. I want to do directing. And I want to do producing. I want to do all of it. I like it.“ Abigail Breslin
Breslin shares that kind of ambitious passion with many other people blessed – and challenged – with multiple creative talents.
Her films include Signs (at age 5), Little Miss Sunshine, Nim’s Island, and Zombieland. Her credits on the movie database imdb.com are still for acting – but then, she is only 15 and has plenty of time to develop her other interests.
The Wikipedia List of people who have been called “polymaths” has a fascinating variety of names throughout history, including, of course Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) – “the prototype of the universal genius, the ‘Renaissance man’… a prodigious polymath.”
In his post That’s DR. Winnie to you: A New Child Star Stereotype, creativity researcher James C. Kaufman, Ph.D. writes about a number of well-known child stars, now grown up, who have explored talents outside of acting.
He writes: “One of the research topics in creativity that has always fascinated me has been creative polymathy – the ability to be creative in more than one domain.”
One example he mentions is actor Danica McKellar (‘Winnie’ on The Wonder Years), who earned her Ph.D. from UCLA in mathematics, and still acts in addition to writing books promoting math. In 2000, she was invited to speak to Congress about the importance of women in mathematics.
[More in my Women and Talent site post Gifted women in science: Danica McKellar on being girly and tech savvy.]
In her article Picking their next role: Joe College or hot young star?, Amy Kaufman (Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2011) mentions Emma Watson, Blake Lively, Brad Pitt, Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman, Shia LaBeouf and others who make decisions about developing their talents outside of acting.
James Franco, the article notes, “has been perhaps the most active actor-scholar of late: He is enrolled in Yale University’s English PhD program and North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College for poetry. In May, he earned a master’s degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and Columbia University’s MFA writing program, after already graduating from Brooklyn College for fiction writing last year.”
Another example is actor Mayim Bialik, who earned her Ph.D. from UCLA in Neuroscience. On “The Big Bang Theory” tv series, she plays Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist and “not-girlfriend” of physicist Sheldon Cooper.
Bialik commented that “having an understanding of both mental illness and neurosis has been tremendously helpful to me in my acting career.”
Many other talented actors I have interviewed or read about also refer to the value of understanding psychology and even making use of therapy to enhance their acting.
How does polymathy work?
In his post How Renaissance People Think – The thinking style of polymaths, Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD asks, “Do you think like a polymath? Here’s a quick test: Are you more of a rational or experiential/intuitive thinker?
“If you cringed as you read the question and thought to yourself ‘I love constantly shifting between both modes of thought’, then you’re on the polymath path.”
He says psychologist Seymour Epstein told him that “people who are high in both thinking style are Renaissance people. They have the brains of scientists and the sensibilities of poets. In other words they have the positive features of both thinking styles and do not have their negative features because they are kept under control by the other thinking style.”
Kaufman notes he makes a distinction between “controlled” and “spontaneous” thought in his (Kaufman’s) Dual-Process (DP) Theory of Human Intelligence, in which “both controlled thought (which consumes limited attentional resources) as well as more spontaneous forms of cognition (which are freer of a central executive) are important contributors to nearly every intelligent behavior.”
Multifaceted or Scattered
But polymaths may be negatively labelled with something like “scattered” rather than “multifaceted” – perhaps a result of insecurities some people feel around those who are exceptional and uncommon.
We may also condemn ourselves with this sort of pejorative label.
In her article: Are You a Scanner?, Barbara Sher talks about being multifaceted as an identity to celebrate: “If you’re a Scanner, you are a very special kind of thinker… genetically wired to be interested in many things.”
Earl Nightingale, who co-founded personal development resources company Nightingale Conant, said in an article of his: “Each of us has a tendency to underestimate his or her own abilities. We should realize that we have deep within ourselves deep reservoirs of great ability, even genius that can be tapped if we’ll just dig deep enough.”