Monday, September 26, 2016

The Polymath Nurse

Nurses need to know a lot of things; nursing professionals have knowledge of anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, human behavior, human growth and development, the nursing process, research, biostatistics, and many more subjects than you can shake a syringe at. Nurses' knowledge is legion; we are all potentially nurse polymaths.

the nurse as polymath

What Is A Polymath?

Wikipedia defines a polymath as "a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems." Merriam-Webster states that a polymath is "someone who knows a lot about many different things."

My go-to example of a polymath is none other than Leonardo da Vinci. He was a painter, inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, writer, and even a paleontologist. Leonardo is more than a cool Ninja Turtle; he is a symbol of what is sometimes referred to as a "Renaissance Man", which I would now call a "Renaissance Person".

Polymaths often move culture and society forward in ways we can't even measure due to the far-reaching depth and breadth of their influence. So, you ask, what do polymaths have to do with nursing? Please indulge me, dear Reader.

The Nurse As Polymath

Let's say you work in a busy ICU, CCU, or Med/Surg unit. The patients you care for are medically complex, and when you pull the camera back and examine their lives from a holistic viewpoint, you can see that their lives beyond the hospital bed are incredibly multifaceted and complex.

For patients with addiction, mental illness, and multiple comorbidities, providing care can be a tricky business that calls for great tact, sensitivity, compassion, and an understanding of the challenges faced by the patient and his or her family. Socioeconomics, education, and many other factors collude to complicate medical care, and the astute nurse may need to address more than just meds, IV pumps, and symptom management.

In home health, my area of nursing specialty, nurses must sometimes act as family counselors, plumbers and carpenters, not to mention clinicians. Nurse entrepreneurs are also polymath material, sometimes straddling the worlds of business and clinical nursing on a daily basis. So many nurses are probably polymaths and don't even know it.

Making A Case For The Nurse Polymath

Why would a nurse want to consciously choose to stoke the fires of polymathism in his or her life? What benefit would a nurse derive from actually making this a goal?

A nurse clinician polymath is a multifaceted health professional who approaches patient care and the nursing process with eyes wide open and curiosity on high alert. The nurse polymath reads voraciously, but not just about nursey stuff; he or she reads about culture, society, politics, art, economics, or anything else that deserves attention. Her breadth of knowledge can be applied to solving problems in sophisticated and creative ways.

In business, the nurse entrepreneur polymath may take a deep dive into social media, become an expert in Wordpress, learn to use accounting software, study emotional intelligence, create an app, and write a series of books. The polymath business owner isn't necessarily a master of everything nor a novice at most things; the polymath knows enough to be proficient or conversant with what's necessary, with natural curiosity being a driving force behind continued learning and increased mastery.

Nurse polymaths understand the currents moving through culture and society, absorbing that which informs and strengthens their work in the world.

The Polymath Curse? 

"Jack (or Jill) of all trades and master of none" is a saying that many of us grow up hearing. In a complex 21st-century world, becoming a polymath can seem like a form of intellectual attention deficit self-torture. Sure, we can certainly fall into a trap of trying to know it all and ultimately knowing less; no one can possibly consume all of the information that's out there.

Leonardo obviously didn't know everything; granted, he lived in a much less complex time, but there were certainly areas of life and living that his intellect didn't aspire to conquer. Still, some of us have probably known people who worked hard to be well-read and erudite, but who perhaps seemed so lost in their minds that they couldn't even relate to people.

Intellectualism for its own sake isn't the goal; rather, finding the areas where we feel drawn and honing in on our true passions can help us to become polymaths who are well-rounded yet measured in the breadth of what we strive to tackle.

Polymathism doesn't have to be all about book learning, either. A polymath may be highly emotionally intelligent, insightful, with a sincere and deep grasp of human nature and suffering.

The Balanced Nurse Polymath

The balanced nurse polymath has areas of expertise that he or she delves into with gusto, creativity, and enthusiasm.

My areas of professional expertise include writing, podcasting, social media, and coaching, and I have a few other areas that are also relatively strong. However, when it comes to accounting, complex tech issues, coding, or building websites, I have others do those tasks for me because they simply don't interest me enough to make time to learn--or I'm just too plain busy to bother. When I was a homeowner, I hired out for everything because my skills as a handyman are---unlike Leonardo---pretty abysmal. This polymath doesn't do plumbing and carpentry. Or windows.

Otherwise, I have a fairly solid store of knowledge related to certain types of music, art, and literature, and there are some other subjects that similarly draw me in. I don't try to know it all, but my interests are broad enough to keep me on my toes and constantly learning, reading, and growing in my chosen areas of greatest interest.

Balanced polymathism can truly serve the nurse who wishes to be well-rounded; you can't know everything about everything, but you can know a significant amount about the many things that speak to you most deeply.

Polymath nurses, it's time to come out of the closet; spread your polymath wings, read your books, expand your knowledge, learn that which makes you happy, and use that knowledge and understanding to be a better person, a more skilled clinician, a more informed citizen, and a more powerful, effective nurse.


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind and the well-known blog, Digital Doorway.

Keith is co-host of, a wildly popular nursing podcast; he also hosts The Nurse Keith Show, his own podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. Keith is also the resident nursing career expert at

A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of "Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century." He has also contributed chapters to a number of books related to the nursing profession, and currently writes for MultiViews News Service,, StaffGarden, and Working Nurse Magazine.

Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, online nurse personality, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known successful nurse entrepreneur. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his lovely and talented wife, Mary Rives.

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