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Nobel Prizes are often awarded to researchers who challenge specialization and bring ideas from other fields, according to Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein.

A version of this article was originally posted by The conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Experts often recommend people specialize in a field of work or searches for maximize their chances of success. Yet our recently published research indicates that successful innovators take a broader path.

We looked at the careers of Nobel laureates, who are arguably some of the most innovative people in the world. We found that they are exceptionally likely be what we call “creative polymaths”. In other words, they deliberately integrate formal and informal expertise from a wide variety of disciplines to produce new and useful ideas and practices.

In fact, the testimony of science laureates who were students of previous laureates suggests that creative polymathy is a skill that can be learned. We wrote about some of them in our books Discover and Sparks of genius.

Many of these winners uncover problems by looking at topics in new ways, or they solve them by transferring skills, techniques, and materials from one field to another. They often use conceptual tools such as analogy making, pattern recognition, body thinking, staging and modelling.

In one notable example, Alexis Carrel won his Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1912 by adapting lace and embroidery transplant surgery techniques.

Psychologist, inventor and economist

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

He was a teacher in several departments of Carnegie Mellon University. His colleagues often called him a “renaissance man” because of his wide range of interests and great curiosity. During his career, he made major contributions to the study of computer science, artificial intelligence, psychology and philosophy, as well as economics.

Beyond Simon’s scientific work, his additional interests included playing the piano, musical compositiondrawing, painting and chess.

He often referred to the intellectual excitement, emotional pleasure, and new ideas he derived from incorporating his many hobbies into his work.

“I can rationalize any activity I engage in as just another form of cognition research,” he said. in his 1996 autobiography. He added: “I can always consider my hobbies as part of my research.”

Geneticist, illustrator and cookbook author

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

“I’m very curious and like to figure things out,” she said in a 2003 interview“and not just science…I also did music and I did languages ​​and literature and so on.”

This included forays as illustrator, puzzle maker and author of a best-selling cookbook.

As a science student, Nüsslein-Volhard proved equally broad-minded, dabbling in physics, physical chemistry, and biochemistry before settling on embryology. His many professional and personal interests proved useful in finding new questions and techniques, and in producing new results. She advises researchers to become equally broad and idiosyncratic.

In a interview 2017she says, “You should, where possible, avoid traditional fields and change fields after your doctorate so that you can develop an independent profile and work on an original and self-chosen topic.”

The Importance of Creative Polymathy

We found that Carrel, Nüsslein-Volhard and Simon are typical of Nobel laureates – but not at all typical of most professionals.

As part of our search for creativity over the past 20 years, we have collected information on the work, hobbies and interests of 773 laureates in economics, literature, peace, physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine between 1901 and 2008.

We have found that the vast majority of graduates have or have undergone formal – and often also informal – training in more than one discipline, developed intensive and extensive hobbies and changed fields. More importantly, we found that they have intentionally sought useful connections among their various activities as a formal strategy for stimulating creativity.

Our analysis reveals that scientists who win a Nobel Prize are about nine times more likely to have a background in trades such as wood and metalworking or fine arts than the typical scientist.

And unlike most social scientists or other students of the humanities, Nobel laureates in economics are almost all trained in mathematics, physics or astronomy. Nobel laureates in literature are about three times more likely to be good performers and 20 times more likely to be actors than members of the general public.

In stark contrast to typical professionals who view their hobbies as irrelevant or even detrimental to their work, Nobel laureates see their varied interests and hobbies as important stimulants.

As playwright and actor Dario Fo, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature, and also a painter, put it in an interview: “Sometimes I draw my pieces before writing them, and other times, when I have difficulty with a piece, I stop writing so that I can put in pictures the action to solve the problem.”

We found that most Nobel laureates made equivalent claims.

Foster creative polymathy

We believe that it is possible to foster the fruitful interaction of a wide variety of interests. A study revealed that people who have a double major in college are more likely to display creative behaviors or become entrepreneurs than people who have specialized in a subject.

Another research study found that have a persistent and intellectually stimulating hobby – such as musical performance, drama, visual art exhibition, competitive chess, 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 science professionals with persistent creative hobbies are significantly more likely to file patents and create new companies than those without.

In our view, an increasingly complex and diverse world needs not only specialized experts, but also creative generalists – the polymath types who specialize in the breadth and integration that push knowledge beyond what people already believe is possible.

The conversation
By Professor Robert Root-Bernstein and Dr. Michele Root-Bernstein.

Robert Root-Bernstein is professor of physiology at University of Michigan and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981. His research focuses on autoimmune diseases, drug development, origins of cellular control systems, and science-art interactions.

Michele Root-Bernstein is assistant professor of theater at Michigan State University. Husband and wife collaborated on research focused on creativity in the arts and sciences.

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