The Polymath MBA: The Unconventional Path To Becoming A World-Class Knowledge Entrepreneur

“In the modern knowledge economy, learning and thinking are the single best long-term investments you can make in your career. Learning and thinking determine our decisions. Then, decisions determine our results.” – Michael Simmons

To get an MBA or not?

It is a thought many of us addicted to continuous learning and personal growth are likely to have considered at some point in our lives.

And for good reason. Taking a 2-year learning vacation is a very alluring idea.

Who doesn’t want to develop new business skills, build a valuable business network and get the logo of a prestigious business school on their resume?

However, despite all the advantages traditional MBAs promise, for those of us who want to break the link between trading our time for money and build an online knowledge business that will give us the freedom to work and live anywhere in the world, traditional MBA programs simply don’t cut it.

Outside the steep price tag ($50,000-$200,000), which will burden most of us with so much debt that we simply would have no choice but to take a corporate job to pay it off, there is the simple fact that MBA programs aren’t catered to those who want to build online knowledge businesses.

  • They focus on theory, not practical skill development.
  • They use corporate focused and often outdated curriculums that have little relevance for online entrepreneurship.
  • They prioritise the consumption of information, not learning through taking action.

So inspired by the growing list of people who have decided to take their education into their own hands and design their own MBA style programs: Tim Ferriss’ “Real World MBA”, Scott Young’s “MIT Challenge”, Laurie Pickard’s “No-Pay MBA”, etc.

I’ve decided to take a year out from work and create my own MBA, The Polymath MBA, an MBA program that doesn’t follow the “become a specialist 10,000-hour rule” to success. Instead, using the principles of skill stacking, multiplier skills, and accelerated learning to make becoming a successful knowledge entrepreneur inevitable.

Traditional MBA vs Polymath MBA?

In life, there are two main strategies you can use to accelerate your career success: the common “become a specialist” or the rarer “polymath approach”.

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Specialist Approach

In siloed corporate environments, becoming a specialist is often the best strategy for career success.

Unless you are in a position with a lot of flexibility having a wide range of skills won’t be of advantage to you in a siloed corporate job. One to two of your skills will be responsible for 80–90% of your income generating results.

A corporate recruiter doesn’t care if you are a mediocre full stack developer who has some basic design skills. They want someone who can be their resident expert at a specific part of their software stack, and let other domain experts take care of the rest.

To use a hardware store analogy: recruiters want to hire hammers, power drills, etc. to do specific jobs, not a swiss army knife which isn’t well suited for any job in particular.

As a result, most MBA programs follow the specialist approach. They give students a similar blend of business theory, skills, network and credentials designed to further specialise them for the requirements of high-level executive positions in corporations and financial institutions.

Polymath Approach

In contrast, when it comes to entrepreneurship it is rare for existing domain specialists to create market-disrupting ideas and businesses.

Domain experts are often so entrenched in the consensus view of the market that they develop “expert blindness” and can’t see any other way than how it has always been done.

“The problem with experts is that they do not know what they do not know” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Entrepreneurs that disrupt entire industries are most commonly industry outsiders who have little to no industry experience before entering a market with a fresh viewpoint on the world.

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Reed Hastings (a computer scientist, mathematician) and Marc Randolph (a marketer with experience in the mail order business), the founders of Netflix, had no experience in the TV or movie industry before starting Netflix.

Instead, in 1997 they created Netflix by combining their knowledge of the internet and the mail-order business with the emergent technology DVDs to take on Blockbuster and disrupt the $16 billion home video rental industry.

“Reed and I [Marc Randolph] were in downtown Santa Cruz and we were saying, ‘I wonder if we can mail these things [DVDs]…We went in and bought a music CD and went into one of the stationery stores … and bought a greeting card and stuck the CD in the envelope and mailed it to Reed’s house. And the next day, he said, ‘It came. It’s fine.’ If there was an aha moment, that was it.”

It’s not just the founders of Netflix who had no industry experience before changing their industry forever, the founders of most disruptive companies over the last 20 years had no experience in their industry they ended up changing forever: including Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla, Paypal), Travis Kalanick (Uber), Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), to name a few.

In the cases of existing companies doing the disruption, it is normally the result of a few maverick insiders, like Taiichi Ohno, inventor of the Toyota Production System and Lean manufacturing, applying methods used in other industries to their own.

In his book, Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno shares how he got the idea for kanban, the fundamental building block of the Toyota Production System after visiting US grocery stores:

“The tool used to operate the system is kanban, an idea I got from American supermarkets… A supermarket is where a customer can get (1) what is needed, (2) at the time needed, (3) in the amount needed…the supermarket is a place where we buy according to need… From the supermarket we got the idea of viewing the earlier process in a production line as a kind of store.”

Which enabled them to beat the previously dominate US car companies in both quality and price.

These dynamics are even more evident in the world of ideas, where thought leaders and knowledge entrepreneurs challenge the consensus view and propose new ways to approach problems by combining ideas that have never been combined before.

From the greatest thinkers of all time, like Charles Darwin, who combined his experiences of uniformitarianism, naturalism with his observations whilst visiting the Galápagos Islands that lead him to the formulation of his theory of natural selection.

To the new breed of thought leaders who’ve flourished in the age of the internet:

  • Tim Ferriss, Four Hour Work Week – applied the concepts of arbitrage, outsourcing and leverage to lifestyle design to create the four hour work week manifesto.
  • Eric Reis, The Lean Startup – applied the concepts of lean thinking and scrum methodology to the process of building a startup.
  • Richard Bandler and John Grinder, NLP – applied systems theory to the field of psychology and interpersonal communication to create neuro-linguistic programming.

In the thought leadership world, every additional skill or mental model you have in your toolbox exponentially increases the number of lens combinations you can use to give yourself a unique view on the market.

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This is the logic behind the Polymath MBA.

Instead of exclusively building the standard marketing skills, experiences and network possessed by everyone else wanting to become an online knowledge entrepreneur, during the Polymath MBA I plan to combine the development of those core skills with the development of skills that are very rare for the knowledge entrepreneurship market.

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Each additional skill and mental model I add will make my worldview more unique, enabling more combinations that will lead to paradigm-altering ideas and insights.

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Michael Simmons, who has popularized the concept of becoming a modern polymath summarises it well:

Modern polymaths go against the grain of this popular advice [specialisation and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice], building atypical combinations of skills and knowledge across fields and then integrating them to create breakthrough ideas and even brand new fields and industries where there is little competition.

Contrary to the generally accepted view that specialisation is the key to career success in any field, Michael argues that many of histories most impactful individuals have been polymaths, not specialists: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, to name a few.

Which the latest research analysing the most significant scientists in all of history backs up.

Even from my own personal life, I can directly attribute a significant proportion of the success I’ve had to date with my previous startups and consultancy businesses to how we applied new methods and ideas to previously unsolved problems:

  • For the last 20 years, medical device companies have tried and failed to develop a clinical-grade wearable sensor that can continuously and non-invasively measure a patient’s core body temperature (CBT)from the skin surface. At my previous startup, we cracked this problem in large part by applying iterative development processes typically used by software startups to a medical device industry that uses 6 months plus waterfall development cycles. Cutting our iteration cycle between prototype versions down from 6 months to 1–2 weeks, and enabling us to develop the first medical-grade CBT sensor in the process.
  • As a marketing consultant, I used my background as an engineer to develop a data-driven method of identifying overlooked keyword opportunities in any content niche. Using the Buffett Keyword Technique I’ve been able to consistently grow blogs from 0 to 20,000, 50,000 and even 180,000 organic visitors per month with only a handful of articles.

Inspired by the ideas of Michael Simmons, and my own personal evidence of the approach I’ve decided to put the polymath theory of success to the test in the form of the Polymath MBA challenge. Over 1 year, I will put the theory to the test and see if following a polymath approach to personal development is superior to the traditional 10,000-hour specialist approach.

The Polymath MBA: Metrics for Success

To make sure I get the most from this personal development challenge and to make this test more relevant, it is important that I define the scope and goals of the Polymath MBA as concretely as possible.

Scope: My Polymath MBA will be 12 months long, with an emphasis on the development of practical skills, knowledge and networks that will position me to build an online knowledge business. The MBA will be designed around core principles and have a structured “curriculum” which I detail in a later article.

Goal: By September 1st 2020, I will have built an online knowledge business that gives me time, location and lifestyle freedom.

These income streams must satisfy the following criteria:

  • The business must support a life of continuous learning — i.e. being paid to learn.
  • 80% of the income must come from productized, non-time for money income streams.
  • Minimum income target is $100,000 generated, with $500,000 being the real target.

This isn’t a “get rich quick”, “make passive money” online challenge. Over the course of the next 12 months, I will be building a sustainable online knowledge business that enables a lifestyle of continuous learning and personal growth for the next 10 years.

Will I fail? It is a distinct possibility, but I’d prefer to try valiantly to build a business that enables my dream lifestyle than to never escape the time-for-money rat race.

All that I can promise is that I will give it my all, and share with you my journey and everything I learn along the way so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I will inevitably make when you are designing your own learning projects.

Ready to learn and be part of the journey?

Follow my Polymath MBA challenge to build an online knowledge business in 1 year.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing articles about my:

  • Polymath MBA Curriculum: The skills and mental models I plan to develop during the MBA.
  • Skill Selection Process: How I identified the most valuable skills and mental models to focus on.
  • Risk Mitigation Strategy: How I plan to apply the investment principles of risk mitigation and hedging to reduce the overall risk of the project and guarantee a positive ROI from the MBA.
  • Environment Hacking: How I plan to engineer my environments to make your success inevitable.

I will also give you a behind the scenes look at the exact content and marketing strategies I plan to use to build an engaged audience for my business, and monthly transparent updates on:

  • All of my stats
  • My content promotion strategies
  • My failures and successes along the way

If you’d like to learn from my successes and failures then follow along with my journey.

UPDATE: To build this business I will be using the Unicorn Model to build an audience from zero to 100,000 visitors in 90 days (December 31st). Where the focus will be to:

Become a Top 1% Thought Leader

Every two weeks, I research and breakdown the strategies the likes of Tim Ferriss, Jordan Peterson, Gary Vaynerchuk used to defy the rules of winner-takes-all markets and become a top 1% thought leader, whilst thousands of others tried and failed?

In-depth strategy breakdowns, no spam ever.

1 Comment

  1. Kerryman September 19, 2019 at 7:56 pm

    👍 sounds good. Best wishes on your journey.


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