Breadth and depth are positively correlated emergent properties of engagement
Scholars like Duckworth and Ericsson speak of an “ineluctable trade-off between breadth and depth” in expertise and knowledge acquisition. However, recent research on polymathy shows a positive correlation between the two. This seeming contradiction arises from a flawed conceptualization of breadth and depth as reified attributes. Instead of treating them as "things" whose level we deliberately grow, they should be viewed as properties emerging from episodes of engagement, where the real unit of analysis and action is termed here "stint," a period of uninterrupted engagement with a task.
This is particularly relevant for polymathy. While polymaths often engage in stints with goals (e.g., learning or executing a task), they don't have a predetermined goal of enhancing either depth or breadth. Yet, the multidisciplinary nature of their interests results in stints that "belong" to diverse domains, thereby fostering breadth. Concurrently, high levels of engagement, especially involving not only information acquisition but its synthesis in novel and meaningful ways, lead to a virtuous cycle conducive to all dimensions of polymathy (breadth, depth and integration) at once. Thus, breadth and depth are not only positively correlated but co-evolutionary and coupled through integrational ability. Finally, as engagement increases in quality, stints (whether they be focused on learning, execution, or mind-wandering) more frequently yield insightful experiences that illuminate understanding across domains, in a virtuous cycle.
Journal of Brief Ideas references