Many publications are publishing heart-felt eulogies to Paul Allen, which is a bit weird since they pretty much ignored him when he was alive. More precisely, they never seemed to know exactly what to make of Allen. Certainly, there haven't been a lot of "10 Things Paul Allen Did and You Should Too" listicles floating around.

This despite the undeniable fact that Allen accomplished a great deal after he left Microsoft: successful venture capitalist, owner of three professional sports teams, executive producer of award-winning films. And yet, for a guy worth $20 billion when he died, nobody seemed to see him as a role model for budding entrepreneurs.

As far as I can tell, there's only been one biography of Allen, Laura Rich's The Accidental Zillionaire, and that was published way back in 2002. By contrast, there are at least a dozen biographies of Bill Gates, not to mention an entire cottage industry of self-help books based on the Bill Gates's story.

Why the disparity? Simple. Paul Allen was a polymath which the dictionary defines as "a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning." Back in the olden days, being a polymath (aka a Renaissance man) was a good thing. In today's society (in general) and business culture (specifically), polymaths are seen as "jacks of all trades who are masters of none."

For example, companies looking for job candidates specifically seek individuals with focus, commitment and (most important of all) specialization. Few if any job descriptions request a generalist. Quite the contrary. A job candidate who excels at something that's not specifically job-related is likely to penalized. 

Similarly, self-help books, tapes and videos constantly and consistently tout the notion that you'll be successful if you discover and then professionally pursue the one (1) thing that makes you passionate. The self-help gurus insist you must "follow your bliss" but never suggest that you should "pursue excellence in multiple, completely unrelated fields."

In the workplace itself, bosses and coworkers are deeply suspicious of people who are good at something that's not career-related. (Unless it's something that's all gung-ho like running a marathon.) The assumption is that you owe it to your career and coworkers to put ALL your energy and attention into excelling at your job.

As a result, most polymaths--and there are more out there than you think--tend to keep their other pursuits private if not secret. How do I know all this? Simple. I've been a  closeted polymath all my life. I know from experience that the moment I bring up my other interests, it makes people question whether I know my stuff when it comes to business.

Being already rich, Paul Allen didn't need to hide his multicolored lights under a bushel. However, if Allen hadn't hit the jackpot at Microsoft, he'd still have been a polymath. He'd probably have been a brilliant investor, coached three championship kids teams, and made some award-winning independent films.

But if this alternate-Earth Paul Allen had been doing all those things at once and he'd also had a regular job as, say, an engineer or a marketer, he probably wouldn't have talked at work about all his pursuit of other kinds of excellence. Because that would have been a serious career mistake.

All of this is ironic, sad and a bit frustrating because polymaths become miserable and unproductive if forced to focus on only one thing. I know from long experience that my creativity as a business journalist disappears if I'm not simultaneously pursuing at least two completely different disciplines.

I suspect the same was true of Allen. He pursued multiple avocations with his wealth not because he was directionless but because the very idea of moving in just a single direction was contrary to his nature. As a result, despite his successes, he never got the respect that accorded to billionaires, like Bill Gates, who better fit our expectations.

Published on: Oct 16, 2018
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