Most of the time we fail to pay attention to the life-altering implications of how we think. In contemplating our futures, we try to decide where best to invest our most precious asset – our time. Should we become better at what we uniquely do or should we learn something completely different? If we are unable to resolve this dilemma, change becomes a threat more than an opportunity.
Some 2700 years ago, the Greek poet Archilochus wrote: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.” In the 50s, philosopher Isaiah Berlin used that notion to divide great thinkers into two categories: those who have one perspective on the world and those who have many different points of view. Although Berlin claimed his essay wasn’t that serious, it’s still a worthy question to ask: which is better today – being a specialist or a generalist?
While generalists have divergent competencies and different capabilities, specialists possess a depth of knowledge and refined skills in a specific area of expertise. Berlin said specialists “lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered and diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects … seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all embracing … unitary inner vision.”
Conversely, generalists have the advantage of interdisciplinary knowledge, which fosters creativity and a broader, therefore better, understanding of how the world actually works. They cross-index information and their relational aptitude enables them to better adapt to change and uncertainty. Although never maximizing their potential in a particular arena of endeavour, they are less fragile and more able to survive almost anywhere.
Specialists are passionate about what they do. They can go deep to find answers and the satisfaction that comes from their narrower focus. Garrett Hardin, who wrote of the tragedy of the commons, offers this perspective on their value: “We cannot do without experts. We accept this fact, but not without anxiety. There is much truth in the definition of the specialist as someone who knows more and more about less and less. But there is another side to expertise. A great idea in science often has its birth in a particular answer to a narrow question.”
Becoming “too specialized” leads one to become too narrow in an increasingly complicated, uncertain and volatile world. Those who go outside their unique and proven circle of competence, especially those who don’t know it, can be dangerous.
Those who stay entirely within a particular field of vision and mode of enquiry tend to see only what their prior knowledge ordains. This, in medicine, can result in iatrogenics, or physician-induced diseases. While the medical mantra is do no harm, despite their best intentions, iatrogenics increases the odds that doctors may engender unnecessary injury.
Specialists (like doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers and architects) are far more vulnerable to the vicissitudes and ambiguities of change. Which is why, as technology advances at an increasingly relentless pace, many specialist-only jobs will disappear.
Artificial intelligence (AI) now surpasses human capability in reading comprehension. Deloitte (2018) says AI will automate 39% of jobs in the legal sector. In a recent experiment, a computer algorithm correctly diagnosed 90% of lung cancers while doctors had a success rate of only 50%.
In classic human reasoning, we tend to think these changes won’t impact us. Newsweek recently reported that 90% of Americans believe half of today’s jobs will be lost to automation within five years. But more than 90% of the respondents say their jobs won’t be the ones axed.
Looking at things with a singular or narrow focus makes our thinking lopsided – we become ignorant on subjects other than the one’s we think we know well. Without the cross-fertilization of ideas that comes from knowing things beyond our expertise, we become dull and pedantic. As many have said, a specialist views every problem as a nail because the only instrument he has in his thinking toolbox is a hammer.
We need both generalists and specialists. But we don’t have to be one or the other; the thinking required isn’t mutually exclusive. Much like learning how to combine analytical and creative skills to “think on all cylinders,” we can take a hybrid approach to gathering and synthesizing information. Artificial intelligence can easily replace analytical tasks but creative tasks not so much. In fact, this latter way of thinking will at a premium in a world of big data and machine learning.
In addition to the core competencies in which we must excel, we need to learn about a lot of other things. We need to pull ideas from everywhere, be receptive to contrary evidence and remain open to having our minds changed. We need to take information from disparate sources, understand and evaluate it objectively, and then put it together in novel ways. We need to build an arsenal of interdisciplinary knowledge.
In short, we need to be better integrative thinkers. This necessitates an insatiable curiosity – being purposefully naive, optimistic and playful with new ideas, and always open and receptive to good advice. Marcel Proust perhaps put it best: “the real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” In my judgement, that’s the essence (if not the purpose) of being a smart leader.