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We need a generalist mindset to change the world

Why we need a generalist mindset to tackle complex problems

What do Roger Federer, Vincent van Gogh and Duke Ellington have in common?

Aside from being some of the most famous and influential individuals within their field, they all had wiggly paths. They all began as creative, wandering generalists.

That’s right. They didn’t specialise in their chosen area from the get-go. Roger Federer dabbled in basketball, handball, skiing, wrestling, swimming, table tennis and skateboarding in his early years before winning 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Van Gogh ventured into language teaching, preaching, and missionary work between several failed attempts to become a painter. Duke Ellington rejected music lessons as a child to focus on baseball.

Vincent Van Gogh Roger Federer Duke EllingtonYou get the picture. Far from doggedly pursuing a singular goal, many high-profile individuals have experimented far and wide, going so far as to credit this experimentation with their eventual success.

These convoluted, fascinating stories captured me while reading David Epstein’s book Range during a recent trip. I couldn’t help but think about the similarities in the work ThinkPlace does. Epstein doesn’t just pull together a handful of stories to challenge our assumptions; his evidence-packed book shatters our understanding of how innovation, change and problem-solving occur.

Epstein’s research began by looking into the career trajectories of highly successful sportspeople. Through his findings he learnt that athletes who specialise early on (do only one sport repetitively) are less likely to become elite. Elite athletes generally do several sports growing up and only specialise later.

Epstein quickly realised, however, that the ‘generalist’ rule applies to a much broader set of circumstances.

"Seeing small pieces of a larger jigsaw puzzle in isolation, no matter how hi-def the picture, is insufficient to grapple with humanity’s greatest challenges."

Specialists and generalists

How many of us know that the famous saying “jack of all trades, master of none” has been shortened from the original? Originally used in reference to Shakespeare, the full version goes, “a jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” Just like that, the meaning and wisdom is lost.

Stories illuminating the power of generalists fly in the face of our ideas of how we succeed in reaching big goals. In our society, we love the idea of, and often wish to be, a specialist – the more specialised, the better! We love and celebrate stories of specialists, such as Tiger Woods’ rise to golf fame at the wee age of two. Jumping on the hypothesis train for a moment, maybe specialisation gives us a sense of certainty and security when so much about life and the world remains uncertain. Specialisation is crucial, but is specialisation all that is needed to solve the unwieldy, complex problems facing us today? (Hint: no).

A tale of two learning environments

Don’t get me wrong, there are many domains where repetition and specialisation are helpful and needed. I’d prefer a neurosurgeon over an astronaut to perform my lifesaving brain surgery, thanks. When there are rules that can be learnt and implemented, hyper-specialisation is worth it (unless computers beat us to it, but that’s another post). However, for most circumstances, there is a lot more complexity involved (Read: humans).

What does this have to do with designers and changemakers? A lot. I might go as far as saying sports or even surgery are ‘kind’ learning environments, where patterns repeat over and over, and success is tied to learning these patterns. But most environments are ‘wicked’. In wicked environments, the rules of the game are often unclear, information is missing, and feedback is delayed (sound familiar?).

The confusion is when we attempt to solve complex problems in wicked environments in a kind-environment way. It is the law of the instrument that says when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail – also called ‘cognitive entrenchment’. It’s what makes us focus on specialist advice over all else.

The power of generalists

The key to avoiding cognitive entrenchment: keep one foot outside of your domain when tackling problems.

Examples of the power of generalists are abundant. Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, the spilt oil and sea congealed into a thick, peanut butter-like substance; removal was near impossible. When chemists failed to develop a chemical solution, the problem was posted to a crowdsourcing site InnoCentive. The winning solution came from a man who used analogical thinking to problem-solve; by recalling memories of stirring a slushy to loosen it before drinking, he solved this problem that stumped experts using the same old tools (as of today, 200,000+ intractable problems have been solved through InnoCentive by ‘outsiders’). Epstein also studied scientific teams and found that those making the most breakthroughs were made up of individuals with various skills, rather than being all from the same specialisation.

"Analogical thinking takes the new and makes it familiar, or takes the familiar and puts it in a new light, and allows humans to reason through problems they have never seen in unfamiliar contexts. It also allows us to understand that which we cannot see at all."

This is so important because when it comes to many of the problems facing humanity today, we are absolutely dealing with wicked environments. Issues like climate change and inequity cannot and will not be solved through a single lens, a single tool, a single worldview, or a single solution. We need specialists and generalists, we need wide perspectives, we need diversity, we need new ideas, and we need innovative, analogical thinking.

"That is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands – conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts."

Moving forward: what this means for us and for the world

I was shocked to discover that Nobel prize winners are increasingly reporting that their breakthrough could not have occurred today.

Hyperspecialised scientists receive more funding and are incentivised to work only within their domain. Scientists must explore increasingly narrow, specialised goals and establish what they might find before looking for it. While cross-domain work may initially be deemed less impressive, scientific papers with new knowledge combinations are much more likely to be in the top 1 per cent of most-cited papers in the years following publication, a strong indication of the importance of collaboration.

"The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization."

This presents an opportunity for those willing to do things differently. This way of working with complexity is second nature to ThinkPlace. Wicked environments are where we work best, helping our clients tackle issues that exist within a tangled web of interrelated systems. On top of being brilliant designers, ThinkPlace New Zealand has a food science and culinary school graduate, a trained masseuse/ex-housing officer, two ex-engineers, an ex-furniture maker, a potter, a plant enthusiast, a sports lover, two ex-lifeguards, a climber and many more. Each of these experiences are key pieces of our identity and worldview, bringing a unique perspective that we desperately need in innovative endeavours.

One thing is clear: the future needs generalists. It also needs specialists willing to take on the generalist mindset. There are no simple solutions to the messy, complex problems facing the world and our societies right now. It’s going to require many different types of people, with diverse experiences, flexibly using multiple tools and ways of thinking. We must work together to create the change we need to see. Are you in?

Tips for harnessing the power of the generalist mindset:

  • Stay curious about many different topics. Have hobbies!
  • Share what you learn with your peers and colleagues
  • Celebrate your experiences in other jobs, roles, sectors or organisations – each one will have left you with unique experiences and an understanding of a variety of topics and issues, vitally important when tackling complexity and needing to view the world through many lenses (Remember the slush stirring that solved the oil spill in 1989? No job is unworthy!)
  • Utilise analogical thinking – step away from the immediate context of the problem for a while and think further afield to explore solutions
  • Play devil’s advocate and question specialist solutions to wicked problems
  • Take a walk – history’s greatest thinkers and innovators relied on walking for creativity, and science has begun to answer why this may be
  • ‘Tools not rules’ – utilise design tools flexibly, but don’t stick rigidly to them
  • Seek out different and diverse opinions
  • Take on a growth mindset and be willing to let go of knowing everything

Finally, value and incorporate experiences that go beyond just work and hobbies; until we are truly listening to and valuing diverse voices that represent our societies in our teams and work, what we produce and the change we make will not have the impact it could.

Quotes Reference: Range by David Epstein 

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