In Praise of Generalists

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In his article In Praise of Generalists, Anthony Townsend (Institute for the Future) touches on why the time for elevating  “specialists” has passed. We need what he calls “transdisciplinary thinking” to tackle the future, and ongoing conversations which include, but are not restricted to, specialists.


In Praise of Generalists

The last decade has been witness to the rise of the geeks. What began as a glorification of tech entrepreneurs making it big from the rise of the IT industry, has now permeated every aspect of society. Single-minded obsession with obscure endeavors, hyper-specialization, and technical nerdery of all sorts are glorified across the board.

But is such geekery really a good way to foster talent? The most pressing problems in science and technology, and more broadly in business and the economy, don’t lend themselves readily to specialists’ solutions. They require not just inter-discipinary teamwork to make progress, but transdisciplinary thinking – literally, we need people that can have conversations between disciplinary appraoches to problems inside their own head. In fact, you could argue that most of the gridlock around big problems like global warming, health care, and so on, stem from the inability of narrow specialist and interest groups to speak each others’ language, translate heuristics and integrate complex concepts and data. They’re too specialized, having become more and more isolated in focused communities, thanks to the web.

Let’s take a classic example of a geek to unpack this dilemma. London taxi drivers are uber-geeks, memorizing the entire fractal street network of one of the world’s biggest cities. In fact, they are so specialized that scientists have measured distinct enlargement of a portion of the hippocampus in their brains. Yet another recent study has found that the widespread use of GPS technology for personal navigation is reducing the ability of everyday people to find their way at all. On the one hand, the super geeks who can DIY, on the other, lost sheep perpetually dependent on assistive technology.

Before you cry foul, and lament the loss of another basic human ability, let me ask you – are you lamenting the ability to do tell time from environmental cues (destroyed by clocks), to do complex mathematical calculations in your mind (destroyed by calculators), or to remember facts (destroyed by Google)? No, because each of these technologies, to which we’ve outsourced some basic functions, have allowed us to give up some geekery in order to spend our precious brain cycles on more broad, integrative thinking. (Of course, the more worrying part of the study, that atrophy of the hippocampus might be tied to dementia, should not be overlooked. But it’s a very preliminary finding)

I have alternated back and forth between geekery and generalism in my own career. I can say without a doubt, I’m happier and more productive, and more relevant, when I’m a generalist.

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