‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’
The quote above, attributed to a Greek poet 2500 years ago, is generally used to inspire debate. Should you be a specialist, going deep in one area like the hedgehog? Or a generalist, traveling across many areas but staying on the surface, like the fox?
What if this is a false dichotomy?
What if the problem is the either/or thinking it demands? Might there be a both/and solution instead?
SPECIALIST = MEDIOCRE
Were you urged to pick a specialty? I grew up with the phrase jack of all trades, master of none. To focus was to succeed, to explore was to squander your chances of getting ahead. I was taught that failing to specialize meant falling behind, but were we just aiming for the middle? Generalists didn’t “fit” anywhere, specialists could follow a clear path. The sooner one could decide on their life path, and put all of their resources into it, the further ahead they would get. Life appeared to be a process of rushing to narrow your focus until you found your professional area of expertise. If you got specific enough, perhaps you could stand out as an “expert” in your field. If you changed course later in your career it meant starting over at the bottom and wasting your previous efforts (college degree, job experienec, etc).
After coaching people through career growth for over a decade I have come to a different conclusion. I see over specializing as the path towards mediocrity. If you want to play the game, to climb the ladder that society has built, then by all means limit yourself to one domain. But what if you want to innovate? To change the game? To stand back and decide where to place the ladder? Might you need a dose of what the generalist has to offer and some deep knowledge, perhaps in a few areas, not just one?
To innovate is to stand outside of the field and take a perspective on it. “Learn the rules so that you can brake them” sounds nice in print. Academics get excited by minor deviations from the norm, but if you never learn the rules you break them by default. When you learn in multiple domains you can’t help but see things from radically different angles than those who stick to just one. Orthogonal insights are perpendicular, they come from other fields. This is about vertical growth in multiple different lines of development.
POLYMATHS ARE NATURAL
We tend to talk about polymaths, those with wide ranging knowledge, as being special. They are rare, but is this a natural limitation or a conditioned one? Does it really require the rare genius to be skilled in multiple areas? Or is this just something we believe because of the way we push people towards specialization?
I believe that a healthy mind wants to go deep in multiple, disparate areas. Children are voracious learners. They are all artists and scientists and dancers with very specific quirks and curiosities and desires. We are naturally multi-disciplinary. Perhaps the reason why the Renaissance Woman seems so elusive is because we put specialists on a pedestal and discourage parallel pursuits and the balanced lives they demand.
The world is not binary. You contain multitudes. When you attempt to limit yourself you become narrow. Your ability to innovate becomes equally weak.
I study leaders for a living and the evidence is clear. Transformational leaders are chimeras; hybrids. They are multi-dimensional. They cross disciplines. Look deeper at those you admire and chances are, even those who appear to be hedgehogs have fox DNA inside and vice versa. By all means, go deep in one area, but if you can’t see your domain from outside the box then you are, by default, an inside the box thinker. You may sustain a system, but you won’t be able adapt it to a changing world. Your insights will be fragile at best, horribly distorted at worst. Depth and context both matter. Combine the two and you are on to something.
CROSS TRAIN to LEAD
If you want to be better at business, learn how to paint. Cross train. Develop parallel areas of interest. When you are early on in your career, as an employee, being single-minded can get you ahead. This same approach will create a ceiling. Being single-minded is fine when you are taking orders. It is a serious limitation when it is your job to give them.
In the version of corporate America that is dominant (but crumbling) employees are encouraged to develop the capacity to work more. Quantity matters. We are forced to color within the lines, to work long hours and to sacrifice our hobbies. Policies are enforced, expectations upheld. The vision is top down. If you succeed, you are promoted. But if you climb far enough up the ladder you start to get dizzy. You are suddenly expected to have not only new skills, but a radically different mindset. What got you here won’t get you there. Now you must see around corners and offer others your perspective.
Leaders are required to think strategically. This is no longer about generating massive output by keeping your eyes on the prize. This is about scanning the horizon and charting a course. At the highest levels a very small number of decisions determine the impact you have this quarter, year, and longer. Quality matters. Systems thinking matters. You must now create policies in a fluid, ever changing manner. Being able to step outside of the situation you are in and see it from many different angles is the thing that will keep you rising up above others who are siloed in their view and their function.
If you can’t see how different departments relate then you do not deserve to be in charge of them. If you can’t see how the entire company relates to the industry you are in then you will never be able to steer it amongst its peers. If you can’t see how the industry you are in relates to the entire marketplace, then you are going to miss trends that disrupt your industry. If you can’t see how the marketplace fits into society, then you are going to miss market disruptors. And if you can’t see how markets exists within global cultures, societies, and the living biosphere, you are going to fail to prepare yourself and your people for the biggest disruptions of our time.
It may have been enough to be single-minded in the past, but we live in a VUCA environment (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). The power of the specialist is limited. Today’s leaders need to be more dynamic than ever. The time of the Expert Generalist is here. We need more polymaths. Today’s leaders must think orthogonally.
People find it endearing that Einstein played the violin. I believe it to be a major source of his genius in physics. Spending years developing a felt sense of Mozart sonatas installs a perspective that is bound to be different from the way that other trained mathematicians and scientists view reality. Viewing physics through a musical lens is coming at it orthogonally, perpendicularly, from another vertical line of development.
Is Elon musk better or worse at rocket science because he also goes deep on batteries, artificial intelligence, manufacturing, and boring machines?
How much cross training do you do?
This is not the checklist that your high school guidance counselor encouraged you to complete. This is not about being well-rounded in the eyes of others. This is about reigniting the flames of curiosity that burned brightly when you were a child. People look down at the severely autistic child who will only talk about trains or penguins all day. Why is spending 100 hours per week focused on investment banking more impressive? I understand the money grab, but I have seen the way it hollows people out. Why is this the way that some of our strongest minds are being cultivated?
A human being is capable of developing multiple intelligences. To foster the growth of but one is to disconnect oneself from vast resources of energy and wisdom. Why do we expect healthy adults to have such narrow focuses?
Steve Jobs credited Apple’s beautiful typography with his study of calligraphy in college. Would he have been able to disrupt as many industries had he not spent so much time studying Zen and developing beginner’s mind?
How many intelligences are you developing?
High achievers reach out to me for coaching when they feel stuck. Before deciding whether or not to work together we interview one another. I have a carefully curated set of questions that I use to help me determine both where they are developmentally and whether or not I can help them. I’m assessing aspects of their physical, emotional, and intellectual well-being to help me understand where their growth is highly evolved and where it might be stunted. One incredibly telling response is to a question many find banal.
What are your hobbies?
Eating food and travel don’t count. For all but the most passionate, neither does exercise. Staring at a screen every night is a major red flag. I want to know what you are deeply curious about. I want to know what skills or passions you are developing outside of your working life. I want to know if you engage in things that seem, at first blush, to have no functional purpose when you are making money. I want to know if you have maintained a connection to creativity. I am attempting to assess how wide your mind is. How many different ways of being in the world are you playing with?
Are you capable of being completely consumed by any tasks that you are not paid for?
Are you pursuing mastery in anything outside of your day job?
If the answer is no, then not only are you squandering this one precious life by not having enough fun, you are also doing your professional life a disservice.
A good friend is the technical co-founder of one company about to become a unicorn and another set to disrupt a completely different industry. He spends his free time learning shibari, an ancient Japanese form of rope bondage, playing bass, gardening, reading, playing board games, and cooking, among other things, including long walks with me.
Parallel lines of development can interact synergistically through orthogonal, and often metaphorical, lines of thinking, acting, feeling, and knowing.
I coach an executive at Google who is getting his PHD in philosophy. I have no doubt that this “competing interest” makes him more effective in his role. This isn’t about doing more, it is about re-allocating resources. It is about working smart, not hard, about focusing on quality, not quantity. This is about setting boundaries, valuing self care, and showing up to work filled up by other pursuits.
How many parallel streams of curiosity are you indulging?
UNLEASH DORMANT POTENTIAL
I spent a couple of decades producing music and playing in bands. This developed nonverbal components of the mind which allow me to sense rhythm, melody, texture and emotional tones in an abstract, yet refined way. I apply this lens to clients, business plans, and everything else. I apply musical metaphors to everything from parenting to business to relationships. Music appears to be more primitive. It allows us to access thoughts we can’t explain. This taught me to express myself in ways I don’t have words for. Music teaches me how to peer into aspects of my mind that are otherwise unconscious simply because I do not have the verbal concepts to express them. I have no doubt that it makes me a better coach, friend, lover, and writer.
In high school I started studying mechanical drafting and architecture. Today I design furniture in my mind, buy rough boards from a lumber yard, craft my designs in my garage wood shop, and live amongst my creations. This develops the ability to hold an object in the minds eye and turn it around in 360°. This cultivates a structural understanding of how a joint will fit together and operational planning of the processes required to both add and remove material to achieve a desired shape. All of this informs the way that I view personal development, building businesses, family dynamics, and many other ways that life flows in and out of shapes while various pressures and processes are applied.
Why not play with photography to change the way that you view the world and interact with it?
Meditation teaches us to release the stranglehold any given perspective has on us at the moment, to disconnect identity from one element of a polarity so a higher order understanding can be found. Melt into a causal space of unknowing, and then watch new ideas become manifest in interesting and unexpected ways. The looser our attachment to any one way of seeing the world the more fluid our approach to difficult situations becomes.
Spend a year being fascinated with your dreams, keeping a journal of them, attempting to develop a capacity for lucid dreaming and then bring the insights your mind creates in a radically altered state to bear on the biggest problems you find in your life.
Learn a new language and seek out people who speak it so that you can learn about their life in their native tongue.
Pick a musical instrument and spend the next 50 years slowly adding songs to your repertoire. Write a few songs yourself.
Read books that take your mind in 20 different directions.
Do you remember the way it felt to dance when you were younger? What would happen to your life if you blocked out time every single day to move your body in whatever way feels appropriate for that specific moment? Might you reclaim some of your spontaneity? Some of your capacity to feel and express joy? Tap in to an inner wisdom that has been laying dormant for years waiting for you to come back?
Whatever you do, don’t do any of this because you should. Certainly don’t do it because I said so. Do what your inner child wanted to do, but was discouraged from doing when she spent long nights studying for the test. Do what you stopped doing when you wanted to fit in. Do what you imagine doing once you are retired. Do what sparks joy. Try something new just to see how it feels to you. If nothing calls you then try 10 things and take notes on how they feel to rekindle the inner flame of self discovery.
If you have no interests outside of work then the flames of your curiosity have dimmed so low that you cannot see them the way that you are currently living. It is time to slow down, to create space. It is time to take risks, to be playful.
To come clean, I am speaking to your desire to be an innovator and a better leader, but this is just a Trojan horse. I want you to be more fulfilled, more whole; to enjoy your life more. I want the leadership you provide to come from your heart and your gut, not just your head. If you do this solely because it may improve your work life, you will still be cut off from the spontaneous spark of curious excitement that is meant to drive every single moment of your days.
This is about shifting the source of fuel in your life. When we are driven by “shoulds” we get exhausted. We need caffeine and discipline and deadlines. When we are driven by “want”, we turn back on the natural enthusiasm that all children are born with. This is about waking up excited for the day ahead.
I know you may have a story about yourself that prevents you from investing in new things. You might think you just don’t have any interests and that you are too old to start. You might think you aren’t as smart as these other people, that the way you get by at work is by working harder than everyone else and that this leaves you no time for fun.
STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY
Here is the key point: The people described above do not have extracurricular interests because of how smart they are. Don’t fall into a fixed mindset. They are smart and innovative because they have these interests. You know that your muscles get stronger the more you use them. Top athletes work out in many different ways to keep their bodies guessing. Do you really believe that your mind is any different? Yes, we each have a unique genetic inheritance, but we all benefit from pushing boundaries.
Your curiosity muscles may have atrophied, but they are there. Start small. Expect it to feel overly self-indulgent. Do it anyways. Nourish your soul so that you have more gifts to give. Be a foxhog 🙂