No, I am not talking about the Terminator, although with the recent advances in AI and robotics, he could be here as well. I am talking about the almost forgotten, and nowdays often maligned, jack of all trades, the polymath, the Renaissance Man.
Now he is referred to as an expert-generalist. Just like the 20th century belonged to the specialist, the 21st century seems to belong to the person who can pull on different strands of knowledge from a wide variety of disciplines.
Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Charlie Munger, all of these guys have one thing in common: their strength comes not in being good at one thing, but in knowing a lot of different things. They are the expert-generalists, the modern Renaissance Men who have gone on to become the icons of our modern age.
The advantage of expert-generalists is that they can bring in new perspectives from a variety of fields, unhindered by the often narrow viewpoint of a specialist.
A specialist can get bogged down in the little nitty-gritty details of their field, forgetting to see the whole picture. A great danger, one that they often fall for, is functional fixedness.
This is because they were taught to do something in a certain way and over the years they have become great at doing things that way. On the negative side this can put blinders on them and result in tunnel vision.
They are great at innovating within their paradigm, but this can also make them a bit stiff when it comes to paradigm change. All kinds of little cognitive biases can prevent them from seeing the forest for the trees.
If you look at the great innovators of our age, most of them were able to combine the knowledge of different fields and come up with something new. They have the ability to not only think in analogies, but also to be great first principles thinkers.
Henry Ford was able to go back to first principles and change the way that cars were manufactured by applying an analogy of conveyor belts from a different discipline.
Tomas Bata was able to revolutionize the way shoes were made and make his company one of the first true global companies, not only because he had a good understanding of making shoes, but also because he had a deep knowledge of other things, such as the psychology of people.
If you go back to Charlie Munger and his investment strategy, you will see that the secret of his success is the fact that he has a wide variety of mental models from different fields that he can call upon when needed.
The idea of an expert-generalist is as old as humanity, but the term itself was coined by Orit Ganiesh, who is the CEO of Bain Consulting. Her definition of it is:
“Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design: Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas. Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.“
The role of an expert-generalist is not in the trenches, doing the routine work, but instead high on top, doing the strategic thinking and making crucial decisions. This is where their expertise is needed.
Now that I have convinced you of the value of expert-generalists, one question arises: What you need to do to become one?
Well, that’s the whole point of this blog, to give you the tools that you need in order to become an expert-generalist and be able to smash through any obstacle in your way.
1) Learn the meta-skills
The 80/20 rule (or the Pareto Principle) states that 80% of the effects come from only 20% of the causes. This means that you can get 80% of the things in this world done just by learning a small toolset.
There are certain what I call meta-skills that will give you the ability to work across disciplines. If you learn these, your journey towards becoming a successful expert-generalist is more than halfway there.
The two critical meta-skills that you need to master are: learn how to learn, and learn how to think.
Of course there are not the only two meta-skills that you need to learn. These are key for you in order to come up with ideas and then be able to combine them and use them at the right moment, but you also need a variety of soft skills in order to push your ideas.
One of the greatest polymath thinkers of all time, James Hutton, came up with the concept of deep time (the Earth is millions of years old) and the basic principles of geology. The problem was that he was not able to sell his idea. His ideas only gained traction after his death through the work of some of his friends, who were much better persuaders and marketers than him.
Often, a good idea never makes it through, not because it is not the best idea out there, but because it was not sold in the right way. Being able to persuade people and market your idea is very important. Persuasion is one of the key meta-skills that you need to master.
“If you just communicate you can get by. But if you communicate skillfully, you can work miracles.” Jim Rohn
2) Learn how to learn
A great example of someone who mastered the art of learning is Josh Waitzkin. He started off as a chess prodigy, a mental discipline, but then also managed to become a Tai Chi Push Hands World Champion, as well as a high level Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner, both physical disciplines.
Here are some of his key principles:
Josh Waitzkin and his Art of Learning.
One way to learn about a certain subject quickly is to try to understand the main concepts of each discipline. You pick a subject, break it down into smaller parts (chunking), and then try to see which parts are the most important to learn.
Once again, you will find that by learning 20% of the most important parts, you can cover like 80% of the subject. Once you have mastered this base, you can go on to either explore the different parts of that subject in a deeper way or maybe you can start learning an entirely new subject.
3) Learn how to think
Thinking is about taking information as inputs and then coming up with a decision. This entire process is dependent upon the initial assumptions that you are making.
A very important prerequisite for an expert-generalist is to be open-minded. You need to be aware of the assumptions you are making and why you are making them.
Another thing that you need to keep in mind is the fact that as humans we are all prone to falling for cognitive biases. You should take into account that fallibility is inherent in all humans and you won’t stop making them.
Once you have recognized this fact, you should strive to lessen their impact. This can be done through different frameworks, checklists, or ways of thinking. For example, in a world of many possibilities, Bayesian thinking can be quite helpful.
4) Learn to see connections
The greatest advantage of an expert-generalist, is that he can see connections where others can’t. He develops sort of a sixth-sense and an ability to apply different mental models in a variety of situations.
The way to develop this ability to see connections is by reading a lot of books. What many successful innovators have in common is that they read a lot. Reading allows them to get access to new ideas and knowledge, which they can then use later. For example, Elon Musk reads up to two books a day!
Another way is just to have broad life experiences. To quote Steve Jobs:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.
That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity.
A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.“
An expert-generalist is often referred to as a T-shaped man. He has a broad knowledge of a lot of disciplines, but also a deep knowledge of a selected few. This allows him to take knowledge from different sources and apply it in new and unique ways.
An expert-generalist is a person who can take knowledge from a wide variety of disciplines and then apply it in order to solve a particular problem.
Always ask yourself questions: can this be done better, faster, more efficiently?
This is something that I did when I was working at my first, not very exciting job after finishing university. I saw things weren’t being done in the most efficient manner and I brought in my knowledge and willingness to learn in order to improve the entire process.
You might not be the smartest person in the room or the most knowledgeable on a certain subject, but the ability to combine different things could give you a distinct advantage.
As Scott Adams, the creator of “Dilbert”, says:
“Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.“
As an expert-generalist, you have this ability to combine different strands of knowledge and skills, which can then result in something unique. Being an expert in a particular subject requires long hours of deliberate practice, but as an expert-generalist, your knowledge of several different subject can give you an advantage in certain things.
An expert-generalist is someone who can make connections, who is better at judging causes and effects. They can take things from one discipline and apply them in another. They can also apply different mental models when a specific situation requires it.
Expert-generalist skills are very useful in a world where systems-thinking is gaining prominence. It is very important to see something as a whole than just a sum of its parts. Often systems behave differently than the individual things that make them up.
These types of skills are becoming more valuable as the world grows more connected, and more complex. Today’s world requires a different type of thinking. That’s why the same types of skills that made Renaissance Men successful in centuries long past are making a comeback and can be a competitive advantage in today’s society.
Besides, as Charlie Munger says, it’s fun to outthink people who might be smarter than you:
“It’s kind of fun to sit there and outthink people who are way smarter than you are because you’ve trained yourself to be more objective and more multidisciplinary. Furthermore, there is a lot of money in it, as I can testify from my own personal experience.“
What makes a Renaissance Man