The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen a steady progression of increasing specialization, a consequence, no doubt, of the concomitant rise in the compexity of various fields in the sciences and humanities. The problem has become so bad that there are specializations within specializations. Members of the skilled or educated classes frequently find themselves employed in niche areas without a lot of horizontal mobility (i.e., being able to move into another speciality within the same overall field). Specialization within specialization, or “recursive specialization,” is particularly endemic to information technology. It comes as no surprise, then, that while specialists have multiplied, generalists have declined. Generalists are known by many names: polymaths, multipotentialites, scanners, and Renaissance men; that last one is strikingly poignant, as the Renaissance is when such multitalented individuals last flourished (e.g., Leonardo da Vinci, the prototypical polymath).

It was in this context that I was heartened to read How Elon Musk Learns Faster And Better Than Everyone Else by Michael Simmons on Medium. Is Elon Musk bringing the polymath back into vogue? I like to think so.

Simmons, on the cross-disciplinary advantage:

Learning across multiple fields provides an information advantage (and therefore an innovation advantage) because most people focus on just one field.

For example, if you’re in the tech industry and everyone else is just reading tech publications, but you also know a lot about biology, you have the ability to come up with ideas that almost no one else could.

Ideas such as the genetic algorithms of evolutionary computation. Could siloed computer scientists or biologists, operating independently, have invented them? Unlikely.

Each new field we learn that is unfamiliar to others in our field gives us the ability to make combinations that they can’t. This is the expert-generalist advantage.

Exactly. Specialization leads to siloed thinking, which doesn’t lead at all. It quickly results in a terminus of originality. If creativity is thinking outside the box, siloed thinking is relishing the constraints of the box.

At the deepest level, what we can learn from Elon Musk’s story is that we shouldn’t accept the dogma that specialization is the best or only path toward career success and impact. Legendary expert-generalist Buckminster Fuller summarizes a shift in thinking we should all consider. He shared it decades ago, but it’s just as relevant today:

“We are in an age that assumes that the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable… In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.”

As a kid, you were most likely asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A policeman. A firefighter. An astronaut. The expectation was always a single answer. Specialization is, indeed, a dogma that gets drilled into us when we’re young. And the message doesn’t let up as we develop into adults: Follow your passion. (Note the singular noun.) But some of us—current and aspiring polymaths—aren’t content to tread the same banal path as everyone else; we want to blaze our own trails, which is especially true for the creatives amongst us.

Featured image source: GeekWire

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