If you follow the latest in business thinking, you would have come across the popular – or should I say “populist” – Design Thinking (DT) movement. You might have even heard of IDEO. They are the company that turned the rather loose notion of business as “art” into a profitable consulting model. You’ve probably heard of so called “T-shaped thinkers”. According to Tim Brown and others at IDEO, T-shaped thinkers are the new Da Vincis. They master both the ability to think broadly and deeply. They are generalists and specialists at the same time.
The beauty of simple models, like IDEO’s T-shaped thinkers is they are simple to convey and remember. Their marketing power is undeniable, and they serve the consulting model superbly. But the drawback is they are often too simplistic to be accurate. In fact, I say the T-shaped thinker model is quite poor in capturing the generalist-specialist dichotomy.
I will in this piece describe an alternative, and I believe superior model for generalism.
My take is that generalism embeds a capacity for “meta” thinking. What is meta-thinking you ask? Let’s start with the meaning of “meta”. Wikipedia’s page on the topic proposes that “any subject can be said to have a meta-theory, a theoretical consideration of its properties, such as its foundations, methods, form and utility, on a higher level of abstraction”. So “meta” is about the ability to mentally manipulate higher levels of abstraction, at least according to Wikipedia. So what does abstraction mean? In short, it is the ability to extract general principles from concrete examples, situations, experiments.
These definitions are nice, but not very helpful in everyday life. In my experience, I propose meta-thinking is the awareness of the applicability of certain methods, approaches, ways of thinking or even disciplines as a whole! The argument of when a particular method might and might not apply cannot be made using solely the method itself – in Einstein’s words, we cannot solve a problem with the same thinking we used to create it. The said argument cannot be made from within the body of knowledge of the method, discipline or approach in question. Hence, the argument for the applicability of a method requires one can describe its boundaries, its limitations. And so, one has to be able to completely mentally bound the method and manipulate it as a whole in a larger context. This my friends is a generalist. By manipulating an entire body of knowledge as a whole, a generalist is able to say when, i.e. for what particular situation and context, a certain body of knowledge is appropriate and will yield effective results. A generalist is keenly aware of the relativity aspects of what we call our everyday reality. He or she is also likely to be associated with wisdom. While specialists don’t see the limits of their own knowledge and are bound to argue to the bitter end for their own viewpoint, generalists are likely to be accommodating, knowing full well that no body of knowledge is the complete and irrevocable answer to the complex canvas which we humans call “everyday life”.