The Advantage of a Generalist


James Holmes plumbs the zombie apocalypse, as described in World War Z by Max Brooks, for strategic lessons, concluding thus:

Resourceful folk fashion new weapons and tactics while unimaginative foes plod along, doing the same thing time after time—which makes a hopeful note to close on. When facing new circumstances, get to know the circumstances and stay loose. Recognize that the nimbler contender is apt to be the victor—and broad-mindedness is the key to staying nimble. I daresay Epstein and Clausewitz would agree.

Being something of a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type, myself, this paragraph near the beginning of the essay caught my attention:

Maintains [David] Epstein, specialists encounter trouble when tackling the problems characteristic of a “wicked” world. Wicked problems are intricate. They involve variables that combine and recombine in offbeat ways. They defy the boundaries of a single field and often vex specialists. By contrast, generalists hunt for “distant” analogies to challenges. Analogies seldom reveal answers, but they help inquisitors discover the right questions to ask. Asking penetrating questions constitutes the first step toward a solution, toward wisdom.

Exactly right.  We err if we look to analogies for answers, but by our nature we understand situations by comparison, through metaphors — stories.  The closer the metaphor we apply to a situation, the more correct (even if unexpected) conclusions we can find.  Having a broad range of experience allows us to cast more broadly for metaphors.

For example, a social problem will have nothing to do with building a house, but metaphorically, they may have some things in common: the need for a strong foundation on which sturdy framing supports the useful and aesthetically pleasing components.  If your social institutions and artistic productions are crumbling, the metaphor might direct your attention to problems with the cultural foundation that is failing to support it all.  If your popular art is cracked and allowing evil ideas in, they can rot the institutional framing.

Metaphors can be pretty abstract.  We still use the metaphor of particles to understand physics, but we know that the building blocks of material reality don’t act very much like particles.   They can act like waves, they can occupy the same physical space, and so on.  Perhaps a different abstract metaphor — seeing “particles” as identities with certain qualities might help us resolve some of the remaining puzzles.

This is why innovators in particular fields are often newcomers who aren’t bogged down in standard ways of thinking, but bring metaphors from their earlier lives.