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The Bane of Specialization: Defense of the Polymath
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic will explore the bane of specialization and why our current reliance on specialized knowledge needs to be challenged as we work to solve today’s wicked problems. As a solution, I’ll introduce and define what a Polymath is and how their skills complement the experts. We’ll also look at how to integrate the polymathic mindset into your organization to ensure the highest success.
“Jack of all trades and master of none.”
This phrase is often used as a pejorative in the professional world to demean a person’s lack of expertise in a specific topic. Accolades are readily applied to specific skills or experience whereas concerns are articulated, especially in academia, if a person has too broad of a focus. This infers success must select a goal, focus on it, and avoid deviation. We are exhorted to become experts, to focus, specialize, and become known for a specific skill or trade. Yet is that the best way to solve the wicked problems in the 21st century?
History suggests that many of the intellectual giants from da Vinci, Newton, Al Farabi, Mary Anne Evans, and Hypatia to John Boyd, and Vannevar Bush all had multi-disciplinary knowledge they applied to solve wicked problems. These polymathic intellectuals did not specialize in any one topic but broadly applied multiple, seemingly disparate studies to investigate, innovate, and influence the world around them.
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The core focus of this essay isn’t to put the specialist and the polymath at odds but to demonstrate that both are two aspects of a balanced, yin and yang, whole. The specialist without the polymath loses vision, collaboration, and impact whereas the polymath without the specialist loses focus, details, and depth. In the absence of their counterpart, each of these professionals can often fail to bring visions to reality. Partnering talent identifies better solutions to contemporary wicked problems.
The Bane of Specialization
Specialization, while leading to expertise and focused knowledge, has some serious challenges. Most Ph.D. programs focus on hyper-specialized study areas: science, technology, engineering, and math programs are segregated by education and then further sequestered in design focuses. This results in researchers, focused on one topic, being ignorant of work in related areas. Thus, stovepipes and silos form and are focused on explicit areas and expertise. This creation of specialized experts drives cultures focused on operating and defending these specializations. As Jonathan Haidt states in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: cultures bind and blind (Haidt, 2006). Experts are merely groups of humans who are atomistically focused on a tiny piece of the world. The more they focus on a specific topic, the more they bind themselves to a focus, the more narrow-minded they risk becoming. Quickly, like the blind men and the elephant captured in 500BCE in the Buddhist text Udāna (Thanissaro, 2012), their hyper-informed perspectives deny the context of the whole and tend to compound the cognitive bias if not held accountable to the broader picture (See Figure 1).
Figure 1 - The Blind Men and the Elephant” (Coolidge)
“And so these men of Indostan Disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion Exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right And all were in the wrong!” (Saxe, 1872)
This is the bane of specialization: hyper-focused, specialized, siloed, and suboptimal; further exacerbated by the inclination to defend and protect the status quo of organizational structure and human behaviors. This bane manifests in more obvious ways as we transition from complex problems into the wicked problems we face in the 21st Century.
One of the most significant issues confronting specialization is that the problems of the future are increasing in intricacy. Beyond Kolmogorov complexity of nodes and connections (Ardis, 2016) where complex systems expand into self-organized and emergent systems with persistent memory and counter-intuitive outcome (INCOSE, 2015), a new problem space is emerging that takes research, development, and analysis a step further into what is known as the wicked problem space. This space was first codified in 1973 by Rittel and Webber, visualized in Figure 2, and consists of the following axioms:
Every problem is unique
There is no clear problem definition
Wicked problems are multi-causal, multi-scalar, and interconnected
Contain multiple stakeholders with conflicting agendas
Wicked problems straddle organizational and disciplinary boundaries
Every wicked problem is connected to others
Every solution ramifies throughout the system
Solutions are not right or wrong but better or worse
It can take a long time to evaluate solutions
Problems are never completely solved (Rittel & Webber, 1973)
Figure 2 - Wicked Problem 'Flower' (Kossoff, 2020)
These wicked problems tend to manifest in areas like artificial intelligence, manned and unmanned teaming, autonomy, web3, supply chain resilience, synthetic biology, and cyberspace just to name a few. These problems are cross-domain, interdisciplinary, and require blending previously discrete technologies with layered architectures. Thus, solving them effectively demands a broad understanding of not only multiple disciplines but also the relationships, causes and effects, and hierarchies of application of those disciplines. This is the prime domain of the polymath.
Defense of the Polymath
“The superiority of experts within a narrow slice of the vast spectrum of human understanding was not denied. What was denied was that this expertise conferred a general superiority which should supersede more widely dispersed kinds of knowledge.” – Thomas Sowell (Sowell, 2007)
The term polymath is derived from the Greek polymathēs - having learned much and is related to the Latin, homo universalis - the universal man. Johann von Wowern, captured the context in 1603 as “Knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies [...] ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them" (Murphy, 2014). Polymaths include great scholars and thinkers who excelled at several fields in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts. They are individuals whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems throughout the Islamic Golden Age, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and still today.
A few notable examples of polymaths include:
Hypatia (350-415) – A philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician who lived in Alexandria, Egypt which was then part of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was a prominent thinker and teacher of philosophy and astronomy. Her commentary on Diophantus’s Arithmetica and Apollonius of Perga’s treatise on conic sections brought her into repute in her time.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) – Easily the most recognized polymath in history, da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance painter, inventor, engineer, astronomer, anatomist, biologist, geologist, physicist, and architect.
George Washington Carver (1864-1943) – From slavery to agriculturalist, botanist, scientist, educator, artist, musician, and inventor, Carver trailblazed an innovative solution for soil depletion from cotton farming by implementing crop rotations using peanuts. In developing multiple inventions made from peanut products, he also bolstered the value of the nitrogen-fixing legume to the farmers, helping increase their profit.
Jābir ibn Hayyān (Geber) (721-815) – Persian chemist, alchemist, astronomer, engineer, pharmacist, physician, philosopher, physicist, and scientist. Hayyān wrote 300 books on philosophy, 1,300 books on mechanical devices and military machinery, and hundreds of books on alchemy.
Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) (965-1039) – Mesopotamia scientist, physicist, anatomist, physician, psychologist, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, ophthalmologist, philosopher, and theologian, al-Haytham was one of the first to formulate the scientific method.
Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880) – Adroit author of complex political, philosophical, and cultural situations in Victorian England, Evans challenged the view that only men could write well.
Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790) – Printer, author, Founding Father of the United States, statesman, and inventor, Franklin harnessed electricity and developed the US postal service. His reputation cements his polymath standing across multiple disciplines.
This list is not intended to be exhaustive and there are clearly others who come to mind with similar accolades to their name all the way to the present time. Being a polymath is as much a philosophy and viewpoint as it is uncommon depth of knowledge in disparate areas. It is the ability to transcend specialization while having a strong foundation and knowledge in multiple domains. Even more so, it is the ability to see the inter-relationships and connections between, across, and within domains that truly make someone a polymath.
This can be exemplified by Vannevar Bush who, in 1945, blended dozens of research disciplines to describe and launch what, even now, represents our digital computing age (Bush, 1945). Similarly, John Boyd is recognized for both his development of the Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) loop in military strategy and for leveraging the insights and expertise of specialists in 1973 to develop the F-16 aircraft, recognized for the speed of development and still in use.
Today the same polymathic thinking is required to create transformative innovation and analysis. Often, the solutions to a problem don’t come from the experts within that field but from people in widely separate fields of study. The subject matter experts within the organization often lack the solutions that other disciplines have found and are often limited by the paradigms established within their specialties as Thomas Kuhn identified in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 2012). Experts within these paradigms are not typically inquisitive to new information that would transform their discipline but defensive of the status quo. The accumulation of anomalies, which cannot be explained by the paradigm and eventually leads to a shift, rarely comes from experts interrogating from within the paradigm. Fresh minds and fresh eyes applied to unfamiliar disciplines are more likely the ones who identify the anomalies that result in a paradigm shift. Leveraging polymathic thinking collaboratively across disciplines allows us to grapple with complex ideas and wrangle disparate disciplines into a holistic view.
The Polymath Applied
In 1967 C. West Churchman identified how polymaths should "inform the manager in what respect our 'solutions' have failed to tame his wicked problems." (Churchman, 1967) This recognition of the role polymaths plays in this solution space gives us confidence in investigating how to apply the polymathic philosophy.
A first step is to acknowledge that a polymath is not at odds with a specialized individual. As mentioned previously, it is about balancing the skills of a polymath with that of a specialist. Another concept of which we should disabuse ourselves is that the solutions are soluble by a single polymath. As Isaac Newton captured in his letter to Robert Hooke: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." (Newton, 1675) Himself a polymath, drawing on multiple disciplines to solve physics problems, Newton recognized that his work relied extensively on the prior work and support of others.
The requirement for this collaboration is demonstrated in Figure 3 regarding solutions for autonomous systems blending robotics with hard and soft AI with neuroscience. Clearly, collaboration is key.
Figure 3 - Research and Development (R&D) Streams Supporting Autonomous Systems (Source: Autonomous Horizons: The Way Forward – US Air Force)
Another adage is that “knowledge is power.” This is the domain of the specialist. For the polymath, knowledge transfer is power. Being the conduit of integration and connecting the giants on whose shoulders you may stand is the best way to draw from those deep wells of expertise, share between the wells, and share across disciplines.
An interesting twist to the success of the polymath is that the connections they are able to make across seemingly disparate fields and stove-piped organizations, when articulated, often appear self-evident in retrospect. Similarly, crossing disciplines can also highlight inefficiency, organizational politics, and undesirable behaviors when new perspectives are applied.
Richard Feynman exemplified this quandary in his role on The Rogers Commission investigating the space shuttle Challenger disaster. The investigation identified that a temperature-sensitive o-ring was the root cause of the failure. Feynman further identified that the o-ring concern was known to the engineers and the true disaster was the organizational disconnect between NASA's engineers and executives. In retrospect, the Challenger explosion looked to have been a simple failure, yet the polymathic approach identified the compounding layers and relationships that prevented the problem from being solved in time. The twist is that, while highlighting the true nature of the problem, this analysis went against the political winds and frustrated many of the experts as captured by Feynman in his aptly named biography "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" (Feynman, 2001)
Applying the polymath to provide solutions to wicked problems also requires courage and conviction to connect disparate fields and stove-piped organizations.
Developing the Polymath
The polymath and the specialist combine into a yin and yang relationship that is mutually edifying. For the individual, there are a series of steps that can be followed to develop the philosophy of the polymath.
First, actively seek out and study different domains. For example, what can biology teach about data science? Lessons from biology cataloging demonstrate how it leverages imperfect taxonomies from historic naming conventions into new knowledge, a similar problem set for unstructured data. Applying these taxonomic structures to data analytics can substantially reduce the amount of time required to clean the data. In this way, looking beyond your ‘lane’ can help solve problems the experts within your function may not be aware of (Ahmed, 2019).
Second, intentionally diversify research collaboration. How can a psychologist assist your autonomous design? Psychologists are best poised to bring the human dimensions into the engineering domain to help solve human-machine integration, human-system interaction, and trust in autonomous systems. Intentional diversification across domains can provide crucial insight into complex problems. This is the technique used by the Arizona State University ASURE Threatcasting lab in Phoenix, Arizona. Challenged to identify threats in a dynamically adapting future environment, the Threatcasting Lab intentionally chooses participants with cross-domain skills (Vanatta & Johnson, 2018). At a Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) sponsored Threatcasting on the cyber implications of weapons of mass destruction conducted in February 2020, there were military personnel, virologists, psychologists, hackers, cyber security professionals, and academics provided their perspectives.
Lastly, spend more time finding confluences and fusions. It is easy to spot differences; it is harder to see connections. 21st Century challenges of climate, economics, geo-political tensions, technology explosions, and pandemic responses do not require discrete disciplines but confluences and fusions of disciplines (see Figure 4). Too often we spend more time convincing ourselves that the analysis we are doing is uniquely different instead of looking for commonality across domains or solutions. By finding confluences and fusions the polymathic practitioner is positioned with a larger solution set than they started with.
Figure 4 - Confluences and Fusions
Managing the Polymath
For the management of a team, leveraging and balancing the polymath with specialists, it is crucial to cultivate strength-based talent management. This technique is described in the book StandOut where roles lean into a team member’s forte while maximizing productivity (Buckingham, 2011). The same is true for developing the polymath. The goal is not to make everyone a polymath but for the strengths of an intuitive mindset to be aligned in concert with the strengths of the sensing mindset (Myers & Briggs, 2020). It is also critical to recognize that the intuitive personality type in the Myers-Briggs schema only represents 25% of the entire population. (personalitymax, 2022) This skews even heavier toward sensing in the STEM fields requiring a manager to be cognizant that they are more often surrounded by discrete sensors and to ensure that they search out the intuitive polymath to avoid an echo chamber.
In any organization, strength-based talent management would encourage the polymaths to surface so they can recast problems and reimagine solution paths, thus freeing and enabling the specialists to elucidate key details for successful analysis. The department which forces a polymath to perform discrete work and drives a specialist to intuitive analysis is organized for suboptimal performance. Instead, empowering the virtues of both the polymath and the specialist inspires a balanced atmosphere conducive to a strong analysis team
The bane of specialization is that, if not orchestrated with a polymathic mindset, it can become hyper-focused, specialized, siloed, suboptimal, and blindly defend the status quo. Recognizing the symbiotic relationship between the specialist and the polymath leads to better analysis and better results.
The assembly line mindset of the 20th century helped to create the modern world in which we now so comfortably reside. But can it take us into the future? Since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has been orchestrated to train some to be chefs or welders, engineers or lawyers, artists or mathematicians. Yet, what we have gained as discrete solutions to society’s needs for education and employment, we have perhaps indirectly hampered, if not lost, the very thing we believed specialization brought us—revolutionary progress. True leaps in human achievement have often ridden the coattails of polymaths. Of course, we need people in society who have been trained and know how to build skyscrapers or compose music. But we also need deep thinkers who recognize that the “music” of oscillating seismic waves in an earthquake can play the “wrong note” and destroy a building with simple harmonic motion.
Any profession can leverage the relationship between polymaths and specialists in similar ways to solve the wicked problems of the 21st century with broader, interrelated, and multi-disciplinary skills. It seems fitting then that we append a caveat to the introductory phrase;
“Jack of all trades and master of none; but more often better than a master of one.” (Epstein, 2020)
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”― Robert Heinlein (Heinlein, 1988)
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