Experts, Generalists, and the Tyranny of OR

“There are 10 kinds of people: those who know binary and those who don’t.”

This popular geek joke tells a lot about us and how we like to classify things into neat boxes with descriptive labels on them. How we put socks in one drawer, pants in another one, and then struggle with the question of where stockings should go.

But we don’t do it with just physical items. We also classify people: engineers, blondes, Americans, doctors, marketers, old, young, experts, generalists.

The Tyranny of the OR

Authors James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras studied visionary companies (companies that outlive their founders and stay fresh throughout big changes in the world they work in), and noticed that what makes these companies different from their competition has a lot to do with seeing past the classifications.

In their business bestseller, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Collins and Porras write:

[Visionary companies] do not oppress themselves with what we call the “Tyranny of the OR”–the rational view that cannot easily accept paradox, that cannot live with two seemingly contradictory forces or ideas at the same time. The “Tyranny of the OR” pushes people to believe that things must be either A OR B, but not both.

But what do the visionary companies, bound to be successful, do? According to Collins and Porras:

Instead of being oppressed by the “Tyranny of the OR,” highly visionary companies liberate themselves with the “Genius of the AND”–the ability to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time. Instead of choosing between A OR B, they figure out a way to have both A AND B.

So, a visionary company can at the same time value conservatism around its core AND bold, committing, risky moves on every other area of business. Only because it decides to embrace the “Genius of the AND.”

We, faced with the problem of whether we want to be experts or generalists, can do the same: instead of thinking “expert OR generalist,” we can be experts AND generalists.

That’s what makes being insanely interested in everything an option worth considering.

How To Embrace The Genius of the AND

In his post, What if You Have Many Interests and Cannot Commit to any of Them, Steve Pavlina talks about how he finds it hard to concentrate in just one thing at a time. I commented more on this in my post, Steve Pavlina, Insanely Interested in Everything, but as I see it, the key finding in the post is quite simple: if you are insanely interested in everything, you can — no, you need to — be an expert in many things.

The only alternative to being an expert is not a generalist who knows a little about everything but not much about anything.

The better alternative is to be insanely interested in everything.

Think about those four words, concentrating especially on the first two. What does it really mean to be insanely interested in something? What do we call a person who is insanely interested in, let’s say, space shuttle design?

I would call her an expert. Or if not yet an expert, at least someone who is well on her way to becoming one.

Let’s continue this word game a bit more.

If being “insanely interested” means being an expert, then what does “insanely interested in everything” mean?

How about this?

Insanely interested in everything = expert in everything

I like it.

But Can You Really be an Expert in Everything?

No, I don’t think you can.

In our definition of “insanely interested,” we didn’t really say that being insanely interested in something means you are an expert in that field — but that you have the potential for becoming an expert.

So, let’s iterate:

Being insanely interested in everything = having the potential to becoming an expert in everything

It’s longer, and not quite as catchy as the first definition. But it’s closer to the truth. That matters more.

Our time is limited, and as Clay Collins points out, most of us have a hard time buying our time for our own use.

But with the right attitude, one can be an expert in many different things. All that is needed is time, curiosity, and passion for learning.

By looking at the things I am interested in, I can see that I’ve already come a long way towards becoming an expert in some things: software development, writing, web design, blogging, playing the guitar.

On some areas I have just started my journey — but judging by my passion, I can imagine that I will be an expert in them one day too: marketing, business, management, and baking bread, to name a few.

And I’m only 28.

What about you?

On what areas do you consider yourself even a bit of an expert? And what are the topics on which you want to become an expert some day?

Think about them, and what is required to turn an interest into expertise. The difference is not as huge as you would imagine at first.

You may never be quite the expert in any of your fields that you would be if you focused all of your energy in just one of them. But on the other hand, by being an expert on many topics, you will gain something bigger: you will be able to innovate by combining ideas in a way that single-minded experts can only dream of.

Life will be much more fun that way!

19 thoughts on “Experts, Generalists, and the Tyranny of OR”

  1. “Being insanely interested in everything = having the potential to becoming an expert in everything.”
    It may not be catchy, but I love it :) Funny how so much of your philosophy I identify with! I can’t wait to go to university, where i can the ultimate potential to become an expert in everything ;)
    A question: your example of the sock-drawer and pants-drawer: isn’t this only an ‘or’ situation? because even if you accept that the stocking could go with both the socks AND the pants, in the end you’ll have to decide, and one pair of stockings can only go into one drawer. Do you know what I mean? Can one extend the metaphor to the rest of the post?
    Sorry if i’m being picky, it just occurred to me, that’s all.

    But seriously though, great post, great definition of insane interest ;)

    Jesss last blog post..Initial Ideas for some Success Habits

  2. I’m glad to hear that the thoughts resonated with you guys!

    @Jess: No, you’re not being too picky. That’s a great question.

    I think one AND solution would be simply to put socks and pants in the same drawer. Not too handy, though ;)

    @Jerubei: Thanks! I’m happy to hear that you feel the same way about this topic as I do.

    @Glen: Yeah, I know, I’m a geek. ;) But your alternative opening would be great too. Seth knows how to put his words.

  3. Firstly, I would have to agree with Jerubei – an excellent article Jarkko!

    As you said, being an expert in many different things requires “time, curiosity, and passion for learning”. I would also add here – patience.

    Becoming an expert in all those things takes years and years of the slow process of simultaneously building up the knowledge in all those areas of interest.

    So practically, those expertises will pay off only later in life. But for me, there’s no fortune in this world I would trade the ‘work’ on my interests for.

    It is not that Ignorance is bliss; on the contrary – Curiosity is.

    And I believe that the crucial ingredient you need to have in order to bake your Insanely Interested masterpiece of a cake :) is unquestionably – the faith in yourself.

  4. @Dren: Yep, patience is definitely important! Luckily becoming an expert is not only about the end result, but the becoming part is also rewarding and exciting.

    That’s why I totally agree with you when you say that there is no fortune in the world that would take the place of working towards your interests.

    @Writer Dad: Thanks! I’m kind of confused with the question of whether 28 is a lot or just a little ;) But when it comes to wisdom, it’s only the beginning. I hope there are still many years to grow wiser.

  5. No problem, @Glen! That’s the way I read the comment in the first place: with a smilie at the end :)

    I wonder if there are many people here to whom the opener made no sense at all. Please raise your voice if you want me to explain it.

  6. Excellent article Jarkko!

    I can certainly relate to it. There are a lot of things I would like to learn more about. Most of them would add value to my everyday life. I am not talking about value in a monetary sense. The value I am thinking of is related to making the most of your time and making your life as interesting and fun as it can be. We all know that great feeling you get when discover something new or when you are completely lost in something that you are really passionate about.

    Unfortunately we only have so many hours in a day and about two thirds are “lost” at work or while sleeping.
    Spending the available time wisely is my biggest challenge. I actually feel like I have to get rid of some of my interests because they are taking too much time and they are not adding anything to my life in terms of long term value. Don`t really know how to do that but I am sure it will come to me. Thanks for the email Jarkko and sorry for the long post. It is your own fault. You inspired me!

  7. @Hans: Thanks! Yeah, I know what you mean – but on the other hand, sleeping is fun too – I wish it wasn’t so I wouldn’t feel so bad skipping sleep every now and then ;)

    I’m also working on balancing what interests to keep and what to drop, and it’s not easy. But I’m sure that once we put enough effort into it, and keep working on it, we’ll one day reach a fine balance (at least for a while).

    Keep experimenting!

  8. “And what are the topics on which you want to become an expert some day?”

    That’s a great question, Jarkko! There are so many things that I’d like to become an 80% expert on. For instance, typography, fantasy literature, Renaissance art, general graphic design (in addition to web design), marketing, etc.

    I try very hard not to limit my interests to what seems “easy” or “useful” or “possible.” Because when you are insanely interested in everything, those words have entirely different meanings. :-)

  9. Thanks, great to find this article, I’m finding book of James C. Collins but it took long time to deliver to Indonesia. If I can buy the digital version (ebook) it will be great.

  10. Great article. Many years ago I discovered ideas along the same lines, but by way of reading on logic. In particular, General Semantics. I don’t know if that is relevant anymore, but it did really emphasize the tyranny of either-or thinking and how it relates to personal, social, and professional life. As the recent American political circus has shown, we are still or-bound and still terrorized.

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