“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!