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Big Ideas

Picasso, Kepler, and the Benefits of Being an Expert Generalist

If you develop an appetite for learning and openness, you're more likely to be able to draw ideas from multiple disciplines - and be more creative.


One thing that separates the great innovators from everyone else is that they seem to know a lot about a wide variety of topics. They are expert generalists. Their wide knowledge base supports their creativity.

As it turns out, there are two personality traits that are key for expert generalists: Openness to Experience and Need for Cognition.

Openness to Experience is one of the Big Five personality characteristics identified by psychologists. The Big Five are the characteristics that reflect the biggest differences between people in the way they act. Openness to Experience is the degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities. Some people enjoy the prospect of doing something new and thinking about new things. Other people prefer to stick with familiar ideas and activities.

As you might expect, high levels of Openness to Experience can sometimes be related to creativity. After all, being creative requires doing something that has not been done before. If you are not willing to do something new, then it’s hard to be creative.

However, creativity also requires knowledge. In order to do something that has not been done before in some area, you have to know a lot about that discipline. Creative painters need to know a lot about art and painting. Creative scientists need to be skilled in their science.

If you are not willing to do something new, then it’s hard to be creative.

At the same time, creativity often requires drawing analogies between one body of knowledge and another. Pablo Picasso merged Western art techniques with elements of African art. He was struck by the way African artists combined multiple perspectives into a single work, and that helped lead to the development of cubism. Similarly, great scientists often draw parallels between different areas to create new ideas. In the history of science, Johannes Kepler struggled to understand how the planets could move around the sun, and drew on his knowledge of light and magnetism to try to understand the force that moved the planets.

In order to have deep knowledge about a discipline as well as a wide base of knowledge that can be mined later for analogies, it is important for someone to enjoy thinking. Learning new things can be difficult and frustrating, and so those people who like to think will stick with a new topic long enough to acquire good knowledge about it. Psychologists John Cacioppo, Richard Petty, and their colleagues have identified the Need for Cognition characteristic, which reflects how much people like to think.

Some people are driven to think about topics deeply, while others avoid situations that require them to think. People high in Need for Cognition routinely spend the time and effort necessary to learn new things, simply because they enjoy the process of learning.

Creativity often requires drawing analogies between one body of knowledge and another.

The combination of high Openness to Experience and high Need for Cognition is powerful. People with this combination of characteristics develop the habit to learn about a wide range of topics. They watch documentaries and follow up by reading articles. They engage in conversations about new subjects and ask lots of questions to ensure they understand.

I call these individuals expert generalists, because they have a wide variety of knowledge. They are able to use this knowledge to suggest new ways to look at problems. They are also good at translating across areas of expertise. So, when a group gets together to solve a problem, they can help different members of that group to see how their knowledge inter-relates.

Of course, if you don’t happen to be high in Openness to Experience and Need for Cognition, you can still develop habits to help you to be more creative. If you tend to resist new ideas, recognize the value in new experiences and work to open yourself up to more opportunities. If you are the kind of person who often avoids thinking in favor of other activities, add a little more time to your day where you focus on learning something new. The more that you broaden and deepen your base of knowledge, the more opportunities you will have to be creative.

How About You?

Would you consider yourself an expert generalist? How have you broadened your knowledge base?

More Posts by Art Markman

Comments (114)
  • Addy

    To be honest, this post comes to me as quite a shock! I have been trying to find a name for what I believe myself to be. I have done many things to the best of my ability, and when things start to get stale or even just comfortable, I do something completely different. I know to keep myself motivated, fresh and creative, I need to keep out of the ruts that inevitably come up when I am learning something.

    Now I have been a designer for over 15 years, with some formal training, and I have jumped to all ends of the spectrum from industrial, to visual communication to interior, as well as other jobs that hardly relate, but in the name of bettering my understanding of how clients might might something useful.

    I feel I have a good understanding of a lot of things, and am very universal in my skillet, but on the other hand, there really is a LOT to know…

    Who can really answer this question honestly?

  • Erica Wilkinson

    I actually just wrote about this exact phenomenon — I call it having an “omnivorous mind”. check out the article here http://www.hiremeautomattic.wordpress...

  • Meecho

    I’m not quite the ‘expert’, but I am the generalist. I broaden my knowledge base by learning foreign languages and traveling to other countries. The more foreign, the better. There is such a variety to ways one can live his or her life, the best way to discover each way is to experience it first hand. Experiencing it without a filter, that is through the native language, is the most enlightening method as well.

  • Joshua Danton Boyd

    Expert may be a stretch, but I understand the idea of enjoying learning as an end in itself. It is also a pleasant experience when disperate bits of knowledge in your brain end up getting connected by some other fact you later learn, for example:

    Reading about Platonic Solids and then reading about Kepler to discover he used those solids in an attempt to make a model of the Solar System.

  • guest

    Finally someone wrote an article about it!I’m tired of being accused of not wanting to learn anything, while in fact i want to learn EVERYTHING!
    (ok, not really everything, but lots of stuff)

  • Kathryn Downing

    I think these two traits are really important for interactive designers. You have to be open to new techniques/technologies and have a desire to learn enough to implement and troubleshoot them.

  • chasbeebe

    Thanks for the article, Art. I only wish that more people saw the value in being an ‘expert generalist’! If we use the 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell made famous as the baseline for being an “expert”, I probably fall far short of that title in many of my areas of interest. But I’m a big believer that ALL of my broad creative experience will one day coalesce into something greater than the sum of its parts.

    You really do have to have faith if you’re a polymath, because in today’s society, specialists are the norm. Given the sheer number of people in the workforce today, it makes sense that we specialized to distinguish ourselves from the masses. A “Renaissance Man” and his divided interests can’t match the amount of time a specialist devotes to just one. That said, all those lumberjacks are just focusing on their tree. I believe we still need someone to say how big the forest is!

    To answer your last question, the Internet has been a tremendous gift. We all now have a world library at our fingertips — all we have to bring is curiosity.

  • Art Markman

    Thanks! I agree that there is strong pressure to specialize, and many people are most effective when they do specialize. But, we undervalue our expert generalists, and we need to change that.

  • Maria Falvey

    chasbeebe • 2 hours ago

    I agree with chasbeebe – wish more people recognized the of ‘expert generalists’ – they all want multi-taskers and those who can work in dynamic and fast paced environments as well as wanting one to work well independently but also as part of a team… only seems to follow they’d want ‘expert generalists’ then.

  • K-eM

    You’re right. I constantly run into barriers because people believe being a specialist is better. Once people have a chance to work with an Expert Generalist, they really appreciate it but will often still default to the specialist stance. It has made it very difficult to find a job sometimes.

  • Chris

    You sure have a gift for writing such great articles! Thank you!

    http://termpapersworld.com/

  • Francesco Cingolani

    Thanks a lot!

    An article that “saved my life” tonight, while I was wondering if I need to specialize in some of my activities or just keeping on developing very different (even if related) projects (pasta, parametric design, communication, social design, arts, writing…).

    Still, I’m afraid that there’s also a danger in doing too much thiings.

    Anyway, here are a short presentation of my thoughts about transdisciplinarity and professional hybridization from a designer point of view.

    Hope you’ll enjoy:

    http://www.immaginoteca.com/hy

  • Graham Douglas

    I totally agree with the points made and believe everyone can be trained in Integrative Thinking to improve their cognition. My course in this subject is at http://www.integrative-thinking.com and was developed after many years as a generalist and after many years research in Applied Mind Science.

  • David Delp

    Okay, I can safely say I’m an Expert Generalist. I don’t have what a large part of the culture calls expertise, a depth of knowledge in a particular field. But I do feel like I’m great at being a Generalist, in that I apply what I learn in one area to another. I feel like I’m becoming an expert in learning.

    These days I’m trying to learn how to narrow my focus, at least for a year. I’m being much less open to new experiences and focusing on the Need for Cognition. Six months in, it feels very unfamiliar and very uncomfortable.

    I guess that qualifies as a new experience. 😉

  • Allen

    Days ago, I have read something similar to this topic here: http://www.dandad.org/inspirat

    I am also from this generation. I thought I was alone because I was practically doing good in school with all of my subjects while my mates were good at some disciplines. I majored in Advertising Arts and it was mandatory to take up subjects I felt (before) was related but not necessary to learn (from Textile design to Fashion, Animation, Anatomy, Perspective Drawing and Painting). I hope they don’t change this curriculum.

    Then it became clear when I was designing logos. I was able to combine my knowledge on sculpture and how to draw humans from basic shapes to how I would design a logo. We know that highly recognizable logos are simple and they also originate from basic shapes so that’s why I think this process works. And I see some successful ideas out there are also based on the principle of combining two unrelated fields.

    and in the book Hey Whipple Squeeze This/Chapter 5. Luke talks about the creatives of the future being generalists. He said that people who are willing to learn new stuff to add to their skill set will be relevant and hire-able.

    I am currently jumping from logo design/game design/3d modelling to doing ads.

    When the world zigs (most are specialists at the moment) you zag (be a generalist).

  • Erlend Nævdal

    Barbara Sher have written an iconic lifeguide book for these kind of people: Refuse To Choose. Check it out and join the community!

  • David Goldstein

    Interesting post!

    At times, such as when I’m exploring options to solve a problem in an innovative way, my degree of openness to experience is high, however, once I set my direction, I’ll often see more experiences as distractions in they way of completion.

    I’m always learning and thinking especially in several fields of my interest but find it so hard to keep up to date in too many areas.

  • Willem

    I like to say that I’m creative generalist. It sounds much better than for example a jack of all trades. I make a living as a musician and guitar teacher. I also work as a visual artist and am specialist in repairing musical instruments. It’s fun learning and doing all these things.

    Not being a specialist scares some people of. Everybody tells you to find your niche. Somebody said that it’s a blessing and a curse: there’s always a job
    but it’s never a good paying one! That has been kind of my experience, but I feel the time and economy are changing for creative generalists.

  • Mauricio Collier Darocha

    This is the profile of a renaissance men. Industrial age does not want or need someone like that. Thank goddess we are not in the industrial age anymore. And people like us will have their space at the market street.

  • Joshua S Luηdquist

    I’m apart of an online community of 200 or so people who have identified themselves as this, and I’ve found that even though this is totally who I’ve been my whole life (I prefer the term “multipotentialite”), that this can also be taught to non-generalist / specialist types.

    Although we likely have different reasons, I think any specialist would benefit from learning different conceptual frameworks and applying them in unrelated areas / mediums..

  • Guest

    I find that this is a tremendous blessing but also a curse. For example, I have several creative projects on the boil that I’d like to achieve whilst currently studying towards my Philosophy degree. Being a broke student, I find it very difficult to bring every single project (writing theoretical as well as fictional work, writing, performing and recording music, acting, training and educating to name a few) into fruition, which then plays on issues of anxiety and frustration.

    Art, if you’re skilled in several aptitudes via various creative endeavours & disciplines, how do you give fidelity to explore and actualize the potential within each project?

  • Zephaniah Chukwudum

    Great article – been thinking a lot about this recently. Great to put some general terms and definitions to it.

  • Rubén Barrón

    Excelent post!!

  • James Brown

    “Expert generalist” is a great title for what I’ve done all my life. I completely agree that, as Heinlein said, “specalization is for insects!”

  • Guest

    I work in a creative / tech agency. We shuffle around between clients, and this actually provides a good opportunity to learn new stuff: To be able to deliver efficient solutions for each new client, you have to understand their business and area of business along with all the terms related. In my experience, your solutions become better and better as time goes and you learn about new business / customer / product etc. areas as you go along. Where I want to go with this is that even if you maintain more or less the same professional role across different projects, you still expand your horizon all the time when working with a range of different clients. I don’t know if this qualifies as developing generalist traits, but I believe that the best consultants are curious and eager to learn all the time. As I read in a few design-related books along the way: “Be a sponge” 🙂

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