Steve Jobs, Nate Silver, And Pablo Picasso: Why The Most Creative People Are Generalists

The compelling case for why a breadth of knowledge and a depth of expertise spur innovation.

In the summer of 1982 a 27-year-old Steve Jobs accepted an award at the Academy of Achievement. During his brief speech, he hit what would become Jobsisms: the nature of intelligence, the inheritance of one generation to the next, how Walt Disney one time took LSD and thought up Fantasia.

Let's zoom in on intelligence: Jobs says that the difference between you and your dumb friend is the "bag of experiences" that you carry around with you. Innovation, intelligence, and the awards that follow all spring from being able to make connections that other people don't see, he says. So if you have the same experience-bag as everyone else, you will make the same connections as everyone else.

For Jobs, having a bigger bag of experiences is like being atop a skyscraper versus being stuck on street level: Rather than fussing with a map to figure out how things connect, you can observe those connections firsthand.

"You can make connections that seem obvious," he says, "because you can see the whole thing."

Who makes new?

As psychologist Art Markman writes for 99u, there are two main traits that predispose people to creative thinking: openness to experience and need for cognition.

As the term suggests, if you have a high level of openness to experience, you like to try new things and think novel thoughts. This is a part of creativity, Markman notes, but not the whole story. You also need knowledge: The writer studies writing, the painter studies painting, the teacher studies teaching.

But, as any student finishing finals can tell you, learning is hard. Some people, it turns out, like to think more than others: This allows them to stick to a subject long enough to absorb it. And while some people try to avoid thought-heavy situations, others are thought junkies: These are those with a high need for cognition.

How traits--and ideas--combine

Markman notes that creativity is often a process of drawing analogies between one body of knowledge and another: Picasso ferried his love of African art into Cubism, Van Gogh imported Japanese floral patterns into his portraits, and astronomer Johannes Kepler drew from his understanding of magnetism to inform his understanding of the planets' movement. To use Markman's language, knowledge from one field inter-relates to the other, which is exactly what statistician/baseball nut and Most Creative Person Nate Silver says predicts startup success.

This is why, as Kleiner Perkins partner Bing Gordon notes, innovations often come when disciplines meet: Look at video games, iPhones, or hip-hop. This is the power of the intersection: Since new ideas are combinations of old ideas, you want to have as diverse a reservoir as possible. For more on this, check Frans Johansson's The Medici Effect.

Gross Generalizations

Markman writes that if you are open to new experiences and love to think, you can learn deeply about a range of fields and cross-pollinate between them. You can mine your knowledge in one area for a solution that untangles a problem in another. And when you work in a team, you can act as an epistemic interpreter, helping your colleagues understand how another's understanding informs theirs.

Developing a breadth of knowledge and a depth of expertise--in yourself and in a team--gives you the sky-scraping perspective that the young Mr. Jobs talked about. So explore, and keep your bag of experiences full.

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

[Image: Flickr user Darren Hillman]

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4 Comments

  • Joel

    Are you sure about Walt Disney thinking up Fantasia on LSD? Fantasia came out in 1940. LSD wasn't even known to be psychedelic by its inventor until 1943, and, naturally, only later than that would others besides Hofmann himself use the drug to trip.

  • Art Markman

    Thanks for incorporating some of my work into your post!  Nice article.

  • Jay Oza

    This was very well explained.  Being a generalist is difficult since you are more likely to fail and start becoming a specialist which is more predictable.