The modern world hinges on the ability to create better user experience through carefully crafted design.

The Basis of Modern Innovation

I’ve written before that one of Leonardo da Vinci’s fatal flaws was his extremely broad interests. He was often so compelled by new subjects that he usually failed to finish what he started. However, I think he was the embodiment of the couplet, “Jack of all trades, master of none; though oftentimes better than the master of one.”

The School of Athens, by Raphael, 1511. Image courtesy of Wikipedia, 2007

This concept of the “Renaissance Man” fascinated me during our discussion in history class. It was born from the philosophy of Renaissance humanism, that humans have limitless capacity for development. It became set in stone in the early 15th century when Baldassare Castiglione wrote The Book of the Courtier, where he describes the concept of the Renaissance Man and the ideals that make the perfect courtier. Key was the concept of sprezzatura, which Castiglione defined as as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”

During the Renaissance, through careful and dedicated study, one person was all that was needed to know the entire breadth and depth of a subject and advance it further. Today, however, this advancement has become the domain of specialists. It takes significant knowledge and training to be at the forefront of a particular field. This is where modern innovation differs vastly from that of antiquity.

Recently, I came across a video from Thomas Frank that I found insightful, where he discusses a quote from an interview Steve Jobs did in 1996:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they’re able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or that they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Steve Jobs

Jobs goes on to explain that many people do not have enough “dots to connect.” In other words, their experiences do not have a sufficient breadth to innovate creatively and see the bigger picture. In Generating the Dots vs. Connecting the Dots, I discussed this very idea, echoing the argument of Vikram Mansharamani, who explains that “breadth of perspective and the ability to connect the proverbial dots (the domain of generalists) is likely to be as important as depth of expertise and the ability to generate dots (the domain of specialists).”

With breadth of perspective, seeing connections, finding connections, and even making connections becomes obvious. However, none of this is to say that being creative is easy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Building a system in place to continuously explore the world, gain new experiences, learn and be well-versed in a variety of different disciplines requires commitment and dedication in its own right. It requires dedication to being uncomfortable and pushing boundaries. This act of collecting dots by exploring the world is the fundamental basis of creativity.

This reminded me of the Renaissance Man, someone who has profound knowledge in a variety of diverse disciplines. This broad base of knowledge allows for creative problem solving and for examining issues from a variety of perspectives to understand in a way that no one else can. Ultimately, Frank argues, this comes from building the habit of exploring the world.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear mentions that he “felt like an imposter” when he began writing about habits. On his own admission, he was not an expert in the topic by the traditional means. He did not have a PhD in psychology, and had no authority to write one of the defining books on habit building, but rather learned through personal experimentation and experience. Over time, however, he did “become known as an expert on habits.”

Adopting this label, he says, was “uncomfortable,” but this concept of identity became a key principle in his book. One example he mentions is the idea of using identity instead of goal setting to facilitate building effective habits. Instead of setting a goal of, say, reading two books per month, it is more useful to take on the identity of a “reader.” A reader would, instead of watching TV or a movie at night, open up a book and read before going to sleep. Thinking of habits in the context of identity is an incredibly powerful psychological tool. At the same time, it seems odd that all of this advice is not necessarily scientifically backed, but rather is the opinion of one random person, however effective it may be.

I like to contrast James Clear with Adam Savage. In most regards, Adam Savage considers himself to be a generalist, someone who dabbles a little bit in all sorts of different disciplines, but not necessarily a master at any one in particular. He takes great pains to say, for example, that he is not a machinist, preferring to be called a “machine operator.” I think that this is a valid argument. One that shows a level of humility and self awareness. It shows respect for the immense work and journey that the talented people have undertaking to gain their expertise. I appreciate that.

Thomas Frank provides an excellent rebuttal to Adam Savage’s line of thinking. It’s okay to take on other labels and identities. It provides an opportunity to think with the mindset of that identity.

And you might feel this kind of pressure as well, maybe from several labels. Your profession, your gender, your age. In one way or another, each one of these whispers, “Stay in your lane.” Well, we might feel safe if we stay in our lane, but we sure as heck are not going to feel inspired. So as you explore and as you pursue things that interest you, don’t allow labels to give you tunnel vision. Don’t let a label push you away from something that interests you. A label can be useful as a communication device. It can help guide your audience, potential clients, potential employers to you, it can help you to find your niche, but it can also put your mind in a box if you let it. So if you can avoid doing that, if you can keep pursuing the things that interest you, if you can keep broadening your array of experiences and learning sources, you’re going to find the quality of your creative output going up. But moreover, you’re going to find yourself more inspired and more often getting lost in the work that you do.

Thomas Frank

This was an internal dilemma for myself as well. For example, I always debated whether or not to call myself a filmmaker, a writer, a storyteller. I never really felt up to the mark, so to speak. However, it was an important step in helping remind myself to post on this blog more frequently and to not be afraid to put my thoughts on the page. Over time, it actually became a reality, especially as I’ve built a repertoire on this blog.

Ultimately, taking on an identity is a useful tactic to help build the habits that are necessary to actually achieve that identity.

Dossier

“Generating the Dots vs. Connecting the Dots,” by Sahil Nawab, July 28, 2020. http://www.sahilnawab.com/blog/generating-the-dots-vs-connecting-the-dots/

“Jack of All Trades,” by Sahil Nawab, May 31, 2019. http://www.sahilnawab.com/blog/jack-of-all-trades/

“Harvard lecturer: ‘No specific skill will get you ahead in the future’—but this ‘way of thinking’ will,” by Vikram Mansharamani, June 15, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/15/harvard-yale-researcher-future-success-is-not-a-specific-skill-its-a-type-of-thinking.html

“Atomic Habits,” by James Clear, October 16, 2018.

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2 Comments

  1. Zubin

    Wow! This post is incredibly inspiring! Many times I feel as though I am trapped under a figurative blanket of not knowing how to move forward with something, or feeling like an “imposter” as James Clear mentions, and although these are hard to overcome, this post really helps me see how to find my way out. I’m realizing that you need to be able to get out from under the blanket, rather than have someone else pull you out, and understanding how to make new ideas out of the world around you can help. Great job with this post!

  2. Al

    Very insightful and deep article Sahil. I tend to say “Generalist” is a specialty that not your average Joe can handle. Hence just like old times, modern day techies like Adam Savage are greatly respected.

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