The Specialist Vs the Generalist.

Jul 8, 05

I would not have written about “The Emperor of Scent” by Chandler Burr here but for the debate that often come up – The Specialist Vs the Generalist.

The “Emperor of Scent” is about Luca Turin, a scientist who offers a new theory of smell. He arrives at this theory based on his ability to draw on his knowledge of various disciplines such as chemistry, physics, biology apart from his powerful ability to smell! His theory does not find acceptance from the scientific community largely because of the lack of understanding of multi-disciplines. To quote from the book;” the biologist said the chemistry was wrong, the chemists said the problem was the physics, and the physicists said the problem fault lay with the biology.”

Sounds interesting and all too familiar from the meetings we attend in the world of Business! I believe that the future calls for skills that require us to have a deep understanding of domains beyond and above our areas of expertise. It also calls for an ability to see opportunities and make connections.

The need for being multi-disciplined is best said in the words of Luca Turin as it appears at the end of the book:

“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge. I have spent my life learning incredible amounts of disparate, disconnected, obscure, useless pieces of knowledge, and they have turned out to be, almost all of them, extremely useful.Why. Because there is no such thing as disconnected facts. There is only complex structure. And both to explain complex structure to others and, perhaps more important- this is forgotten, usually – to understand them oneself, one needs better metaphors. If I was able to understand this, it is because my chaotic accrual of informaton simply gave me better metaphors than anyone else.”

“My father always said if you translate a proverb from one language to another, you pass for a poet. The same for science. Work strictly within one area, and its diminishing returns, hard to make progress. But translate a concept from its field for use wher it is unknown, and it is always fresh and powerful. In buying outside, you are doing intelectual arbitrage. The rate limiting step in this is your willingness to continously translate, to force strange languages to be yours, to live in between, to be everywhere and nowhere.”

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