Navigating Complexity

The complexity and nuance across the interconnected domains of knowledge in the world make it challenging to progress on social issues. For example, an environmentalist’s goals are connected with environmental science, engineering, manufacturing, economics, and politics, among others. How well should one try to understand these interconnected domains to progress on their goals?

The general consensus is it depends on one’s strengths, which is echoed by:

Scott Page

From The Knowledge Project:

One of the things I talk about in both The Diversity Bonus and also in The Model Thinker is that you can think of yourself as this toolbox and you’ve got some capacity to accumulate tools, mental models, ways of thinking. What you could decide to do is you could decide to go really deep. You could be the world’s expert, or one of the world’s experts, on random forest models or goals or the Lyapunov functions. You could be one of the world’s leading practitioners of signaling models in economics. Alternatively, what you could do is you could go deep on a handful of models, where there could be three or four things you’re pretty good at. Or you could be someone who I think … a lot of people are really successful … by having just an awareness of a whole bunch of models. Having 20 models that you have at your disposal that you can think about. Then when you realize this one may be important, then you dig a little bit deeper.

The world is a complex place. I think that the challenge is to become a more nimble thinker, is to be able to move across these models. But at the same time, if you can’t, if that’s just not your style, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for you in the modern economy. To the contrary, it means that maybe you should be one of those people who goes deep.

The point of the core philosophy of The Model Thinker is even if you do the best you can, even if you’re a lifelong learner, even if you’re constantly amassing models, you’re still not going to be up to the task of solving any one … you yourself are not going to solve the obesity epidemic. You yourself are not going to create world peace. You yourself are not going to solve climate issues. Your brain just isn’t going to be big enough. But collections of people by having different ensembles of models, creating a larger ensemble of models actually have a hope of addressing these problems.

You need this weird balance of specialist, super-generalist, quasi-specialist, generalist. There’s even people who I’ve heard describe … that their human capital is in the shape of a T, in the sense that there’s a whole bunch of things they know a decent amount about and then one thing they know deep. Where other people describe themselves as a symbol for pi where there’s two things they know pretty deep, not as deep as the T person, and then a range of things that connect those two areas of knowledge, and then a little bit out to each side. I think that it’s worth having a discussion with yourself … is to think okay, what are my capacities? Am I someone who is able to learn things really, really deeply? Am I able to learn a lot of stuff? Then think about a strategy for what sort of human capital you develop.

Because I think you can’t make a difference in the world, you can’t go out there and do good, you can’t take this knowledge and this wisdom and make the world a better place unless you’ve acquired a set of useful tools, not only individually, but also they’ve got to be collectively useful. Because you could learn 15 different models that are disconnected, that apply to different cases, and never have any sort of gestalt, any sort of whole, and that might make it hard for you to make a contribution. Or you could say, I’m going to be someone who learns 30 different models. But if you’re not someone who is nimble and able to move across them, that may be more frustrating for you.

In a complex world, your ability to succeed is going to depend on you filling a niche that’s valuable, which as in Barabasi’s book, it could be connecting things, it could be pulling resources and ideas from different places, but it’s going to be filling a niche and that niche could take all sorts of different forms.

Atul Gawande

From The Knowledge Project:

I majored in biology, but I also majored in political science, kind of looking for… there must be more to the world than just medicine. And I found it. I found it in lots and lots of different places. Some in science; I worked in a lab. Some—you know, I tried everything in college. I was in a band, I learned to play guitar, I wrote music reviews for the student newspaper. I joined Amnesty International. I worked on Gary Hart’s very shortlived campaign for president as a volunteer. Then, when I got out of Stanford I went on to do a master’s degree in politics and philosophy of economics at Oxford, out of hope that I could maybe do a graduate degree in political theory or something like that. I just found out I wasn’t very good at those questions and a lot of the things that I tried I just wasn’t really made for or cut out for. And I kept coming back to medicine as a place where I was familiar, I was comfortable. It wasn’t for the best reasons, right? It was a place that I knew and I could thrive.

What I also liked about it was, you didn’t actually have to decide what you wanted to be when you grew up. It deferred all kinds of decisions while I figured out everything else along the way. So when I got out of graduate school and decided to just stop with a master’s degree in philosophy… then I worked actually in politics for a couple of years on the Hill and found I didn’t want to just work in politics.

I kept finding myself gravitating back to medicine where you could have skill… the values were at the core of it for me, that it was about grappling with how science meets humanity in a place where—and policy and the world and all the complexities of life—in a place where you could really think about the individual in front of you, but also the system as a whole, and I wanted to somehow connect on both levels.

I like having a lot of irons in the fire. I like being a jack of all trades. Finding the edges between things is often where I have something to add. You know, if you look at what I contribute in these spaces, it’s not genius ideas. A checklist for surgery, it’s just taking an idea from one domain and saying let’s bring it over to the other and see if it can work, or understanding what people’s goals are when they face mortality and end of life. A lot of them just come from digging in deep enough to understand the gap between what we’re aspiring for and the reality of what we’re doing, and then trying to figure out where the bridge is to a narrow that wide gap.

I think I grew up kind of interested in how the world worked, and I had a very limited vantage point in my town in Ohio growing up. And every opportunity to see more, my handle hold, was through science. My parents were doctors and that gave me a way of seeing and thinking about the world, but then my parents were also people who were deeply involved in the community and trying to deal with the challenges in a community that had a college, but was also the poorest county in Ohio. My brain worked in such a way that, I loved understanding the ideas at an ideas level and then trying to figure out how you ground it. So I was always looking for ways to understand the world, and that meant needing to bridge and look more widely. And so each move, college and then going beyond, kept widening that, and I’ve just loved that. I’ve loved adding another space that I could explore and it was only by happenstance, it was very late that I found I had anything to contribute. That really wasn’t until my thirties when I finally found I could connect the dots between different things I had been learning about.

Charlie Munger

From the 2016 Daily Journal Annual General Meeting, on whether he is in favor of specialization or taking a synthesis/multi-disciplinary approach:

Saying one is in favor of synthesis is like saying one is in favor of reality. It is easy to say we want to be good at it, but the rewards system pays for extreme specialization. You are usually way better off being a deep expert [in one thing] than someone an inch deep in a lot of disciplines. It [synthesis] is helpful to some but not the best career advice for most people. The trouble is you make terrible mistakes everywhere else without it, so synthesis should be a second attack on the world after specialization. It is defensive, and it helps one to not be blindsided by the rest of world.

From the 2017 Daily Journal Annual General Meeting:

I don’t think operating over many disciplines as I do is a good idea for most people. I think it’s fun, that’s why I’ve done it. I’m better at it than most people would be. And I don’t think I’m good at being the very best for handling differential equations. So it’s in a wonderful path for me, but I think the correct path for everybody else is to specialize and get very good at something that society rewards and get very efficient at doing it. But even if you do that, I think you should spend 10 or 20% of your time into trying to know all the big ideas in all the other disciplines. Otherwise… I use the same phrase over and over again… otherwise you’re like a one legged man in an ass-kicking contest. It’s just not going to work very well. You have to know the big ideas in all the disciplines to be safe if you have a life lived outside a cave. But no, I think you don’t want to neglect your business as a dentist to think great thoughts about Proust.

Tyler Cowen

From The Knowledge Project, on Munger’s thoughts on specialization from the 2017 Daily Journal Annual General Meeting:

I mean maybe most people, but you know it’s person by person and for some people it should be 50–50. Certainly at the higher levels I think generalists are important. If you look at CEOs several decades ago, most CEOs were people hired from within that sector and now a CEO is much more often hired across sectors. So someone who, you know, worked for an oil company would then be hired to run a manufacturing firm. So that’s showing some kinds of knowledge are actually more general.

If you think, well, insiders have some kind of natural advantage in having, you know, an inside track, if companies are more willing to hire these outsiders, I think that’s a clear sign that executive knowledge is becoming more general in nature, more global, more a set of skills about communicating, understanding how politics, global economy, internal management all tie together. Those are somewhat general skills. You do need to understand something about your sector too, though.