Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

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

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?

Art Markman

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Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas and Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. His research explores the cognitive science of creativity, motivation, and decision making. Art is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership.
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