Intellectual Development Year or Avoiding the Trap of Focus
In this article I want to discuss two related ideas.
The first idea is an attempt to rebuff the commonly accepted notion that an individual’s specialization on one field is the key to reaching one’s maximum productive potential. Instead, I want to argue that some deliberate breadth, simultaneously across many fields of knowledge, would be more valuable to the development of one’s creative abilities. This approach would not only aid the individual but also lead to faster overall progress in society.
The second idea is an experiment I call intellectual development year (IDY). IDY is when an individual in mid thirties takes one year off from conventional work and seeks intense stimulation in all areas of knowledge unfamiliar to him/her. The goal of this experiment is to test if spending a year later in life, to develop breadth of knowledge in many fields, as well as depth in some fields, can have a positive effect on one’s creativity.
So how did this all start? About a year ago I was in San Francisco discussing a question with a friend who is a great critical thinker and a talented data scientist.
It was the question posed by Peter Thiel for the Founders Fund interview: “What fundamental truth is there that everyone agrees with but you disagree?”
We were discussing several ideas and trying to figure out if most people would agree or disagree with them.
One idea we discussed was the broadly accepted notion that focusing on a single goal or task is the key to success and the proliferation of this notion in all other areas. Some of my prior research on creativity made me question this generalization.
As an entrepreneur and investor I had heard about the importance of focus in business. I had listened to multiple CEOs on Bloomberg talk about laser focus on execution or focusing the product line to avoid customer confusion.
Also several mentors had told me that I should focus more in my endeavors. I even remember a time in Buenos Aires running into a friend, who was traveling and about to start his MBA. He was praising focus as the Holy Grail, as he had just read Steve Jobs’ biography.
I am a big fan of Steve Jobs and I am not here to refute the importance of focus for a successful business or task execution, but what if our notion that focus applies as easily on the individual level is wrong.
Let’s take a look at the current way our society works. In high school we are exposed to a broad range of subjects. In college these subjects are narrowed down. Once most people choose a profession and start working, they focus on one field, become an expert in something and sometimes develop a highly specialized skill. Some people decide to change their profession but they stay mostly in a similar field. And then we get on autopilot.
What if the current approach limits the development of individual potential and creativity and therefore slows down overall societal progress?
I am not arguing that we should not develop any depth in a single field but that we should also encourage and make significant effort later in life to develop broader knowledge and even some depth in many unrelated fields to aid the creative process.
Creativity is the key term here, since creativity is the difference between evolutionary progress and disruptive progress.
Creativity is an interesting concept that many people wrongfully associated with only arts or design. Creativity can be part of any field, from law to physics to engineering to medicine to economics to media. It is basically the process of creating a meaningful thought that did not exist before and is original. It is a new way of doing things, a new and better way of looking at something. I deliberately called it a process and not a single step because in my opinion it happens over time but then leads to a final outcome. It is very powerful and the main engine of innovation and societal progress.
What if un-focus could aid individual creativity? By un-focus I don’t mean distractions or multi-tasking at the same time, but an approach maintaining the same dedication and intensity, but on multiple different goals, fields of knowledge and sources of stimulation. The key would be to approach these stimulations sequentially.
To answer this question, we can look at some of the most creative and disruptive thinkers we know.
1. Let’s start with the above-mentioned Steve Jobs. He was working simultaneously on Pixar and Apple and had spent his college days taking the non-required classes and collecting broad experiences. What if that personal un-focus was a big contributor to his creativity? In my opinion his simultaneous work on a media company and a technology company helped him create better media and better technology.
2. How about Wolfgang Goethe who as a writer/poet was also a botanist, spent time analyzing optics and many other fields in physical and natural sciences.
3. How about the economist Maynard Keynes, who was involved in many areas from fine arts to politics to literature to of course economics.
4. Then there is the ultimate universal man, Leonardo Da Vinci, whose broad interests and contributions from science to arts to policy are well known to everyone.
5. And lastly a big innovator of our time, Elon Musk, who started studying Physics and Economics, then went into software programming, rocket science, electric cars and solar. What if the reason that he can build a fundamentally different rocket or car is his exposure to the modularity of writing software? And maybe the fact that he is simultaneously working on a car and a rocket helps him innovate more drastically on both products.
This list can go on and on!
I can attest to it, since I have spent years trying to understand what made the most creative people in history so creative. Among other factors, diversity of knowledge and diversity of life perspectives were a pattern.
Now you will say, well these are all exceptional people.
But what if deliberate un-focus was an important factor and can help everyone’s creative development? What if hyper-focus makes everyone within each field think the same way and gets us stuck?
I remember a while ago discussing a question with a friend, who is a heart surgeon and in my opinion a gifted medical researcher. I had asked him why it was so difficult to find a cure for conditions like Cancers or Diabetes. His answer was that these are all really tough challenges. But at the same time he said that all researchers in these fields have been trying the same approaches for the past 20 years. It has not been working and they are still trying the same, since they all have the same educational and professional background.
So there could be some merit that complete focus may not be good. Maybe some deliberate un-focus is the answer. What is the right balance between focus and un-focus?
Granted focus has one advantage, which is the efficient allocation of our time and resources. Since our time and resources are limited, un-focusing is a tradeoff. If we can focus all our time and resources on one goal it is more likely that we will achieve that goal, but only if that goal requires linear progress. But what if it requires disruptive progress or if creative progress can lead to a better outcome.
Many companies foster creativity by looking for diversity of backgrounds and perspectives in their team compositions. What if it is even more efficient to have a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives in a single individual?
Sometimes creativity comes from applying a concept from one field in another. Like applying a concept from computer science in biology or a concept from physics in economics. Other times creativity comes from shifting perspective and looking at something in a completely different way. Wouldn’t this process be more efficient if this diversity of knowledge and perspectives was present within the same individual?
What if un-focus can lead to a greater disruptive creativity and compensate for an individual’s loss in linear progress? What if applying dedication and intensity to many things is a better approach than focusing only on one thing?
As we went on with this thought experiment, my San Francisco friend asked, if this thesis were correct, what would be a practical implication of it.
His question led me to trying out an experiment I call Intellectual Development Year. I am an entrepreneur and investor with educational backgrounds in engineering and economics/finance. Since I haven’t had much classroom/theoretical exposure to social sciences and humanities, I decided to take a year off from conventional work and intensely engage in all fields of social sciences and humanities. This was the opposite of the common call to learn a skill or become an expert in something. Instead the goal was exposure to many different fields and learning to think from different perspectives.
To get the most out of this experiment and to maximize the opportunity cost, I decided to avoid most distractions and errands that did not contribute to broad intellectual stimulations, during that year. So in an ironic way I was focused on intellectual un-focusing.
I spent my days alternating between topics in psychology, sociology, philosophy, political theory, history, economics, literature, fine arts, music and neuroscience. I took time for reflections, walks, exercise, read political, economic and business news, and followed the stock market, which I always do as an investor. I also took some basic classes on Coursera.
But most of the time I would select a seminal thinker in one field, let’s say, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, analyze him by reading a detailed biography and then start reading some of his major works. Then I would switch and read a biography on Dostoyevsky and then read some of his major works. Then I would analyze the economist Maynard Keynes and his major works. Then read Pablo Picasso’s biography and research his major works, later move to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx. You get the idea. I would move from person to person.
This way I covered most fields several times during that year and got exposed to the ideas and concepts of some of the biggest minds in history. Sometimes I would consecutively read works of two different people from the same field, then switch to the next field. I would experiment with different approaches of stimulation.
When I was reading about the poet Wolfgang Goethe, I decided to write poetry about the topics I was learning to process and stimulate my thoughts. While reading about Beethoven and listening to his music, I decided to try to compose some music on my iPad. Towards the end of this experiment, reading about J.J. Rousseau inspired me to write this article about my experiences. At the beginning of this experiment I had no idea where it would take me. I am pleasantly surprised. Maybe I can discuss details about my IDY experience in another article.
Now that the year is over, the question is if there was any value to it.
I guess the future will tell. Hopefully this experience will help me think about and solve problems from new perspectives. The continued and intense stimulations from different fields helped me cross-pollinate knowledge and come up with some of my own ideas in these fields. I developed an interesting mesh of mini-theories about society, human behavior, life and the world. I can try to structure these ideas going forward. In addition, since I now have some background in many of these fields, I can continue researching areas that I find interesting and develop more depth.
Lastly three points I wanted to discuss quickly:
1. Why couldn’t one do this at a slower pace, in parallel with working on a career, instead of taking an entire year off?
In my opinion the answer is that when we are working, our brain is drained after a regular workday and less receptive to fields that are completely foreign to us. I also think that the intensity of continuous and broad stimulation can contribute to cross-pollination of fields and lead to more progress and original thought. Granted, the number of fields I was covering was so large that I could not develop much depth in any single one but I now have a foundation. The intensity of this initial burst created a foundation for future learning in these new fields.
2. Why are the mid thirties best suited for this and how is this different from what we do earlier in high school or college?
In our mid thirties we have more life experience, we have traveled the world, experienced different cultures, used different technologies, gone through love, heartbreak, struggle, success, failure, sickness, loss and many other aspects of real life. Therefore we are a lot more receptive to knowledge as we can reflect on a breadth of our real life experiences. Having prior real world experiences to contrast new knowledge can aid deeper learning. Broad experiences are something we lack during high school or college, when we get broad intellectual exposure. (also not to mention the fact that most of us were not very motivated to learn in high-school or college).
3. Some general takeaways and a retrospective improvement to my experience
Maybe it would be better to do IDY in a group of two or three people, since that would give one the opportunity for stimulating conversations. I tried to discuss the topics I was reading about with friends, but many of them had too much on their plate and were not on a break. Also they had not just read some complex work by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein for a meaningful discussion.
Unfortunately, I did not have time to cover much in life sciences other than reading a biography of Darwin, his work “On the Origin of Species” and some topics in neuroscience. Life sciences and biology are vast fields. Through my science background I have some prior exposure to it, but maybe exploring it more could be part of another project.
What leads to creativity is very complex. As mentioned above, the years I have spent analyzing what made the seminal thinkers in history so creative, pointed among other factors to two things, diversity of knowledge and diversity of life perspectives.
I can elaborate more on this in another article. It would be also interesting to discuss the balance between focus and un-focus and if it is better to develop more depth in 2 or 3 fields, or less depth in 10. The initial thought about how focus or un-focus affects our creativity sprung from prior experiences with investing. I discuss them in another article on my experiences with knowledge creation. This experience was the first spark that motivated me to research creativity.
The IDY was a very interesting experience and I would recommend it to others, if they have the opportunity. Creativity is so powerful that it is worth the time invested in the IDY.
Furthermore, if nothing else, the IDY had a transformative impact on my understanding and views of the world.
Since I am a dyslexic, I am prone to spelling and grammar mistakes. Hopefully it does not distract from the substance of the article.
Thank you for reading this article :)