Tell me if you’ve heard this one: when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Familiar, right?

It’s a metaphor we tend to apply quite liberally to the businesses we work in and with, but rarely to ourselves. I call it the curse of the expert – in the race to the center of the Earth (whatever Earth happens to be ours, be it design, medicine, carpentry etc.) we rarely stop to consider if we’re drilling in the right direction. We’re too busy becoming experts in our own domains to stop and consider if what we have is actually going to be useful in the situation that has us descending at such a rapid pace. We then spend the rest of our time trying to figure out how our view of the world (which at this depth has become fairly narrow) will solve any problem, never stopping to ask whether it can at all.

The image I conjure up when I talk about it is of an individual sinking deeper and deeper into the ground until they’re past the point where they can see outside of the hole they’ve dug themselves. After a certain point, it is impossible to consider other approaches because it’s impossible to see them. Understand I’m not arguing against being an expert, I’m arguing against losing sight of the horizon.

To combat this, we were introduced to the idea of T-Shaped people. T-shaped people are essentially those who have a deep amount of knowledge in a specific area, but can function laterally and step into different disciplines with a reasonable level of competency. An industrial designer who can do primary research and sit with people in their own environments to glean new insights. A ballerina who can step off stage and into the control booth to help design the sound and lighting for the show. You get the idea.

The world got very excited about “T-Shaped” people for a while. It showed up on LinkedIn profiles, on CVs, and was shared with great enthusiasm at conferences around the world. While the buzz has died down, the desire to employ people who are “T-shaped” has, in theory, remained high. People who are multifaceted, who can work across different business needs and roles should, logically, be assets valued far more than the domain expert. That is, to a point.

When talking about T-Shaped People, Tim Brown is often cited. Tim is the CEO of IDEO, a design and innovation firm headquartered in San Francisco with offices all over the world. In particular they reference a Fast Company piece Brown wrote in 2005 where he described the T-Shaped person:

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.

Dan Pink in this TED Talk talks about the candle problem –  an experiment which looked at problem-solving abilities and how they were adversely affected by financial incentives. He expands on it in his book Drive and calls out the three things that are truly motivating (if you believe what science and research have to say): autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

In my experience, individuals who are seeking the kind of happiness and fulfillment Pink talks about need to lead with purpose – and companies need to recognise the individuals driven by purpose too. Nobody is naturally a details person, but those driven by passion will naturally be finding the kinks others over-looked. They will develop mastery not in the hours of 9-5, but in the hours before and after that because of their purpose. They will then bring that enthusiasm and that broader view to bear for the benefit of your business. Businesses in fact rely on the mastery their employees exhibit. If you are an art director who is only interested in art between the hours of 9am and 5pm, then not only do you probably not have a great job in the advertising industry, you probably don’t have a job in advertising at all. It is an industry, for better or worse, that demands an interest in the craft that extends well beyond daylight hours.

What does this have to do with the experts? I believe these days it is important for people to focus their passions not within roles but within purposes. Focusing on being a great doctor could be any number of things, from having an encyclopedic knowledge of all drugs on the market to making sure your practice never gets sued. If your focus is on helping and healing people to the best of your abilities, you’re more likely to be aware of the opportunities to do that exist outside of the next prescription. Passion for a purpose will ensure sight of the horizon is never lost, it naturally incentivized and drives an individual towards a T-shaped mentality. It will keep you open to new ideas and young at heart.

And you may just change the world in the process. At the very least you’ll change your own.

Image Via Behance Network