Looking Through Different Lenses Part One

Continuing each Monday another section from my 2001 book Hoover’s Vision:
The Renaissance Mind


The three words that people with new ideas hear most often are “Can’t be done.” People told us that BOOKSTOP could not both discount books and carry a big selection. When we started Hoover’s, we were told that we could not provide great company information at a reasonable price. People thought Ted Turner’s idea of an all-news network, in a world dominated by Walter Cronkite and the other big-network anchors, would never fly. When Allen Neuharth dreamed that America needed a national daily newspaper, especially one in color, they all laughed. Every day, entrepreneurs and other dreamers confront the impossible.
The most powerful tool for accomplishing the impossible is the ability to look at a problem — call it a challenge — in different ways. If you can see things only from the point of view of the marketing person, or if you can think only like an accountant, then you probably cannot lead a great enterprise to success. But if you can look at a problem with the passion of a preacher or a salesperson, then turn the problem around in your mind and look at it with the precision of a physicist or an accountant, then turn it once more and look at it with the eyes of an economist or a psychologist, you’re much more likely to figure out a creative answer. The more arrows you have in your quiver, the more likely you are to hit your target.
Even a cursory understanding of the way some other profession sees the world can be invaluable. The worldview of an accountant is a powerful one. So is that of a marketing professional. The perspectives of the biologist, the theologian, the auto mechanic, and the historian all have their power. You don’t have to study each of these fields for years and become a professional, but the more points of view you can bring to bear on the world around you, the better.
A great way to sense the viewpoint of others is to read a book of interviews with workers. The classic is Studs Terkel’s Working. Even broader and more current is Gig, a collection of interviews and articles edited by John Bowe and others. Both books let you sample how people from varied walks of life see the world—an eye-opening experience.
Work has become more specialized. In academics, in medicine, even in many corporations, most workers tend to become more and more narrowly focused every day. A professor is no longer simply a historian, he is an expert in the Spanish Monarchy. A computer person is no longer just a programmer, she is a Java applications specialist. This narrowing is an inevitable result of society’s increasing complexity and a natural evolution of the division of labor, a powerful concept first fully understood by the great economist Adam Smith.
But the more specialized we become, the greater our need for leaders who can help bring unity to our efforts. We need people who can think, write, and speak with clarity and conviction, people who can relate to and motivate accountants and salespeople, nurses and electrical engineers, systems analysts and social workers.
Certainly we should not stop specializing. But if we devote just a small part of our time to learning other disciplines, other points of view, and other ways of seeing the world, we and the world would be better off. Of course, the ideal time to do this is during the four years many of us spend in college. It’s called a liberal arts education. Maybe you went to college but didn’t get much of a liberal arts education, because you got a specialized undergraduate degree, because you took liberal arts courses but didn’t understand their importance at the time, or because you were having too much fun elsewhere on campus. But it’s never too late to start.
Entrepreneurs in Singapore have told me that their government prefers that the brightest students study science and math in college, while lesser students are directed towards the arts and humanities. I hope this is an exaggeration, but it’s symptomatic of worldwide trends. On its website (www.compete.org), you will see that the American Council on Competitiveness has carefully studied the science and math scores of eighth- and twelfth-graders around the world, recognizing that these skills will be crucial to our future success. This is a good thing for the Council to do, but it is unwise not to also look at skills like writing, reading comprehension, and awareness of history and the arts. The Council on Competitiveness frets that too few of our young people get science and engineering degrees, especially compared with Asia. So why is it that most of the world’s entrepreneurs and inventions have come from America, not from Asia?
Two of the kings of the technological world, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft and Steve Case of America Online, both worked at marketing training ground Procter and Gamble before their rise to power. These are sociologists in charge, not scientists. The people of Singapore are concerned that they are not creative enough, not entrepreneurial enough. If all of their kids get science degrees, this is not going to change. Where is Michael Dell’s Ph.D. in science, where is Bill Gate’s E.E. degree? These fellows have a broad perspective on life, much of it gained in the real world rather than in the classroom.
I’m not knocking science. Many of my heroes are great scientists, and much of this book is devoted to seeing things scientifically. But many of the great scientists were people who also studied history and literature, music and psychology. Look at Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Albert Einstein. 
If you study the great enterprise builders, the people who have made a difference, you find that breakthroughs are usually made by people with a broad view of the world. They make use of the tools of science alongside the tools of social studies and the humanities. We need jacks of all trades, renaissance men and women, who can make sense of our incredibly complex and rapidly changing world, people who can weave many strands together into a clear vision of the future.