The world is in a constant state of flux. Political, economic, social and technological disruptions change the way we live, and the way we work. This may be worrisome, but we can embrace it and acknowledge that the recipes for success have changed over time. Learn how to foster new skills in an uncertain world with the stories of I-shaped, T-shaped and X-shaped people. Note: These terms have nothing to do with body types!
I-shaped professionals are highly specialized experts who know everything about a certain domain and are able to explore topics in great depth — linearly and one-directionally like the shape of the letter “I”. Our education system was invented to meet the needs of the industrial system of 1900 and prepare us for this kind of career, and many institutions still do so today. At the same time Sir Ken Robinson argues we face an “academic inflation”, due to population explosion and technological disruptions.
As a result, the focus has shifted from specialist I-shaped to T-shaped professionals. The vertical bar represents the depth, and the horizontal bar the breadth of knowledge; they know something about everything, and everything about something, or as IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown said: “They have a principal skill (…) but are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills.” Great innovators like Steve Jobs have a wide range of interests and skills, bringing this interests in design, and specifically calligraphy, into the development of the Mac, the first computer to have beautiful typography.
Today, we are living in a time of even greater volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). We are experiencing an exponential increase in “Gutenberg”-Moments — inventions that fundamentally change our lives like the book print did. For most of us, this makes it hard to focus on one kind of career, whether it is fueled by deep knowledge in one specific area or inspired by a wide range of interests.
At the same time, we have more knowledge and talent available than ever. Creating value will largely depend on forming collaborations and connecting the dots across various fields, like the crossed bars of the letter “X” and our third type we will be talking about here. X-shaped professionals foster strong associative skills and are able to act in all kinds of positions and topic fields, but do not necessarily need to be experts.
It means applying a mindset of the Renaissance Polymath. Polymathy is defined as “knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies […] ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them.” (Von Wowern), with Leonardo da Vinci being the perfect example. He did not only achieve accomplishments in the fields of arts but also followed endeavors in science, technology and anatomy.
So, how can we strive to be the Leonardo da Vincis of the 21st century?
- Break out of the system (figuratively): think beyond subjects and courses and integrate different disciplines if you’re a scholar, student or teacher.
- Apply a beginner’s mindset, question the status quo and the way things are done; dare diving into different departments or changing job fields entirely, whether you are at the beginning of your career or a long term employee.
- Be open to unusual career paths and backgrounds when hiring, provide opportunities to learn new things and encourage interdisciplinary work when you are responsible for a team or a company.
We are wired to look for security, so it will take courage to encourage the X-shaped way of thinking. But it is in the intersection of diverse skills, backgrounds and experiences that new solutions can arise, which is even more important in times of uncertainty.
Tell me — do you identify with one of these types?
Do you feel inspired to broaden your skill set?