TITLE: Intersections AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 17, 2011 12:43 PM DESC: ----- BODY: It seems I've been running into intersections everywhere. In one of Richard Feynman letter, he wrote of two modes for scientists: deep and broad. Scientists who focus on one thing typically win the big awards, but Feynman reassured his correspondent that scientists work broadly in the intersections of multiple disciplines can make valuable contributions. Scott Adams wrote about the value of combining skills. John Cook commented on Adams's idea, and one of Cook's readers commented on Cook's comment. A week ago Friday, I spoke at a gathering of professors, students, and local business people who are interested in interactive digital technologies. Among other things, my talk considered the role of programming in the future of people who study human communication, history, and other so-called non-technical fields. One of my friends and former students, now a successful entrepreneur who employs many of our current and former students, spoke about how to succeed in business as a start-up. His talk inspired the audience withe power of passion, but he also gave some practical advice. It is difficult to be the best at any one thing, but if you are very good at two or three or five, then you can be the best in a particular market niche. The power of the intersection. Wade used a Venn diagram to express his idea:
a Venn diagram of two intersecting sets
The more skills -- "core competencies", in the jargon of business and entrepreneurship -- you add, the more unique your niche:
a Venn diagram of four intersecting sets
As I thought about intersections in all these settings, a few ideas began to settle in my mind: Adding more circles to your Venn diagram is a good thing, even if you feel they limit your ability to excel in one of the other areas. Each circle adds depth to your niche at the intersection. Having several skills gives you the agility to shift your focus as the world changes -- and as you change. At some point, adding more circles to your Venn diagram starts to hurt you, not help you. For most of us, there is a limit to the number of different areas we can realistically be good in. If we are unable to perform at a high level in all the areas, or keep up with the changes they evolve, we end up being mediocre. Mediocrity isn't usually good enough to excel in the market, and it isn't a fun place to live. The fact that we can create intersections in which to excel is a great opportunity for people who do not have the interest or inclination to focus on any one area too narrowly. Perhaps we can't all be Nobel Prize-winning physicists, but in principle we all can make our own niche. The challenge is that you still have to work hard. This isn't about being the sort of dilettante who skims along the surface of knowledge without ever getting wet. It's about being good at several things, and that takes time and energy. Of course, that is what makes Nobel Prize winners, too: hard work. They simply devote nearly all of their time and energy to one discipline. I think it's good news that hard work is the common denominator of nearly all success. We may not control many things in this world, but we have control over how hard we work. -----