In an intriguing essay about the nature of work and creativity, writer Robert Twigger argues at the website Aeon that an industrial-led move to divisions of labor has stifled modern creativity. True innovation, he suggests, comes from cross-pollination—and breaking through the walls of one specialty to tap into the energy of another.
Part of the equation is the advent of sedentary work environments. Physical labor, he notes, helps hone intellectual muscle, as does viewing the world through a horizontal filter—the polymath—rather than a vertical one—the monopath, as he calls it.
We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests—in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world. You think I jest? In June, I was invited on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to say a few words on the river Nile, because I had a new book about it. The producer called me “Dr. Twigger” several times. I was flattered, but I also felt a sense of panic. I have never sought or held a PhD. After the third “Dr.,” I gently put the producer right. And of course, it was fine—he didn’t especially want me to be a doctor. The culture did. My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert—otherwise why would anyone listen?
The monopathic model derives some of its credibility from its success in business. In the late 18th century, Adam Smith (himself an early polymath who wrote not only on economics but also philosophy, astronomy, literature and law) noted that the division of labor was the engine of capitalism. His famous example was the way in which pin-making could be broken down into its component parts, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of the production process. But Smith also observed that ‘mental mutilation’ followed the too-strict division of labor. Or as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “Nothing tends to materialize man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labor.”
Henry Ford recognized the problem, too, even as he revolutionized manufacturing with his innovative moving assembly line. As he wrote in his memoir, “My Life and Work,” people with a “creative type of mind” would find the repetition of working on one of his assembly lines abhorrent.
So what, one might ask? Well, as Twigger argues, innovative advances tend to come from cross-pollination.
Science, for example, likes to project itself as clean, logical, rational and unemotional. In fact, it’s pretty haphazard, driven by funding and ego, reliant on inspired intuition by its top-flight practitioners. Above all it is polymathic. New ideas frequently come from the cross-fertilisation of two separate fields. Francis Crick, who intuited the structure of DNA, was originally a physicist; he claimed this background gave him the confidence to solve problems that biologists thought were insoluble. Richard Feynman came up with his Nobel Prize-winning ideas about quantum electrodynamics by reflecting on a peculiar hobby of his—spinning a plate on his finger (he also played the bongos and was an expert safe-cracker). Percy Spencer, a radar expert, noticed that the radiation produced by microwaves melted a chocolate bar in his pocket and developed microwave ovens. And Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the modern machine gun, was inspired by a self-cocking mousetrap he had made in his teens.
Without that ability—and, really, encouragement—to lift our heads up and peek over into the next cubicle, true innovations are harder to conjure. We get the iPhone 5S, a technological tweak, instead of a technological advancement. Economist Tyler Cowen delved into that in his 2011 e-book, “The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better.” As The Wall Street Journal summed it up in a review of the book:
His essential point is that economic development and technological innovation have reached a plateau, and unfortunately we in America are only now just realizing it: “Political discourse and behavior have become highly polarized, and what I like to call the ‘honest middle’ cannot be heard above the din. People often blame the economic policies of ‘the other side’ or they belligerently snipe at foreign competition. But we are failing to understand why we are failing. All of these problems have a single, little-noticed root cause: We have been living off low-hanging fruit for at least three hundred years. We have built social and economic institutions on the expectation of a lot of low-hanging fruit, but that fruit is mostly gone.”
PayPal co-founders Max Levchin and Peter Thiel struck a similar theme two years ago when they, too, declared innovation to be dead. And Twigger may have hit upon the reason: too much myopic specialization, not enough gazing to the horizon.
Some thoughts to ponder here in the middle of your week.