Years ago, I helped my daughter build a miniature working roller coaster for her middle school science class. As someone who paints in his free time, I have to say, the roller coaster looked great. But by the time we were finished, there was about a fifty/fifty chance it would actually function. Upon seeing the finished product my neighbor, an engineer (who I should have consulted in the first place) looked at and said to me, “You were a liberal arts major, weren’t you?” I absolutely was. Which may be an asset in problem-solving conversations, sure, but can I solve every problem? Not a chance—and that’s all right. Expertise, by design, is narrow, making a wide-ranging breadth of experience increasingly uncommon. However, being able to rely upon that knowledge set is just as important as recognizing when it’s hindering us, as many of us tasked with solving complex challenges are only partially suited to do so.
That roller coaster memory is funny now, and the stakes were low, but it highlights an important point: people often forget to seek outside perspectives. Most of us can logically sit back and think we don’t know everything about everything, and if a societal structure dictates we seek outside assistance—like speaking with an accountant about taxes or a dentist about a toothache—we don’t think twice about it.
Holistic thinking is one of the most effective problem-solving methods I know. Breaking free from your own mindset can help you see your problem (and solution!)— John Rogers (@_johnrogers360) October 1, 2019
from a brand-new perspective. #holisticthinking #bw75 @gorvitron pic.twitter.com/v50aPmFluZ
But when it’s not part of our societal structure, we’re far less likely to do so. We forget that what we truly need is holistic thinking.
I’ve thought this for a while, but only in the past year, spending far too much time thinking about thinking for my upcoming book, did it become crystal clear why I have long admired the Renaissance. It was a time when holistic thinking thrived, and it changed European society forever.
Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the most famous polymaths in written history, isn’t celebrated today because of the Mona Lisa. Nor is he celebrated for his inventions. He’s not even celebrated for writing countless journals throughout his life, continuously asking why life worked and looked and felt the way it did. He’s celebrated for the convergence of thinking that brought logic and creativity together. He’s celebrated for having a mind that created both the Mona Lisa and flying contraption designs. In short, he’s celebrated for his astounding holistic, creative thinking that helped shape the world.
Da Vinci combined a wide range of perspectives. That was his genius, and ultimately, his greatness. Narrow, specific expertise won’t change the world. Different perspectives, an array of expertise, and an intentional infusion of creativity – truly holistic thinking – is the only way the challenges of our time will be addressed.