Connecting the Dots

I was struck by a quote in Jon Meacham’s recent Newsweek piece, “In Defense of the Liberal Arts

“The next chapter of the nation’s economic life could well be written not only by engineers but by entrepreneurs who, as products of an apparently disparate education, have formed a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected.”

Meacham hits on something that I’ve felt, but haven’t been able to articulate.  An innovator is someone who can take two previously unrelated concepts and connect them in a valuable way.  In other words, innovators connect the dots.

A quick look through Google turns up a number of famous innovations created when someone connected the dots.  Vacuuming a carpet isn’t that different from filtering air in a factory (Dyson).  People would like to take their music with them wherever they go (Apple).  Linking to a web page is an implicit suggestion that the web page is relevant (Google).

Connect the dots!

Meacham goes on to make the case that Liberal Arts degrees (and colleges) are a difficult to value, yet crucial component of America’s ability to innovate.  I agree.  But, in my opinion, what matters is not so much that students be exposed to the Liberal Arts in and of themselves, but that they be exposed to a wide variety of disciplines.  It’s impossible to connect just one dot.

From my own experience in business, I find myself drawing on lessons learned from physics, philosophy, and political science as often as my formal business training (if not more).  It’s not that my business training wasn’t valuable.  It’s just that it’s not that interesting in isolation. But, when I layer on a capability to describe the world as a system (physics), perpetually seek to understand the nature of things (philosophy), and attempt to understand the context in which people operate (political science), I have the potential to make a discovery.

Without the additional layers, I’m not much more than a PowerPoint factory.

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