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T-shaped People Vs the Forces of Chaos: How to Deal with a Disorderly World

Don Curren March 27, 2018

When I first started work on this article several weeks ago, I hit on the idea of having a title that would take the idea of “T-shaped” people and link it to the superhero theme to make it a little more enticing.

I came up with “The T-shaped Man Vs the Forces of Chaos.” Not exactly Stan Lee, but it seemed to have a certain appeal.

I started work on the piece, putting it on the backburner several times as more urgent things came up.

Then something happened that rendered that title unusable. Something that started with #MeToo but quickly expanded into a much broader phenomenon – a widespread realization that our society urgently needs to achieve complete equality for women.

I realized what seemed like a (modestly) clever idea for a title conveyed a hidden bias – it suggested that becoming T-shaped was something only men could aspire to. So out went the “T-Shaped Man” and in came the “T-Shaped People.”

We’ll get to “T-Shaped” means in a few minutes. But the change in the title itself is interesting. It’s a reflection of how rapidly things change now. In a matter of weeks – days almost – the social climate underwent an epochal change.

Rapid change can seem like chaos, and the world seems more chaotic now than it has for decades. Social, political, financial and economic instability and accelerating technological change all seem to speak to an increase in the level of chaos confronting humanity – and, as species, we’re pretty good at generating chaos.

But there are ways of thinking about seemingly chaotic environments that can help us understand it and cope with them – and even profit from them. The “Edge of Chaos” is one of those ideas.

The Edge of Chaos idea emerged from scientists studying chaos and complexity in nature and human life. It initially reflected work done in computer science, and rapidly spread to other disciplines, including the social sciences and economics.

It sounds complex, but the Edge of Chaos actually makes a lot of intuitive sense. And it applies quite strongly to corporate culture and to the financial market world.

An individual or organization can be said to be working on the Edge of Chaos when it is able to balance internal stability with the capacity to perceive and respond to change. Organizations that achieve that balance are the ones that survive and prosper, as Mitchell Waldrop writes in the book “Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos

We’ve all dealt with bureaucracies – both private and public sector – that have become too rule-driven and hidebound to react effectively to the outside world. On the other hand, we’ve all known highly creative people who weren’t organized enough to make good on any of their ideas. (They’re usually teenagers.)

The most effective organizations – and perhaps the most effective individuals – are those who can operate on the “Edge of Chaos,” who can change and adapt to constant, unpredictable change rather than being overwhelmed by it.

Organizations which are incapable of responding to change – which are “closed” – will stagnate and decline. History abounds with examples. But just one example should do, at least for students of the Canadian economy – remember the company that used to be called “RIM”?

Complacency is one thing that can turn drive a wedge between a successful organization and the constantly changing world. After all, when you believe you’ve invented the best mousetrap ever and stop thinking about ways to improve it, you’ll lose your interest in the latest trends in mousetrap making.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard University linguist and cognitive scientist who wrote the recent best seller “Enlightenment Now,” describes closed systems this way.
“Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there,” he wrote.
The question, of course, is how to avoid that fate.

There are many ways of doing that – far too many to explore them thoroughly here. But one interesting suggestion comes from Samuel Arbesman, the author of a book called “Overcomplicated – Technology at the Limits of Comprehension.”

Arbesman’s book explores the astonishing complexity (and opacity) of the technological environment we’ve created.
He argues that the kind of hyper-specialization associated with success in earlier decades has been rendered obsolete by that complexity.

Arbesman argues that new environment requires people who can be achieve a high level of accomplishment in one particular area, but also have a wide knowledge base that allows them to see their specialty in the broader context of the complex world that surrounds it.

“T-shaped individuals have deep expertise in one area – the stem of the T shape, but breadth of knowledge as well: the bar of the T,” Arbesman writes.

The advice “Become a T-shaped Person” seems a little abstract. How exactly does one do that?

Here’s one suggestion: reading.

Not just the kind of reading that one does when skimming the online news sources or dipping into Twitter for an hour – or three – in the afternoon.

Instead, the reading that might be the most effective for extending the crosses of your “T” is reading magazine articles and books.

That might seem like an anachronistic way to spend time in a world where we’re constantly bombarded with factoids, images, photo galleries and memes. Don’t they provide us with all the information we need to know what’s going on in the world?

No, they don’t. In fact, our immersion in a fragmented world of facts and images without any knowledge of their context is one of our biggest problems – just look at the state of political discourse in parts of the western world. It’s because we’re inundated with facts – real, alternative and imagined – that we need the bigger perspective that reading offers.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that “Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.” Change “experience” to facts and you have a succinct description of our dilemma. (Unfortunately, Kant was rarely that succinct).

There are any number of authors whose work offer theoretical frameworks for interpreting the myriad of facts that come our way.

If the reasoning behind this recommendation seems too abstract to be convincing, here’s a practical, real-world example: Warren Buffett.

The “Oracle of Omaha” has said that when he started his investing career, he would read 600, 750, or 1,000 pages a day, and he still spends about 80% of his day reading and thinking.

Value investing is Buffett’s specialty – the downstroke in his T, as it were. His broader knowledge of the world garnered through his extensive reading is the cross bars, which extend somewhat further than most people’s.

What to read? Arbesman’s book is a good place to start, as it’s replete with insights into the complexity of the modern world.

Here’s another suggestion: subscribe to Cambridge’s commentary program. We provide commentary on developments in currency markets and more broadly focused pieces such as this one. They also appear on our blog, which we’ve recently revamped to make it easier to use.

Self-interested pitches aside, you might find that you discover other ways to become more T-shaped during your reading.

You likely won’t become an oracle – or a billionaire – like Warren Buffet.  But you will be better equipped to deal with chaos, and that’s likely to come in handy in the coming years.

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