A Conversation

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My friend Dussault always said of people like me “a generalist is someone who doesn’t know enough about anything to know enough about anything.” He was a believer in becoming expert at something, anything — the very best in the world. That, he believed, gave you a foundation, a context for learning about everything else, and most importantly appreciating how little you know about everything else. He argued that without such a foundation you see everything superficially, and as a result you impute meaning, and connections, where there are none.

Last year when I visited him, he had been studying a variant of poker called Tableau. Here’s how he explained the rules:

It can be played with anywhere from 4 to 7 players. You lay out a 6×6 tableau of cards, face down, then deal two more cards, face down, to each player. Each player is looking to maximize two “hands”: The player to dealer’s left plays the top row and the left column, the next player the second row and column, etc. If there are 7 players the dealer (the 7th player) plays the two diagonal rows.

The game consists of a minimum of 4 rounds. Each round, starting to the dealer’s left, each player (until and unless they have folded in a previous round) must either replace one of their 11 tableau cards (one of the cards in their row or column) with a card from their hand, face up (in which case they take the replaced card into their hand), or turn over face up one of their 11 tableau cards. After each round there is a round of betting.

When there are fewer than 10 cards left unexposed, a final round is played: The rest of the unexposed cards are turned over. Then each player in turn can (but does not have to) replace their intersection card (the one that is part of both their row and column in the tableau) with either of the two cards in their hand (in a 7-player game the dealer does not get to replace an intersection card since the diagonals have no intersection).

Best 5-card hand of the 14 total hands in the tableau wins. If the best hand belongs to a player who has folded, or does not belong to any player (e.g. if it is in the 6th row when fewer than 6 are playing), then no one wins, cards are thrown in and the pot is carried over to the next deal.

Dussault insisted that, once you’d played this a hundred times or so, and studied it (he’d programmed the computer to play against him), you’d learn a strategy that would allow you to win, on average, three times as often as players playing a merely diligent game. The strategy involved holding back a good card to play in the final round in the intersection, turning over cards that overlapped with the opponent with the strongest hand showing, and expecting a high three-of-a-kind, on average, to win the pot. If certain cards were declared wild, he said, the strategic player’s advantage was even greater. He claimed that casinos now resort to using cameras and advanced photo recognition technology to ban experts in gaming theory, because they had to confess that expertise conveys such a knowledge advantage that the casino, even with the odds rigged in their favour, can’t match. He argued that banning experts from casinos is as unfair and unreasonable as banning Google from the Internet — because they’re too good for the competition to keep up.

I laughed at him, saying playing 100 games of poker was far short of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour (five year full-time) threshold for developing expertise. I read him Bill Tozier’s brilliant paean to generalists. I told him I’d rather be “part of the world that links things together” than the world’s best at doing something. We’re pattern recognizers by nature, I argued. A little knowledge isn’t a dangerous thing, I told him, its what allows us to see how something over here might be applied way over there, in a way that no specialist, steeped in his or her narrow area of expertise, would ever recognize.

He snorted. “Almost all the patterns you perceive will be red herrings,” he replied, “because you don’t know enough to know whether you actually understand what’s going on either here or way over there. You’re just playing, like a child rearranging a dollhouse, presuming to suggest that the result of that caprice is somehow a potential breakthrough in urban design”. He reminded me that, when I was younger, I had argued that perhaps the “big bang” was an optical illusion. I’d put two chess pieces on my record turntable and had him hunch down and look at them from the side as it spun. “Look!”, I said sarcastically, “the two pawns are accelerating apart! Oh, now they’ve stopped and they’re collapsing back together again!”

“Delightful fantasy,” he’d laughed, “but utterly, staggeringly ignorant of the science of astrophysics. I imagine with this breakthrough you’re ready to tackle cold fusion next!”

“No,” I’d replied. “I thought I’d take on the absurdity of string theory instead.”

“Ah, well, I’m with you on that,” he’d said. “A bunch of dilettantes. Virtual theorists run amok. No understanding of the real world, that bunch. Probably the same clowns who think the brain is like a computer”. He was getting heated.

I told him that I thought it was arrogant to believe we can ever become an expert in, or deeply knowledgeable about, anything important in a world in which everything important is complex, fundamentally unknowable, unpredictable. The best we can do, I asserted, is pay deep attention to as much as we can, as broadly as we can, and look for patterns, and then talk with others about them to see if we can arrive at any congruence on what they signify, what they mean, what opportunities and threats they present, and represent. I said that I’d often talked to experts about some of my ideas but they were, in my view, presumptively and prematurely dismissive. They were only interested in talking with people who confirmed what they already believed.

He sighed. “There is some truth to that,” he said. “This is, however, more a matter of what you rightfully call ‘imaginative poverty’ than it is a reflection of their ‘specialized incompetence’. A principal purpose of research, and of knowledge generally, is to identify and pose important questions, and this requires not only deep subject matter knowledge but also imagination. Most self-described experts these days have, alas, the former but not the latter. But to have unimaginative people with deep knowledge meet imaginative people with superficial knowledge is hopeless, because the former won’t entertain the possibility that the superficial ideas of the latter might prompt areas of important exploration, while the latter can’t understand why their ideas are naive and unworkable. This is one of the reasons there is essentially no innovation going on in almost every area of human endeavour. The people with knowledge and the people with ideas can’t and won’t communicate with each other. Our society is at an intellectual nadir, exactly when our collective creativity is most desperately needed.”

“So is what you’re suggesting,” I asked, “that we generalists have to pick up the slack, and learn enough about the subjects we have interesting ideas about, to be able to substantiate that these ideas are not naive?”

“I doubt that’s practicable,” he replied. “You just can’t learn enough about all the things you have ideas about.”

I waited for him to suggest an alternative solution but he seemed nonplussed. Finally, I asked “Perhaps what’s needed is a collaboration of more than two. The idea-ist to float a naive possibility, the expert to assess its practicability, and some intermediaries to enhance it, challenge it, bless it, give it some tempered credibility?”

“Sounds clumsy and cumbersome,” he said, dubiously. “How does it work in business meetings, Open Space events, collaborations, facilitated sessions? How do good ideas get researched or imagined, and what happens to them when the crowd gets hold of them?”

I thought for a while. I suggested that good ideas, when proffered unsolicited, generally provoke no response or interest at all. The prerequisite for entertaining an idea, it seemed to me, is an acknowledged need or problem. The more bold the idea, the greater the sense of urgency and importance of finding a solution that’s required to entertain it. And even when an idea is entertained, it generally won’t get any traction unless it’s easy to implement — unless there is an obvious line of sight from idea to realization.

“That’s about what I thought,” he replied. “That’s why I think the indigenous cultures have always had it right. Your job as an ideator is just to articulate the idea, as coherently and compellingly as possible, which is generally best done by telling a story. It’s not your job to research its plausibility, to become enough of an expert to know whether and how to make it happen. You just tell the story. Then the responsibility for implementing is left to each person to accept, or not. If the idea has wings, then people will do what they must to make sure it is implemented. No lists of who will do what by when. The experts will show up if the invitation is well-crafted and well-offered. And they’ll be open to new ideas if they sense, among the invitees, an appetite for it, a hunger. In which case, if it can be made to work, they’ll make it work.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “So what’s the trick for making the story compelling? And what’s the trick for knowing who to invite to hear it, and how?”

“Ah,” he said, smiling. “The recipe for a compelling story has a lot of ingredients, but no one formula. It has to be a story of passion, of overcoming a difficult challenge heroically, astonishingly. It has to have resonance, so that your audience relates to it, makes it their own. And it has to be real, credible, down to earth, neither too easy nor too difficult to believe. As for the trick for knowing who to invite, that’s easier: people who care. You can’t know that with people you haven’t met. When you tell them why you care, and look them right in the eye, you will know whether they care. The hard part is finding people who care. Not just people who say they care, who nod and shake your hand. If people don’t really care — about the issue, not necessarily about your idea to deal with it — if people don’t really care, you’re wasting your time. If they do really care, which means they also know, because we can’t care about things we don’t know about, which is why so many of us don’t want to know, then all you have to do is invite them together, and tell your story well. They’ll do the rest.”

I commented that this seemed like a lot of work. He told me it would become easier with practice. “No more than 10,000 hours,” he said, smiling. “Practice conversation, until you know how to pay attention, how to really listen, how to show that you care and what you care about and why, authentically, how to understand what the person you’re conversing with cares about and why, and how to connect with them in ways and with language that they understand and appreciate. Then you will know whether to invite them to collaborate with you, and how. And then practice telling your story, which is just another form of conversation, and which requires the same capacities.”

A short time after this discussion, Dussault contracted a painful and wasting disease, and he then became an expert in how to end one’s own life, and in his final practice, took his expertise with him. He left me a note, which read as follows:

Try not to try too hard, my friend.
It’s as simple as letting go of everything, and paying absolute attention to everything.
And don’t spend too much time inside your own head, writing and thinking and posting your thoughts.
Get out and talk with people, about the things you care about.
Don’t waste time on small talk. Tell them what you’d die for, hold nothing back.
Your knowledge and ideas are astonishing, but you must let your passion express them.
Let the world see your broken heart.
You will only learn who you are, Mr. Nobody-But-Yourself, in conversation, in community, with those you love.
Fare forward.
Shine on.
— D.

Category: Fables

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12 Responses to A Conversation

  1. Janene says:

    Fabulous, Dave. I think your conversation hit it well on the head… and yeah… if you wish to become an expert at anything at all, become an expert at communion… communication, conversation, thinking and feeling openly with others. This is your core.One thought… in his final note, I see the phrase “Don’t waste time on small talk. Tell them what you’d die for, hold nothing back.” Yes, but… its easy to find something to die for. Ask yourself, rather, what are you willing to *live* for. Truly live….Janene

  2. A lovely parable for the Art of Hosting. Thanks Dave.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    As someone who considers himself a generalist (maybe more a dilettante ?), I think this story is brilliant ! Thanks, Dave.

  4. Terry says:

    Great post! WOW that final paragraph really hit home!

  5. John Graham says:

    Now that’s a story! :D

  6. SB says:

    At the end of this story, I felt my heart breaking.

  7. Colleen says:

    Your lovely friendship breaks my heart.

  8. I printed your fable to take with me on holiday. Thanks Dave. This is great.

  9. Theresa says:

    That was engaging. Lots to think about, thanks. I don’t agree with this bit: It has to be a story of passion, of overcoming a difficult challenge heroically, I think that we are at the end of the mythology of “The Hero’s Journey” and its time for a new kind of mythology. I remember the first comment I left on your blog comment box…I don’t know if I can find it but it had to do with being at the end of the “Age Of The Titans” and that we were about to open “Pandora’s Box” but that there would always be Hope for mankind (as hope was the last thing to be released from Pandora’s Box).

  10. Theresa says:

    I would add that although the “Hero’s Journey” isn’t relevant for what is in store for future generations it can still be a great story to tell to older generations of people if you wanted to explain their lives to them in a kind and comforting way. It just doesn’t have any role in the future. Its all about growth and expansion and being superman and I think we’re done with that.

  11. Brutus says:

    Very curious conversation. The first paragraph recalls the quintessential dilemma between the value of a liberal arts education vs. a professional education, which latter of which is not usually understood as job training or vocational school but is in fact just that. However, upon reading the characterizations, I thought Dussault got things precisely backwards. The paradox is that one educated in the liberal arts stands a far greater chance than the professional of being an expert at learning and more aware of the full applicability of one’s skills, whereas the professional often becomes steeped in some technical specialization but loses sight of everything else besides the subject of his expertise. I suspect the argument can go one way or the other but not both. Individuals, OTOH, might be both, especially is expertise in some specialty is acquired after the foundation of a general education is laid.The final bit about how to communication and make conversation just frustrates me. The exhortation to be bold and powerful in one’s interactions is poor advice when the ability of most people (and general audiences in the case of public speaking) to appreciate true power of speech is in steep decline. More and more people of my acquaintance simply can’t track a meaningful conversation in terms of either vocabulary, content, or shared points of reference. They simply know too little to contribute or participate meaningfully, and those who do know enough to participate often behave like bullies and blowhards.

  12. Jon Husband says:

    The stories about making and sharing Stone Soup might be a nifty new mythology for our times.

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