Saul Kaplan: Hourglass Theory Of Life

Saul KaplanTheories of life are a dime a dozen. For what it’s worth, here’s mine:

Hourglass Theory Of Life: Start with broad learning, narrow focus for impact, return to generalized exploration before the sand runs out!

Every life takes a different path but as sand moves inexorably through our personalized hourglasses there are patterns worth considering.

The top of the hourglass represents unlimited potential. While full with life’s sand anything and everything seems possible.  The future is brightest when we start with the broadest learning. No limits. No boundaries. Zen Buddhism teaches us the important concept of beginner’s mind, approaching everything with an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki

I’m blessed to see beginner’s mind in action every time I see our three year-old twin granddaughters.  It’s exhausting to watch them explore the world around them with reckless abandon, soaking up diverse inputs, experimenting with every sense, and squealing with delight with every surprising new discovery. All kids are born great. Our youth is characterized by broad general learning, the broader the better. The top of the hourglass is about foundation building. It’s about being a voracious generalist. It’s about keeping all opportunities open. The goal at the top of the hourglass is to explore the widest possible frontier of ideas and tools and to establish confidence in a sandbox full of capabilities that can be combined and recombined in unpredictable ways as the future unfolds.

As the sands of time move through our youth it’s important not to jump too fast into the narrow part of the hourglass. I worry about societal pressure to specialize too soon. There seems to be a steady drumbeat advocating for a narrow college education in order to maximize job prospects. Resist it if you can. Have you ever asked a group of people if they are doing what they thought they were going to do when they were in college? I have, and they almost never raise their hands. You can’t predict what you are going to be doing in the future. Why not treat college as foundation building and part of the top of the hourglass, an opportunity to explore a broad rage of interests and capabilities.

I think a liberal arts education is one of the world’s greatest experiences and the best possible preparation for an unknowable future. I didn’t get one in a rush to specialize and regret it. I nudged all three of our children successfully! It bothers me that as a society we aren’t making liberal arts education more accessible, affordable, and preferable.

The middle part of the hourglass represents focus and leverage. As the hourglass narrows so does our focus to accelerate and maximize progress and impact. It’s a wonderful time in our lives to mine our generalist foundation for personal growth. As the sand moves through the narrow part of the hourglass we specialize. We specialize as our interests and capabilities become more focused and clear. We specialize to advance professionally and economically. We specialize to better position ourselves in a competitive world. We self identify with how we choose to specialize. We seek professional credentials, titles, promotions, raises, and market validation based on how we specialize. The narrow part of life’s hourglass represents heady times. It can be a fantastic time of life with the right generalist foundation and strategies for specialization. It was for me, but something was missing. I didn’t fully understand it then but it was time for me to stop leaning against the flow of sand back into the wide part of the hourglass.

I’ve come to believe that the potential to transition from a competent specialist to being a voracious generalist again is one of the most important inflection points in life. There’s no right or wrong age to transition and of course many people choose or try not to. For me, it felt like a natural part of life’s journey. I don’t know exactly when it happened (I think for me, like for many, 9/11/01 had something to do with it) but at some point the specialization thing got old. It felt too limiting. At the margin each promotion, raise, professional accolade felt less important and relevant. It may happen in different ways and at different times in each of our lives but if we are fortunate we become free to unleash our beginner’s mind again. We become free to leverage both our generalist foundations and deep specialist capabilities to work on an entirely new set of important social challenges. We free ourselves to randomly collide with unusual suspects outside of our specialized silos and to explore the grey areas between us. The world seems new again and we are armed with the superpowers that come from a lifetime of experiences.

This innovation junkie feels blessed to be experiencing the wide part of life’s hourglass again and I intend to enjoy it and try to make a difference before the sand runs out.


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