Opinion
Editor's Note-The Gulf of Mutual Incomprehension
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Editor's Note-The Gulf of Mutual Incomprehension

To be a leader in any realm, it helps to understand worlds other than your own.

Fifty years ago this fall, the British physicist, novelist, and civil servant C. P. Snow (later Lord Snow) published The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Snow’s lament, which quickly became famous, was that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society” was “increasingly being split into two polar groups,” one consisting of scientists, the other of “literary intellectuals.”

He mostly blamed the literati for the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between the two disciplines. Those educated in the classics and humanities, Snow wrote, were appallingly unembarrassed about not grasping such basic scientific principles as the Second Law of Thermodynamics—even though asking if someone knows it “is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

Today, a lack of scientific literacy in society is acknowledged widely—and sometimes ruefully. Lawrence Summers, who now directs President Obama’s National Economic Council, asserted in his 2001 inaugural address as president of Harvard that “it is all too common and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome.” A. C. Grayling, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, wrote this year that the problem identified by Snow has been “exacerbated, if anything, by the rapid progress of science in the past half-century.” Less well-recognized than the bifurcation of American intellectuals, however, are the costs of gaining specialized knowledge by ignoring other disciplines.

I have always had an affinity for individuals who embody two or more cultures—including immigrants, who provide quintessential examples of entering one culture while bringing along another, but also the doctor who decides to become an entrepreneur and the banker who becomes a teacher. Naturally, not all career transitions are laudable: You will learn in a story that starts on page 48 of this issue that Wilbur Foshay, the builder of Minneapolis’s Foshay Tower, operated banks and public utilities before applying his talents to swindling.

Nor are all skills fungible: Remember what mediocre results Michael Jordan achieves when he makes the transition from basketball to baseball? People who bound from one industry (or profession) to another sometimes do much worse than if they had stayed put.

Leadership skills often are gained by exposure to more than one industry, location, or vocation, however. If nothing else, individuals who make the leap into unfamiliar situations learn to examine their own habits with new perspective. At best, they discover empathy—meaning the imagination necessary to put oneself in the place of another. Few attributes are more important. Unless you understand what is going on in other people’s worlds, it is difficult to prosper in your own world, and particularly in the universe of commerce.

David Stillman, a former columnist for Twin Cities Business and a blogger on tcbmag.com, is co-author of the best-selling business book When Generations Collide. In a recent presentation about differences among generations—including Baby Boomers (born from 1946 through 1964), Generation Xers (1965–1980), and Millennials (1981–1999)—Stillman said that the most effective leaders tend to have been born within a few years of the transition from one generation to another.

“I call them cuspers, because they are on the cusp of two generations,” he told me later. “They see two sides of a generational divide and form bridges. They tend to be good at negotiating, mediating, translating, and communicating . . . . At work, for example, they can often understand the established group that set a policy and the thought process of a younger generation challenging that policy.”

One person born (in December 1980) on the cusp of Generation X and the Millennial generation is Nicholas Novak, a graduate student in business at the University of Minnesota. He is also a middle child. When he was five or six, we were on a small fishing boat when I decided to tell him that I thought it might be hard to be a middle child.

He was visibly amused—delighted, apparently, to learn that adults could be preposterously wrong. “What?” he asked. “Being in the middle is best.”

Well, I told him, your older sister probably gets to do a few things that you can’t because she’s older, and your younger brother gets away with a few things because he’s the baby.

He let out an exaggerated sigh. “It’s like the Three Bears,” he explained slowly. “One is too hot, one is too cold, one is just right. One is too big . . . .”

It’s too bad Lord Snow couldn’t have been there. He could have taken notes.

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