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Interdisciplinary Innovators

Interdisciplinary organizations are sometimes powered by interdisciplinary innovators. We can't all be geniuses like Elon Musk or Leonardo da Vinci, but we can be willing to dig in and connect new dots with a selfless devotion to a great outcome.

Article Apr 06, 2021

Rob Keefer

Though separated by several centuries in time, Leonardo da Vinci and Elon Musk share an essential attribute: Both men possess a deep mastery of disciplines that at first glance seem to have nothing to do with each other.

Da Vinci, one of history's most famous painters, exhibited expert-level knowledge in fields such as architecture, astronomy, botany, physiology, and engineering.

Musk exhibits genius-level qualities in physics and computer science, as well as economics, finance, and business. He has used this knowledge to build companies that have changed history and society.

Different times, different men, different worlds. What can we learn from da Vinci and Musk, brilliant innovators who expanded the boundaries of knowledge and pursued excellence on an interdisciplinary level? What are the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to life and work?

Da Vinci's Genius

Ask the average person what made Leonardo da Vinci famous, and you will mostly hear about the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and his talents as a painter. He produced priceless artwork that has been celebrated and analyzed for decades.

His thirst for knowledge seemingly knew no boundaries. His expansive knowledge was reflected in da Vinci's famous notebooks, which recorded his ideas and observations about the world and everything in it. For example:

  • He studied birds so closely he saw the potential for human flight, creating designs and drawings of flying craft that resemble helicopters.
  • He fashioned himself a military engineer. One example was his design for a tactical moveable dam, designed to create a surprise flood. He also designed diving gear for soldiers to mount a sneak attack from under the water.
  • He had a genius-level understanding of architecture, designing bridges, buildings, and even cities that people have studied for centuries.
  • He gained a remarkable understanding of anatomy, even participating in an estimated 30 dissections.

Interestingly, da Vinci received little formal education. His principal mechanism for learning initially was an apprenticeship in the studio of artist Andrea Del Verrochio.

Del Verrochio took an interdisciplinary approach in operating his studio, bringing together artists with interests in different styles and mediums.

This gave da Vinci opportunities to learn about drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metalworking, plaster casting, leatherworking, mechanics, and woodwork, as well as the artistic skills of drawing, painting, sculpting, and modeling.

Some suggest that da Vinci's status as a man of many letters may not be possible in our current age, with its increasing emphasis on and value for specialization. "Many of us are in fields that demand interdisciplinary thinking," Jonathan Pevsner, a professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, writes in Scientific American. "But few scientists, physicians, poets, or politicians today are called geniuses."

What Pevsner's observation may overlook is that success in the modern workplace rests on a sort of collective genius. No one person does it all. Breakthrough thinking comes by putting together teams of individuals willing to contribute their ideas, knowledge across disciplines, and passion towards a common goal.

Da Vinci saw the common principles across disciplines and did the hard work of understanding how they fit together from multiple perspectives. As one writer puts it, da Vinci "had one subject, and one subject only: Learning." What he left us in terms of his art and his ideas shows the resulting benefits.

How Elon Musk has Changed Business

If da Vinci were alive today, he likely would share a label with Elon Musk: "Disrupter."

Born in South Africa, Musk has launched two companies in SpaceX and Tesla that have rewritten the rules in their respective industries.

SpaceX is revolutionizing space technology by developing and launching advanced rockets and spacecraft that could launch the era of private spaceflight. Tesla, meanwhile, has almost singlehandedly showed the feasibility of building and marketing luxury electric-powered vehicles. Prior to that, Musk founded PayPal, a financial payments service that is now a household name. Along with SpaceX and Tesla, he leads the Boring Company and Neuralink.

One can see the similarities with da Vinci in the way Musk describes his thought processes. He credits his ability to succeed across disciplines to his adaption of "First Principle" thinking, a concept articulated by Aristotle.

According to Musk, breakthrough thinking requires dissecting a problem to its core elements and then using "reason" to build solutions to problems. He describes this in a TED Talk from 2013. "When you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach," he told interviewer Chris Anderson. "Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive."

Da Vinci himself might have described it that way.

Benefits of Being a Master of All Trades

What lessons can we take from the da Vinci/Musk model of mastering many disciplines?

An interdisciplinary approach to life recognizes that knowledge in certain vertical fields has the most value when viewed as part of an ecological system. Certainly, ideas have value in their own right, but they add up to something incredible when combined with other ideas from disparate fields.

Take, for example, the emerging field of synthetic biology. The purpose of synthetic biology is to leverage genius-level thinking to design and create new forms of living organisms. Synthetic biology requires expertise in math, chemistry, biology, bioinformatics, engineering, mechanics, and other fields.

Projects are succeeding by bringing together individual levels of expertise and turning them loose on difficult problems.

As the American Psychological Association assesses it, the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach include:

  • Exposure to new theories and perspective
  • Access to larger pools of funding for research
  • Larger networks for a more effective set of network effects
  • Professional satisfaction

Not everyone can rise to the level of genius across multiple disciplines like da Vinci and Musk. And today, it is harder than ever as knowledge grows by leaps and bounds weekly.

But here is the good news: You do not have to be a genius to create magical results. However, you must be open to new and different ideas from other disciplines and be willing to dig in and connect the dots with a selfless devotion to the best outcome.

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