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A T-Shaped Life

Ever heard of a T-shaped person?  This has nothing to do with being pear-shaped or apple-shaped and finding jeans to fit accordingly; but rather, it’s a metaphor often used in the workplaces to help hire, build teams, and grow organizations.  The top of the “T” represents breadth, or working knowledge of lots of different things and the ability to collaborate across disciplines.  The vertical part of the T represents skills and expertise in a single area (like engineering or knitting or product design or ice cream making).  The concept is commonly used in design environments, most notably at the design consultancy IDEO, whose CEO Tim Brown describes the T-shaped person…

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.

This makes a lot of sense to me when it comes to work, and I’ve come back to it again and again over years of work with organizations and in my own career development.  But lately it occurred to me that this metaphor actually extends beyond the workplace.  It applies to life. In life, you can’t be an expert at everything (how exhausting would that be?), but you have to do lots of different things and interact with all sorts of people.  For example, you might be a world-renowned neurologist but totally clueless when you become a parent.  You could be a gifted painter, but have limited understanding of how to cook a basic meal.  And you could be an expert parent trying to figure out how to manage a team for the first time.  The key is getting clear about your anchor(s) using that strength to build breadth and understanding about new things.

The T framework is particularly helpful as I navigate well-being.  I’m possibly close to an expert in exercise and work, and very very far from an expert in mind/spirituality, food and relationships.  But as I’m exploring these areas, I’m realizing that my foundational knowledge in a few things is helping me take sense of the once that are newer and more undiscovered.  I take comfort in the fact that the whole T together is what matters — that all of this fits together to help make sense of — as Gilda Radner calls it — life’s delicious ambiguity.

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