What if the story of Alexander Hamilton’s rise from an orphaned West Indian immigrant to America’s first Treasury Secretary were told in hip-hop verse? What if a multiracial cast portrayed our country’s Founders in an unconventional Broadway musical?
Looking for a book to read on a vacation to Mexico in 2008, Lin Manuel Miranda picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. Reading Chernow’s biography, Miranda imagined Hamilton’s story told in contemporary verse, thus forever changing the language of Broadway musicals. Miranda is a MacArthur genius grant recipient and his greatest work to date, “Hamilton,” was the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner in drama.
A polymathic connector, Miranda is someone who can bring together knowledge and ideas from different fields—creatively relating the seemingly unrelated. Polymaths are Renaissance thinkers of sorts, or what designers call T-shaped thinkers. In every discipline there are creative thinkers who expand forms and, in turn, our thinking about each form.
T-shaped thinkers are content experts with additional knowledge in a broad range of subjects that give their thinking depth and breadth. The vertical bar of the T represents expertise and skills in one’s field of study and practice; the horizontal bar of the T represents knowledge in areas other than one’s own—the interest in other disciplines and subject matter, and the capacity to collaborate across fields with other experts.
David Guest first employed the term in an editorial in the London newspaper,
The Independent, in 1991. Designer Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO and director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, popularized it. Moggridge believed that design creates a bridge between the sciences and the arts.
Being a T-shaped thinker builds all kind of disciplinary bridges.
Let’s take this T-shaped thinker further: depth and breadth are enhanced by making connections amidst one’s broad knowledge base, as well as actively seeking connections. It helps to be a meta-thinker—an awareness of or an analysis of one’s own thinking—in order to better understand how one is processing material. It’s imperative to stay abreast of the latest in technology—in many disciplines, not only your own, disruptive business models, art and research in the social sciences—sociology, economics, anthropology and psychology—that directly impact your field, society and commerce. Use what you learn to conceive, construct or figure out. Experiment.
Share your knowledge with colleagues and find out what they’re learning. Collaborate.
As a resource, start a diverse creative community for cross-pollination. Innovation often happens at the intersection of two disciplines. To innovate in that way, you need knowledge in more than one field.
Here are some avenues:
Dare to Pair: As writer William Plomer advised, finding connections between unrelated things is the function of creative people. Think of writer Maria Stemple who helped form her novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, using letters, emails, correspondences with the main character’s personal assistant and psychiatrist, FBI documents and hospital bills.
Diversity: Interconnectedness expands understanding. Diversity drives empathetic perspectives and leads to reflective thinking about cultures, people and religion.
Miranda’s “Hamilton” features a multiracial cast as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and others in addition to Mr. Miranda’s original role as Alexander Hamilton. Ivo van Hove cross-cast his recent Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
Make Polymathic Connections: Listen to the “Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart and relate the blending of voices to how you write a story.
Transferring what you know or learn about one field to another can lead to an insight. In order to do this, you have to look and listen for it. I listened to my physician husband’s lecture on the subject of how epigenetic changes affect neurotransmitters that lead to pair-bond formation in voles and related that to my research—to how people react to branding.
Become a T-shaped thinker, a polymath, a Renaissance person, someone who values diversity and many points of view. Develop interests in other subjects. Make connections.
Lin Manuel Miranda wanted something to read on vacation. And because he’s curious he chose a subject outside his own disciplines of theater and music—and look how his career turned out.
Robin Landa holds the title of Distinguished Professor in the Michael Graves College at Kean University. She’s written 23 books and received numerous awards and honors from the National Society of Arts and Letters, the National League of Pen Women, Creativity, the ADCNJ and more. In addition to winning a Human Rights Educator Award, she was lauded by the Carnegie Foundation as among the “Great Teachers of Our Time.” She’s a monthly contributor to HOW Design magazine and a presenter and keynote speaker at international design conferences. She also presents at universities, judges design competitions and is a chairperson of Design Incubation, an advocacy organization dedicated to communication design research.