Knowledge is the cornerstone of civilization. It’s what allows us to solve the constant stream of problems we face as individuals and in society. However, not everyone can be an expert at everything. Especially, with increasing depth of knowledge, specialization requires more time than before. One human lifetime is not enough to acquire even a significant part of the knowledge society collectively built. Luckily, we don’t have to. Solving the world’s problems is a team effort after all.
That’s why society has three implicit roles around collective knowledge acquisition. There are Masters, Connectors, and Teachers.
Masters are the specialists, the scientist, and experts, which constantly try to expand the knowledge frontier. Their job is to increase the depth of knowledge and fill the black boxes and unknowns we currently have.
Connectors are the generalists. They are knowledgeable in many fields but experts in none. They are taking knowledge from one discipline and apply it to another. Through such interdisciplinary thinking, they discover more practical uses for the knowledge we already have. It’s not about depth but about breadth, increasing the areas where knowledge is useful.
Teachers are unsurprisingly the ones that spread the knowledge. They are the authors of books, the TED speakers, and — you guessed it — the teachers. What distinguishes them from the other roles is the ability to communicate the knowledge so it is understood by as many as possible. Without Teachers, knowledge would never leave the ivory towers of academia or the head of a practitioner.
This list is not exclusive in the sense that any individual can only fulfill one role. There are people that take on more than one. For example Adam Grant, a researcher writing books and consulting on his discoveries in the social sciences. He’s a Master and Teacher in that sense. Or Ray Dalio, a practitioner that became a Master and now spreads that knowledge as a Teacher. Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss author and entrepreneur, combines the role of a Teacher and a Connector by connecting ideas from a variety of disciplines and writing books about it as well as organizing events.
Each of these roles requires a different skill set. It makes sense to think about which road you want to go. Even if you plan to act in multiple roles, it makes sense to focus on one initially, learn the required skills and then move on to another one once you’ve acquired a certain level of skill.
The Master route takes the longest since it requires deep knowledge of a field and it takes time to get that. Connectors are great lateral thinkers, the classic outside of the box people. Not every mind is fit for that. Teachers must be great communicators and possess empathy and understanding of how people learn. We all know the brilliant professor type that cannot explain her research to any non-expert if her life depended on it.
You’re probably on one path or another already. But it might be worth reflecting if the current direction matches your goals and your talents before committing too many resources towards it.