In defense of well rounded.

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin wrote about the advantages of being “sharp” versus “well rounded.”

He wrote, “Well rounded is like a resilient ball, rolling about, likely to be pleasing to most, and built to last. The opposite? Sharp. Sharp is often what we want. We don’t want a surgeon or an accountant or even a tour guide to be well rounded. We have a lot of choices, and it’s unlikely we’re looking for a utility player. Well rounded gives you plenty of opportunities to shore up mediocrity with multiple options. Sharp is more frightening, because it’s this or nothing.

While I’ve often written that a small group of diverse “sharps” make an effective team, I think Seth misses the mark and generalizes to make a point.  It’s the same as using statistics to support many conclusions.  Of course no one wants a heart surgeon trained as an orthopedic surgeon.  But being a fine pianist is a complementary (well rounded) skill many surgeons possess.

Well rounded need not be mediocre; well rounded need not be a utility player.  In fact, those characterizations undermine the benefits of lifetime knowledge and broad experience.  The best “sharp” solutions come from experience gained in the trenches, not from a narrow focus limited to one field of expertise.

One reason the majority of start-ups fail is that the founders know how to create their product but have little background in how to position it as a solution a customer may need.  This is especially true of tech start-ups.  The founders think it’s about technology.  No one buys technology.  People buy solutions that solve a problem.  Does a business care about the elegance of Salesforce.com’s software platform, or do they instead care about how the software makes it easier to track leads, communicate with customers and generally simplify their sales process?

Marketing in particular benefits from what Seth probably regards as “well rounded.” No one could deny that “sharp” solutions are the goal of all marketing initiatives.  In my experience, the ability to draw parallels across diverse categories and industries immeasurably enriches outcomes.  When recently working with a truck maintenance outsource business, my background in large IT system outsource solutions was of greater value than knowledge of the repair and maintenance of truck fleets.  Understanding the political ins and outs of how a municipality operates, from being a local municipal (volunteer) official, is different and more enlightening than only being a salesman.  Does this “well rounded” experience somehow undermine my ability to develop a “sharp” recommendation?

Stepping outside the purely professional, can a marketing solution be enriched by having read Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus?  By Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason?  By a day at MOMA?  By hiking the Appalachian Trail?  By swimming the length of Loch Ness?  By training for the Olympics?

No Seth, I would much prefer to work with intelligent, “well rounded” people who know a thing or two about the ways of the world we live in.

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3 Comments

  1. I so wholeheartedly agree with your argument for well rounded. And better yet, there is absolutely no reason why someone who is well rounded can’t be sharp in their field, or for that matter, several. Being sharp only may simply be an excuse for always needing to be right….and to not be able to see another’s point of view is, well, scarry.

    Reply
  2. Thank you Bruce. I love what you say “being sharp only may be an excuse for being right.” Welcome to Silicon Valley.

    Reply
  3. Silicon Valley is a state of mind…..you rise above it by being yourself. More to come.

    Reply

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