Kermit the Frog is an entertainment icon known worldwide for his appearances on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, as well as a number of feature films. He attributes much of his success to his thirty-five year partnership with Mississippi native and entertainment visionary, Jim Henson. Kermit has received many honors and accolades for his work, including multiple Academy Award nominations, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a commemorative stamp from the U.S. Postal Service.
You probably don’t know the name Grace Hopper, but you should.
As a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, Hopper worked on the first computer, the Harvard Mark 1. And she headed the team that created the first compiler, which led to the creation of COBOL, a programming language that by the year 2000 accounted for 70 percent of all actively used code. Passing away in 1992, she left behind an inimitable legacy as a brilliant programmer and pioneering woman in male-dominated fields.
Hopper’s story is told in “The Queen of Code,” directed by Gillian Jacobs (of “Community” fame). It’s the latest film in FiveThirtyEight’s “Signals” series.
Deborah Morrison is the chambers distinguished professor of advertising at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Recently, she wrote a piece for Co.Create in which she calls on advertising people to transcend the consumption cycle and train the full might of their creative firepower on what she calls the great and wicked issues of our day. You know the ones: Global warming. Hunger. Energy. Gun violence. Mass extinctions. Overpopulation.
As I write this, Dr. Morrison and nine advertising students are in Alaska studying climate change. They’re learning how to find the stories in the science—stories that most of us would never see, and not because they aren’t compelling. On the contrary, they’re beyond compelling, the stuff of nightmares without end. The stories are there all right, but they’re mute and colorless and shapeless, entombed beneath a mountain range of data. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Data can do many things. It can prove theorems, send rockets to the stars and cure diseases of every stripe. What it can’t do is light a fire under the collective ass of society. Data can’t do that, but stories and ideas can.
Here’s what I’m saying: Although my unplanned career path turned out fine, choosing to go wide versus deep should be made consciously, not accidentally. Each path offers tremendous reward if followed with passion and commitment, but each requires different skills and approaches to be successful.
Going deep requires incredible focus, lifelong commitment to a single cause, a willingness to be patient towards achieving success, and the confidence to follow a path others may not understand or value. Whether it’s as a research scientist, designer, chef or software engineer, committing to a single discipline and pushing it as far as you possibly can holds the potential to make a significant dent on the planet.
Going wide, on the other hand, is about making connections between what you already know and what you’re curious about discovering. It requires systems thinking in order for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. It means developing the skills to collaborate for the purpose of learning. It’s about seeing the creative possibilities in breaking down boundaries and describing the world, your organization, the problem in new ways. It probably means having a difficult time describing to your parents what you do.
I can relate to Brown's career, mine has also been decidedly (and purposely) wide.