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.
The New York Times Magazine has a fantastic article by Jody Rosen about The Knowledge, which is as much about London taxi drivers as it is about what it is to commit to be the best in a certain field:
The examination to become a London cabby is possibly the most difficult test in the world — demanding years of study to memorize the labyrinthine city’s 25,000 streets and any business or landmark on them. As GPS and Uber imperil this tradition, is there an argument for learning as an end in itself?
[Matt] McCabe had spent the last three years of his life thinking about London’s roads and landmarks, and how to navigate between them. In the process, he had logged more than 50,000 miles on motorbike and on foot, the equivalent of two circumnavigations of the Earth, nearly all within inner London’s dozen boroughs and the City of London financial district. He was studying to be a London taxi driver, devoting himself full-time to the challenge that would earn him a cabby’s “green badge” and put him behind the wheel of one of the city’s famous boxy black taxis.
How many times does the chorus repeat in your favorite song? How many times have you listened to that chorus? Repetition in music isn’t just a feature of Western pop songs, either; it’s a global phenomenon. Why? Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis walks us through the basic principles of the ‘exposure effect,’ detailing how repetition invites us into music as active participants, rather than passive listeners.
Lesson by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, animation by Andrew Zimbelman for The Foreign Correspondents' Club.