From a T to a Pi: A lesson on learning and career development


Photo courtesy of Coursera Mindshift

Recently, I took up a free MOOC Class called Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential by Barb Oakley and Terry Sejnowski, professors from by McMaster University in Coursera. If you are unfamiliar to the term, a MOOC is short for Massive Open Online Course, a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people. I started on Week 3 class, and there is this particular lesson that made such an impact on my realisation.

It is the approach/concept of categorising individuals
as a T-shaped individual or Pi-shaped invididual

I have no idea of who came up with this concept and my search on the net seems to be futile. It seems as well that there are many other shapes to categorise individuals such as the comb-shape, but this two are the one that connects with me the most.

Let me elaborate on these two shapes further:

Photo courtesy of Tom Wessel, 2013: 
The Life of Pi: Moving Beyond T-Shaped Skills for Agile Teams 

A T-shaped individual is a person who has deep knowledge and skills in a particular area of specialization (represented by the horizontal line and marked specialist) with enough general, superficial knowledge and skills of other things to complement your specialisation (represented by the vertical line and marked generalist/ broad knowledge). Barb put herself as an example, by mentioning that she learnt to speak extremely fluent Russian since Linguistics was her interest. She then took up a smattering of other skills like driving a truck and learning how to type. This of course allowed her to be a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers up in the Bering Sea, but after which, she found herself in a challenging position of not having enough opportunities when she wanted to move on. This relates to many of us in many ways, especially since most of us are taught to niched yourself in a certain area, like computer science, or linguistics. 

What then can we do to maximise our opportunities and enhance our development journey? 

pi.pngPhoto courtesy of Tom Wessel, 2013: 
The Life of Pi: Moving Beyond T-Shaped Skills for Agile Teams 

Apparently an approach popularised by our very own Patrick Tay, an elected member of Singapore’s Parliament, we should aim to be a Pi-shaped individual. The concept is to second-skill oneself in another field that may be directly related or may be quite different from the first. Why have a second skill? As Barb puts it: 

“Much as I love the Russian language, I had put my focus on developing one single skill without thinking about how much that skill was really needed in the working world and without thinking about whether other skills might complement and enhance my ability to get the kinds of jobs I wanted to have.”

Having a second skill gives one a little more balance. An individual can bring a second skill into his or her work because this is a passion, or simply because it complements one’s first specialisation. One does not have to choose on just one niche. In fact, this choice of pursuing a passion/ second skill can greatly enhance one’s creative ability in the other skill. 

What then I would encourage is for students out there to choose a program that would allow you pursue both a myriad of programs. In Australia, there are Universities that will encourage you to pick up two majors in a course. In Universities such as the University of Western Australia, they have generalised their Undergraduate degree that allows you to explore outside your expertise by taking a major in a different faculty. Needless to say, there are options to do a double degree (such as ANU Flexible Double Degree, University of Sydney Bachelor of Commerce/Science/Visual Arts etc and a Bachelor of Advanced Studies) that would strengthen your journey towards becoming a Pi-shaped individual.

In the UK, there are options to do a Joint/ Combined Honours degree. University of Leeds for example offers a Bachelor of Science in Philosophy and Physics. University of Exeter offers a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science Flexible Combined Honours. Other notable Universities would be University of Durham, University of Southampton, Newcastle University, and the list can go on. 

Ultimately, the aim is to enrich and enhance your learning and career journey by looking at the real world and work to both follow and broaden your passions. 

Good luck!


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