The Career Choice Nobody Tells You About

November 27, 2014 — 27 Comments


One of the most important choices I made in my career was one I didn’t even realize I was making.

When I graduated from design school, I was pretty sure about what I wanted to do with my life. I was fascinated with industrial design, and was happily imagining spending the rest of my career developing skills and creating products that would have lasting impact. I hoped to emulate my heroes, iconic designers like Dieter RamsEttore Sottsass and Philippe Starck, whose bodies of design work have spanned everything from timeless furniture to spectacular architectural monuments.

While I did stay on a design career track, it followed a path I never anticipated. Rather than diving deep into the single discipline of industrial design, I accidentally discovered the joys of working across disciplines. Thanks to my mentor, the co-founder of IDEO Bill Moggridge, I quickly added other design work to my arsenal: design strategy, user research, interaction design, service design and ultimately, as I took on the role of CEO of IDEO, business design.

The more confident I became in my ability to explore new disciplines and cross boundaries, the more I became intrigued with complex problems, such as designing healthcare or education systems. In fact, I believe these are some of the most compelling creative and business challenges today, and I’m happy with my choice to go wide.

But this is not meant to be an argument in favor of choosing wide over deep. I have many colleagues who took the alternative path and have achieved incredible impact in the world, such as Apple’s Jony Ive or Japanese industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa.

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.

Taken seriously, though, the interdisciplinary path opens up a host of purposeful challenges that can be approached through the lenses of science, the arts, business or non-profit and, of course, some combination of all of them.

In your career, what choices are you making between going deep or going wide?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

Tim Brown


27 responses to The Career Choice Nobody Tells You About

  1. Brilliant. Thank you for this Tim

    In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.
    Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

    I’ve always gone wide as I felt the meat on the bone was less situational and more universal. What I see about situational thinking is it never ends because circumstances are always changing, so you are always caught in a story, but wide seek to understands the principles rather than the rules, so It felt like a more interesting place to create from.

    One of the first question I ask folks that I work with or who I want to work with is – What are your teachings? That instantly tells me if they are wide or deep and depending what they need or what I need, it points us in a direction to set off from.

    It feels like there is a lot of teaching going on about deep somehow being more critical than wide. It would seem at this juncture in our human evolution, they are both an important piece of the puzzle.

    I think wide can often help people go deeper, and deeper can often lead to new perspectives on wide.

    Ok.. never used the word wide and deep that often in a comment on a post.

    I only just recently read your book Change by Design and it was such a pleasure and an inspiration to me. I only wish you had written it in 1986.

  2. More and more I think there is a demand for wide – and the breadth of the demand includes looking for personal qualities.

    Just wrote my latest blog post, and wondered about how to harness your thinking, into my project.

    I wish I lived closer to SF?? don’t know where you are…. sitting in London, England here.

    As I say in my post, I am looking for someone to design me an environment where I can help people to learn life skills – and build a platform which will enable each cohort of learners to form a private community, which they will grow and change with, rather emulating a family.

    I hope I am not being fanciful – but I have to be true to my vision. Perhaps I won’t be able to build it, but someone can. Reading your thoughts, maybe you can – it just occurred to me.

  3. Tim…Have you ever thought of yourself as a design politician?

  4. I have always been on a wide career path, one that may be referred to as “unfocused” or “scattered.” It started in undergraduate Theatre when my advisor asked if I wanted to follow and acting path or technical. I said I did not know. The advisor said I had 30 seconds to decide. I chose technical. When asked why I said that it would give me a wider set of skills that I could apply to other fields. Boy was I right. But this seemingly snap decision had represented the arc I was on then and still pursue some 35 years later.
    Building a wide base of skills and interests allow tangental thinking that cross divides of role, place and function. Having a wide understanding (though shallow) of many subjects has allowed me to remain flexible to adjust my career, remain employed, continue as a life-long learner and stay relevant to the changing work environment.

  5. When you start on a career ,lotsof time goes in understanding the systems of the organization
    There is much one wants to do but finds no space. Holding on to ones passion helps in linking new situations and challenges to what one really enjoys doing. Hence your set of skills make new things happen and add a personal signature to the task or event. It gives creative satisfaction and boosts confidence. Teaching and research in education has given me opportunities to link drama, cartooning, storytelling, verbal visualization, travel tales , cross cultural references, music ,nature study, pedagogy . I feel richer and eager to learn,hear,reflect after two decades of wide experimentation. There is always the chance to do do so much new work in the wide design of employing ones time and interests. Thanks for this stimulating discussion. All this tumbled out

  6. Derrick Nedzel March 7, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you for this article! I have come across this wide vs deep discussion during discussions with a career counsellor: she describes me as a ‘scanner’ vs a ‘diver’, meaning I find many different subjects interesting, rather than focusing deeply in a specific discipline. But my whole professional career has been of a diver: a software integration specialist, a developer, a technical sales person selling database and mobility software products: 30 years of forcing myself to do what was expected of me, rather than what interested me. What experiences did interest me thru that process? Product Management and coordinating teams to solve difficult problems. What didn’t appeal to me? Knowing more than anyone else in the room about some particular technical issue. What have I done when I was not working? I’m a big fan of photography, I rebuilt old cars, I mountain bike, I flew Hang Gliders.

    So now I am 55, I have had two jobs erased by corporate restructuring in the last year and I need to figure out how to spend my next 10 years. I have responsibilities, loved ones depend on my financial support which I can’t provide without a well paying job. All the jobs I see are for Divers: Pre-Sales Engineering jobs for technical products were I need to be the specialist. They all sound like 10 years of forcing myself to do things I can do and where I can make the living I need to meet my commitments, but which I will hate.

    I was working at SAP as a Mobility Sales Engineer when a new concept was introduced to try to improve our interactions with our customers: Design Thinking. It seemed to represent so many of the things that are important to me: empowering others, learning to work cooperatively to overcome challenges, learning to open yourself to creative processes rather than purely analytical thinking.

    My job at SAP ended for various reasons, but I still wonder: is there a path forward for me down that Design Thinking road? My education and experience has all been computer science, learning a specific technology to be the expert. Now I want to make a complete, radical change. How to I find a job in this new direction with no history to prove my ability to an employer? What role would I play? Project facilitator? Project Manager? In what type of organization? Where & how do I find those jobs? Can I make this change now and still meet my commitments to people who are dependent on me?

    I used to fly hang gliders. When I was learning, I went to my first high altitude launch off a mountain top in Tennessee. When you first take off, there is a point where you are transitioning from supporting the weight of glider on your shoulders to flight. You run off the mountain top and your feet are no longer on the ground to support your weight, but the wing isn’t going fast enough to fly to support your weight, so you fall. The key is to run as fast as possible with the glider before you leave the ground, this makes the transition to flight smoother. The launch was off a 400 foot vertical cliff and I am afraid of heights. I told my instructor I was scared to death: I was shaking so much I could barely stand up. I asked him what I should do, he said: ‘Run like hell.” So now, I’m running like hell.

    Thanks again for your article: hearing others unconventional approaches to career are a great help.

  7. Derrick,
    I’m 52 with a similar background. I’m trying to change careers to do what I’d like, using my wide perspective, instead of deep in just one specialty. It takes some time, patience, and persistence. I’ve found a good resource in the book What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles. He walks the reader through a process to uncover his favorite interests, knowledge areas, and transferable skills. He continues to guide the reader through a process of discovering occupations that use those interests, knowledge, and skills, and then how to approach people in those occupations to learn how to join them. Maybe this can help you, too.

  8. Thank you, Tim for the encouraging article. The beginning sounded exactly like my story so far. I’m still at an early stage in my career, on the wide path, and I hope it eventually works out for me, the way it did for you.
    I was always advised against the wide career path because it showed “lack of direction and focus”. I’m going to share your article with all those people!

    I’ve always been too curious about different aspects of business to take the deep route. I have a post graduate degree in Business design, which is rather unconventional in India, where I’m from, and chose to explore different functions and industries, at least early on in my career.

    I’ve observed that people who go deep usually taste success at an earlier stage than those who go wide — the wide route pays off in the long run. What do you think, in your experience?

  9. I have the privilege of learning this the hard way of trying to go deep, when I am by personality, tend to go wide. I chose a degree in urban planning to bridge the two only to see that this field has gone way too deep. I also have played many roles and the commonality for me was providing a service within or without the organization. And as you said, it’s hard to explain what you do until I stumbled across service design…oh, there you go.

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