1/ Cal Newport is the latest in a long line of champions of an upstanding-citizen work ethic represented by the archetype known as the T-shaped person.
2/ Back in grad school 15 years ago, I read a book called Tomorrow's Professor by Newport's spiritual predecessor, Richard Reis (and clearly learned nothing from it).
3/ In it, I encountered the idea of a T-shaped person. Reis' model was that you ought to have a broad understanding of adjacent fields and a deep understanding of your own to be a "good" academic.
4/ You've probably heard the phrase. T-shaped people are what career counsellors and HR people have in mind when they talk about "talent." Not just depth in craft, but breadth in vision.
5/ You have your horizontal bar representing shallow generalist skills, and your vertical stem representing deep specialist skills.
6/ The horizontal bar represents your socialization as a knowledge worker. It overlaps with others' horizontal bars, enabling you to communicate across specialist disciplines.
7/ You can think of the T as spanning knowledge/skill based roles you could occupy. It's your intellectual home. T for turf. T for territory. T for textbook.
8/ People who have a highly socialized, institutionalized, and territorial understanding of knowledge and work love the T-shaped-person idea. Academics particularly love it.
9/ In Freudian terms, T-shapes are how your superego thinks you ought to work. You find your T, make friends and find collaborators along the bar, and dive deep along the stem.
10/ All the while staying harmoniously connected to your intellectual community oriented around a shared sense of "up" and directing your work "down" in the mines.
11/ So long as you stay in your digging lane indicated by the stem, you'll also be a good citizen of a knowledge economy, respecting others' expertise, and quietly proud of your own.
12/ T's stack and overlap nicely. They can be used to build stable big structures, with good redundancy properties and natural paths of career development.
13/ In a knowledge map covered by overlapping T's, your T can grow bigger or sink deeper. Your stem may be in your mentor's bar. Your current stem may become your future bar.
14/ T's induce natural authority relationships. If two people are trying to occupy the same turf, the one for whom the position is shallower has authority (because they can go deeper).
15/ As in Tetris, T's are easy to work with. They are fine, upstanding citizens. They chair committees, organize interdisciplinary conferences, give TED talks, and write solid books.
16/ They are nice people. To use an academic term of art, they are "collegial" types. They can afford to be. They know where they belong in the world, and it's a good place.
17/ Think T for Tenure. The American system of academic tenure is the perfect example of an institution of, by, and for T-shaped people.
18/ Don't get me wrong. Unlike empty suit types, scenesters, and pretenders, T-shaped people are people of substance. They are sincere and they do good, sometimes great work.
19/ I have nothing but respect for T-shaped types. The backstop the reliability of civilizational knowledge, and are pillars of the community in an entirely positive sense of the term.
20/ You should WANT your Statistics 101 professors, doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers to be T-shaped. Trust in institutions is about the presence of T-shaped people within them.
21/ So to summarize. T for textbook, T for tenure, T for turf, T for territory, T for trust, T for talent. All good things. If you are T-shaped, or want to be T-shaped, more power to you. The world needs T's.
22/ That said, I personally find T-shaped people boring, and am personally a lousy T. By the norms of T-shaped people, I am a could-have-been T who betrayed the values and virtues of T-dom.
23/ Fortunately, I don't navigate by T-shaped norms. I navigate by the belief that there is an entire universe of deep knowing and doing that cannot be accessed by T-shaped means.
24/ Here's an example. My buddy Kyle just released version 1.0 of a powerful React-based open-source website building tool called Gatsby, after a year of heavy effort.
25/ It's definitely deep work, but throughout, Kyle was active on Twitter and social media. More importantly, the work didn't get done in a traditional institutional context. It was free-agent deep work.
26/ The work itself is not "T-shaped." It is a work of tech art in the rhizomatic frankenstack mess that is web technology (I wrote about rhizomatic frankenstacks previously)
31/ It is also not surprising that you need a contrarian view of apparent messiness, and a willingness to ignore disciplinary maps and categories, to navigate and build on such rhizomatic knowledge.
35/ The curvy tail is the rhizomatic structure you explore to do something deep. It will sprawl untidily across a map built out of T's. It will offend sensibilities and violate sacred beliefs about what goes where.
36/ The gap between the dot and the tail is what I call the Explorer's Chasm. To do deep work in a rhizomatic zone, you must have a "secret" separating you from your community.
37/ The chasm is crucial. It represents a sort of epistemic estrangement from the nearest socialized zone of knowledge. This is necessary for work that is not just deep, but has truly original elements.
38/ The chasm also symbolizes the possibility that a work of deep knowing and doing does not have a necessary, pre-determined and fixed connection to a locus of socialization that "owns" the work.
39/ This means the knowledge could be subversive and challenge institutional authority. Squint a little and the tail of the semicolon might appear attached to a different dot.
40/ And finally, a semicolon is both smaller and lower in a line of text than a T. I like to think this symbolizes its capacity for a) going deeper b) being efficient at a smaller scale.
41/ Paradoxically, because being semicolon-shaped means being less attached to a default social home locus, it requires you to be more agile, nomadic, alive, and active in relating to social context.
42/ Tenured professors with status in a discipline can tune out the world and do "deep work" peers recognize as "important" before it is done (with accompanying ivory-tower/angels-on-pinhead risks).
43/ But a free agent, with no institutional safety net, no underwriting of exploratory expeditions by disciplinary consensus, and no research grants, cannot afford this luxury.
44/ To do deep work in semicolon mode, you must be plugged in, despite being fundamentally alone on your path, continuously renegotiating the meaning of what you're doing with the social context.
45/ If T-shaped work is like climbing a sheer rock face with all kinds of safety equipment and ropes, semicolon-shaped work is like free climbing. Riskier, but much more rewarding if you pull it off.
46/ Almost all the people I personally find interesting, and learn a lot from, tend to be semicolon shaped. This may be a personal preference, but I think there's more to it.
47/ I suspect, for T-shaped people, exploration is at best an instrumental activity that furthers their social development. For them, belongingness trumps curiosity. That's why it can stay in its lane.
48/ But curiosity ungoverned by belongingness motives does not stay in fixed lanes, seek permission to stray, apologize for wandering, or express contrition for "moving fast and breaking things."
49/ Such curiosity can be unapologetically rude, abrasive, damaging, combative, difficult, and intransigent when it conflicts with belongingness. It can appear to be spoiling for a fight for no good reason.
50/ Belongingness-governed curiosity is great for stewarding existing institutionalized knowledge and building systematically and cautiously upon it. T-shaped curiosity is the bedrock of living traditionalism.
51/ You don't need formal institutions like universities for this kind of collective knowledge environment. Even mature and developed cultural scenes have this characteristic.
52/ My co-blogger on ribbonfarm, Sarah, wrote a thoughtful account of this sort of belongingness-governed T-shaped curiosity (though I personally find her own work to be semicolon-shaped).
53/ In a way, the dominance of T-shaped people and their modes of knowing and doing are a consequence of Pournelle's Iron's Law of bureaucracy generalized to any social system.
54/ Pournelle's Law, restated for this context: in any community, those who prioritize primal belongingness will eventually wrest control from those who prioritize primal curiosity.
55/ By contrast, semicolon shaped people and their modes of knowing and doing reflect a primacy of curiosity over belongingness. A willingness to sacrifice social harmony and relationships to the exploratory urge.
56/ This means, of course, that semicolon shaped people can be (but need not be, unless challenged or obstructed) socially disruptive, destabilizing, unreliable, disloyal, and a "threat to society."
57/ But on the other hand, they also represent creative-destructive potential, and the possibility of societies renewing themselves through the actions of those who don't feel strong belonging.
58/ Most T-shaped people and semicolon shaped ones probably find their own kind interesting and admirable, and the opposite kind offensive and boring. Voice people and exit people don't mix well.
59/ Most of the time, most people are (and should be), T-shaped. But in times of institutional decay, renewal, and churn, you should be asking yourself: should I perhaps be semicolon-shaped?
60/ Because here's the thing, when things are being turned upside down, and up and down are churning, the only sense of "depth" available to you is one you generate internally,