I was browsing through some of my old LinkedIn posts and came across a great picture I once shared. It’s called “The Shape of Academia”.
It shows the fragmentation or connections of academia and is constructed using co-citations. The closer the two fields, the bigger the overlap between them.
It's interesting to me because of 2 things.
Firstly, it’s a great visualisation tool that shows how different areas connect to one another. You can see that it more or less makes sense that Maths, Physics, and Computer Science are grouped together. The same goes for Medical Treatment, Health Services.
Secondly, the circle is empty in the middle, which tells me there's not much cross-area connection. But this is precisely where the fascinating stuff and opportunities are.
If you manage to pick 2 areas on the opposite side of the circle and connect them, you win. You have something brand new.
This is also the topic of a great book called Range, written by David Epstein. It's about how generalists have it better in a world full of specialists. That’s also what the circle teaches us. There's not much in the middle, but a lot on the outside. A generalist, who knows 2 different areas, can connect them and create something new.
Apart from exploring a variety of different successful people, he also touches on medicine and healthcare. A quote from the book I particularly like is this:
Interventional cardiologists have gotten so used to treating chest pain with stents—metal tubes that pry open blood vessels—that they do so reflexively even in cases where voluminous research has proven that they are inappropriate or dangerous.
That’s what “The Shape of Academia” implicitly teaches us, but applied to medicine. A medical specialist sees a little to the left and to the right, but struggles to look on the other side. It’s a problem I’m not too optimistic we can tackle by simply educating more internal medicine specialists than cardiologists.
From this stems my constant thinking about which speciality to choose. But the answer might lie somewhere else.
One of the best career advice I’ve come across on the internet about this was written by Scott Adams on his blog. He’s an economist, who got an MBA and worked at a bank, but is now a cartoonist. Makes sense right?
Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty goods” until no one else has your mix.
It’s a paradox if you think about it. You’re a generalist because you know about different fields, which makes you a specialist at the intersection of them.
So, how do I summarise that and apply it to medicine? There’s a story, there always is.
Tu Youyou is the first woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She was not a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, had no research experience outside of China, and no postgraduate degree. But she was also interested in history, which was the reason she discovered the cure for Malaria in 2015.
Yet, she was interested in both modern medicine and history, and was inspired by a clue in a recipe for medication made from sweet wormwood, written by a fourth-century Chinese alchemist.
And voilà, she discovered a cure for Malaria, even though scientists tested about 240,000 compounds before that.
My final point goes back to “The Shape of Academia”. If we as medical students and doctors can’t escape specialising, we should at least attempt to keep an open mind. And gather skills that are “on the other side of medicine”. Medicine + MBA makes the best hospital directors. Medicine + IT, perhaps the best digital startups CEOs.
This is partly why I’m researching in medicine, learning to code and write online, learning about new technologies such as Web3 and also reading books from different fields (such as business).
Having this unique set of skills and knowledge already yielded some remarkable opportunities for me. The latest one is that I’m involved with a digital health startup, Dama Health.
The final image to reinforce the idea that being a generalist yields brilliant results is made based on the ideas of Steven Bartlett in Happy Sexy Millionaire.
For me, there’s enough evidence to keep doing other things apart from medicine. Increase your score by dividing your energy across different skills, and don’t specialise too quickly. Become someone who is both rare and valuable by being a generalist.