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« Why must America go it alone on prosecuting war crimes? | Main | Iran: the ultimate scapegoat on Iraq »
Sunday
Jun102007

Connecting dots in a complex world

As someone who's written books on American grand strategy post-9/11, a lot of young people send me e-mails asking which educational experiences will prepare them best for this tumultuous world. I tell them: Study any and every foreign language you can.

There are two types of people in the world: those who believe there are two types of people in the world and those who don't. I fall into the first camp.

I believe the world is divided between vertical thinkers, or those who specialize deeply in certain skills and subject matters, and horizontal thinkers, or those whose essential skill lies in connecting the dots across various subjects and synthesizing new combinations.

You might call the latter group "generalists," but that term underestimates the essential talent involved in such intellectual arbitrage -- the ability to translate between disparate tribes and their distinct languages. Subtract that bridging capacity and globalization truly becomes as disintegrating as critics fear, but expand it and we leverage the specialized skills necessary to manage rising complexity.

Our invasion of Iraq offers a case in point. There's no question the U.S. government possesses all the necessary skill sets for state-building; the trick comes in actually getting all these disparate agencies to work together synergistically. Inside the Pentagon, the military spent years getting the four services to operate with one another seamlessly -- the doctrine of "jointness." That's why we win wars so effectively.

But getting Defense to cooperate with State to cooperate with Commerce to .... That far more complex collaboration, known as the "interagency" process, remains dysfunctional. That's why we've lost the peace in Iraq -- too much vertical thinking pursued in isolation, with balkanized operations resulting in outcomes that often negate one another. It's the connections between economics and security, for example, that we understand least, not how to encourage job creation or kill bad guys.

America is not short on expertise. Frankly, it needs more people who are experts at talking to experts -- both government and private sector -- and translating between them.

You might say it all comes down to management, but that only points up another problem. Managers tend to be vertical thinkers who've simply risen to the top. On average, their translation skills are no better than the personnel they lead. Indeed, their dated knowledge often makes them worse.

The vast bulk of what I do as a grand strategist involves translating thinking from one subject domain into another. There really is nothing new under the sun; it's just that the combinations are endless. I took a lot of economics and history and political-science across a decade of college, and although my Ph.D. reads "government," my doctorate's really in how to recognize good ideas and reconceptualize and/or combine them in new ways.

Studying foreign languages obviously makes you smarter about foreign cultures, but, quite frankly, that's the least important reason for learning other tongues if you want to become a truly horizontal thinker.

What studying languages teaches you is how to master new vocabularies and the logic that underlies them. In a world with specialized lexicons for almost every profession, that's a huge skill.

Studying languages immerses you in the thought processes of others, giving you different lenses for viewing the world. It puts you in the other guy's shoes, which is crucial for out-of-the-box thinking.

Language study also boosts your skills at mimicry, which is more important than you think. If you really want to connect with skilled experts, you have to get inside their comfort zone, and one of the best ways to do that is to play the part. Languages teach you that, because to speak Russian, for example, you've got to act a bit Russian.

Finally, nothing helps you understand your own native tongue better than studying others. It'll vastly improve your speaking and writing and even your reading skills.

I've studied four foreign languages and, quite frankly, I don't speak any of them well today. But I consider the years I put in on each to have been incredibly worthwhile, generating much of the intellectual muscle that animates my work as a writer, speaker, strategist and executive.

Simply put, if you want to connect the dots across this increasingly balkanized world, you've got to be able to learn new languages on a continuous basis.

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