Transdisciplinarity: a Case for Generalism in a Complex World

“You are the universe, expressing itself as a human for a little while” – Eckhart Tolle

With zero context, what does IR stand for?

What about GM?

What about SA?

Ask me and I think Investor Relations, General Manager and Script Adherence. Indeed influenced by my current job.

Chances are you would have come up with something else.

  • Interest Rate, Infrared, International Relations…
  • Gross Margin, General Motors, Genetically Modified, Geometric Mean…
  • South Australia, South America, Solution Architecture…

Whether it’s our current field of work, academic background, where we live, who we’re surrounded by, the online content we consume – our lens of the world is more siloed than we may realize.

Don’t get me wrong. It’d be silly to suggest that we unpack IR, GM and SA in the same way. How boring (and fragile) would such a monoculture be.

And yes, it is collectively beneficial to have diverse perspectives.

But it would be even more beneficial if we celebrated more horizontal thinking that transcend these natural silos. I call this transdisciplinary thinking, and its actors, generalists.

“To be a better business leader, read less business books and more history books.”


1. Transdisciplinarity?

Disciplinary thinking is contained within a single domain. This is not necessarily a bad thing – all sorts of specialists are much needed in society.

Multi-disciplinary operates in more than one domain, but doesn’t necessarily draw links or combine them.

Inter-disciplinary draws links between some disciplines. Either by borrowing concepts from many others into the primary theme, or having a more equal representation of concepts from several domains.

Trans-disciplinary integrates all disciplines in a networked manner. Here, there are no more discrete boxes. And even if we were to cut discrete boxes them from the bigger rectangle, we recognize that is is just a snippet of something much bigger.


1.1. The hairball

Here’s a more visual introduction of transdisciplinarity.

Imagine humanity’s collective knowledge as a network map. A giant hairball.

As our knowledge frontier expands, new nodes (dots/circles) and new links (lines) are added. Disproven knowledge is pruned, or archived.

The ‘hairball’: abstract visualisation of all human knowledge. Re-purposed from MLMastery

In this knowledge map:

  • Each node (dot/circle) represents a discipline.
  • Each link (lines that join dots) represents a connection between disciplines. Two disciplines with more ideas in common will have more links.
  • The size of each node represents the the number of connections that discipline has. So, the larger circles are the disciplines that are more connected.
  • The thickness of each link represents the strength of connection. By stronger connection, I mean more ideas are shared between disciplines.
  • The number of nodes between disciplines represents the degree of separation. So, conceptually distant disciplines will have more nodes between them to get from one to the other.

Now consider a zoomed in snippet of the hairball.

Map of social sciences. Source

An overt observation here is that no discipline can be considered in isolation without tearing the links.

ex nihilo nihil fit (nothing comes from nothing)

A more covert observation is that every discipline consists of sub-disciplines, and these sub-disciplines are further composed of sub-sub-disciplines, and so on.

At the terminal level, we end up with the fundamental ideas. Knowledge itself is fractal.

Venn diagrams are another way of visualizing the connections and overlaps between disciplines.

Simple Venn: Biomedical engineering. Source
More complex Venn: Blockchain spectrum. Source

1.2. Blurry discipline boundaries

Another point worth unpacking is the contextually transient nature of taxonomy.

That is, the ‘disciplines’ we recognize today were defined based on what we knew at some point in the past.

This was often out of convenience for academic institutions and industrial specialization.

Drawing lines and packaging disciplines into discrete boxes is not the issue per se. After all, the transdisciplinary spirit is not advocating one knows a little about everything. Instead, it is advocating one knows more than just a little about a moderate number of things.

The real issue is when we forget that everything belongs to a higher level network of knowledge. Without even realizing it, we end up seeing the world through the default lens of various boxes.

2. Why transdisciplinary thinking is useful

2.1. Faster and deeper learning

Conventional wisdom tells us to discover and master our niche. Be the best in the world at something specific. It’s unpractical to be an expert in more than one field. After all, a jack of all trades is master of none.

Certainly, there is some truth in this. However, at face value, it can be misleading. 

Inflection Point

What if, in many cases, learning horizontally is actually a necessity to gain ‘vertical’ mastery in a given discipline?

Enter expert-generalism and learning transfer.

“Expert-generalists deeply understand the fundamental principles of many fields and are capable of learning transfer. That is, when the principles of one field are applied to another. This is their ultimate advantage over specialists.” – Orit Gadiehs, Chairman of Bain & Company

We’ve all capable of, and have experienced learning transfer before. Recall all the analogies and metaphors that helped us learn more complicated ideas faster.

Example 1: collateralised debt obligation.

There’s a scene in The Big Short where celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain explains what a collateralised debt obligation (CDO) is. Essentially, he says: imagine you’re a seafood chef and you have a pile of fish that is no longer fresh. You could throw it away, but that wouldn’t make you any money. So instead, you throw it into a seafood stew. This way, it’s not old fish, it’s a whole new thing. The old fish here is like the subprime (bad quality) mortgage bonds, and the stew is a CDO – a structured financial product that can be sold to investors.

Example 2: quantum computing.

Today’s computers use bits to store information. Each bit can be one of two: 0 or 1. Quantum computers use qubits to store information. Each qubit can be one of three: 0, 1, or both. Regular computing is like a regular game of coin flip – there are only two states when it lands: heads or tails. Quantum computing is a special game of coin flip where we also consider the coin in mid-air as a possible state. While the coin is spinning we can say it is both heads and tails at the same time (since it has not landed yet). This way qubits in quantum computing allow for information to be stored in 3 states, not just 2. This configuration is advantageous as it speeds up computing time substantially.

Example 3: emotion vs mood.

An emotion is like a spark, it is spontaneous and just happens – don’t bother trying to tame it. Your mood, on the other hand, is like a candle. It was initiated by the spark, but you are the one fueling it and in control of how long you want to keep it burning.

Hang on. Aren’t these just analogies and metaphors? Why bother with the fancy term ‘transdisciplinary’?

Well, what’s taken for granted in all these examples is the presumed level of general knowledge.

We all know what seafood stew is, what happens when we flip a coin, and how to ignite/blow out a candle.

But in many instances, it may be more convenient to use basic principles from a specific discipline as a base, rather than just general knowledge. Let me illustrate by explaining of some business terminology, assuming you remember basic biology concepts from high school.

Example 4: business terminology with biology metaphors.

A living organism, a chicken for example, takes in food (i.e. energy) to survive and grow. Some of this energy was already used to run around and catch its food. Therefore, whatever energy is left at this point is the net energy gain from its catch. It first uses some energy on basal metabolic processes (movement, maintenance etc).

With what’s left, it’ll dissipate some as heat. Then it’ll use the rest to grow bigger. Later in its life cycle, instead of growing, it may use the remainder to lay eggs instead.

Similarly, a company takes in gross revenue (aka. gross income) to survive and grow. Some of these expenses (COGS: cost of goods sold) was already spent to bring in that gross revenue.

Therefore, whatever money is left at this point is the net revenue. It firsts uses some of this money on operating expenses such as selling, general and administrative, and other expenses. With what’s left (EBITDA: earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortisation), it’ll pay some as taxes, interests expenses etc. Then it’ll use the rest (NPAT: net profit after tax) to reinvest in itself and grow.

Later in its life cycle, a business may choose to spend less on reinvesting and instead, distribute dividends (eggs) to its shareholders.

I’ll save the cliche Darwinian business metaphors – selective pressures in the market, company deaths (liquidations and M&A) etc – for another day.

Like this, anyone with basic biology understanding can quickly learn basic business concepts. This will then make it easier to pick up more advanced ones.

Subsequently, they may borrow newly learned business concepts to accelerate their learning on macroeconomics. Then, they may generalise macroeconomics principles and to get a unique perspective while reading ancient history.

This short-cut process repeats itself into a compounding effect. So long as one is curious and proactively seeks out new knowledge in other disciplines.

Another benefit of transdisciplinary thinking is deeper learning.

When we translate an idea into everyday examples, or other disciplines, we’re forced to decompose the idea into its fundamental principles. This is like disassembling furniture to fit it into a car. Here, we get a chance to better understand how that piece of furniture was put together in the first place, how it holds weight etc. Back to the network map/hairball analogy:

when we see the links, we get a better understanding of the node itself.

Another bonus is that a generalist is more likely to be aware of what they don’t know. This leads them to seek out relevant knowledge as needed, and are more receptive to unfamiliar ideas.


2.2. Unique perspective of the world

Perhaps the biggest perk of transdisciplinary thinking is all the unique perspectives it offers.

Consider the organic expansion of the a bacterial colony.

E. coli colony growth. Wikimedia

This looks much like the organic expansion of a ‘human colony’ at the city level…

Sydney’s growth constrained by the Tasman Sea on the East, and two national parks North and South. Atlas of Urban Expansion
London’s growth is less geographically constrained, therefore more radial. Atlas of Urban Expansion

…and at the country level.

Change in US Population Density over time. Visual Capitalist

Bacterial growth also looks like the spread of a fire…

KSL News

In all of these cases, note the similarities:

  • Generally organic and unplanned
  • Direction: radial expansion unless there are constraints
  • Pace: speed increases over time
  • Expansion dimension: geographic area

As well as the differences:

  • Expansion substrate: e.g. people, chemical reaction
  • Fueling mechanism and catalysts: e.g. population growth, new transport infrastructure
  • Constraints and drag forces: e.g. Sydney is bounded by the easterly Tasman sea and the national parks to its north and south.
  • The stop mechanisms: e.g. run out of food, firefighters
  • Scale: e.g. micrometers, kilometers
  • Time scale: e.g. minutes, days, years
  • Context: why it spread, etc

Observing these phenomena in a generalisable way makes it easier to see similar patterns in other places with a unique perspective.

For instance, look at how Islam spread geographically at the end of the first millennia. Here the expansion substrate is non-physical: ideas.

Animated map shows how religion spread around the world. Business Insider

We can also see a similar pattern in the spread of ideas, not geographically, but within an organisation. Here, the expansion dimension not geographical, rather an organisation’s reporting line.

Agile for all

The unique perspective here is borrowing lessons from other places and seeing what’s applicable in this one. Let’s take the Sydney urban expansion and spread of agile practices in organisations as a paired example.

Are old-fashioned managers that say no to many new ideas like an interest group that blocks residential development so artificially high land prices are maintained? Or are they more like protectors of a cultural heritage against the greed of developers?

While transdisciplinary thinking can pose these questions, there are no short-cuts for answers.

“When a botanist looks at a forest they may focus on the ecosystem, an environmentalist sees the impact of climate change, a forestry engineer the state of the tree growth, a business person the value of the land. None are wrong, but neither are any of them able to describe the full scope of the forest. Sharing knowledge, or learning the basics of the other disciplines, would lead to a more well-rounded understanding that would allow for better initial decisions about managing the forest.” – Shane Parrish,

This is going beyond two specialists exchanging ideas where overlapping ideas are usually discussed. A transdisciplinary lens, on the other hand, reveals things that neither specialists could see.

“There are many who have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration, and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest.” – Vikram Mansharamani, All Hail the Generalist, Harvard Business Review

While seeing is a thrill in itself, my inner millennial-lets-change-the-world heart renders this insufficient. Do something good with it. Solve problems. Add value.


2.3. Complex problem solving

The world today is inextricably interconnected and is becoming increasingly complex. More VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Not only that, it’s becoming increasingly fragile and fasterpaced. Our systems are designed such that if we don’t maintain exponential economic growth, everyone freaks out.

Here’s some megatrends in the world that I consider complex. Not all of these are necessarily problems, but the second and third order effects they’ll have on everything else can be substantial.

Political polarisation


The eagle recedes just when the dragon stretches along its Belt and Road


Shifting demographics

Tangential but I couldn’t help but notice – do you also see the coincidental resemblance here with the above?

Excessive quantitative easing and the current central bank asset bubble


The AI revolution and other general purpose technologies


The 4 sustainability themes: food, water, climate, energy


Persistent threat of mutually assured destruction


Of course, I’m not discounting the impressive strides we’ve made and how far we’ve come. Generally, and holistically, 2019 is the best time to be alive than any other point in history.

What I am saying, though, is that continuing to make further progress will require complex issues to be addressed head on.

A number of considerations make these issues complex.

  • Multiple stakeholders are directly affected, and need to be involved to do anything meaningful about it. Not only across disciplines, but also across sectors (government, business, and the third sector), political boundaries (countries), ideological (religion, beliefs) etc.
  • Who gets to decide what to optimise for, and how much? For climate change, for example, we need to balance: environmental sustainability, cost, reliability, etc.
  • Then there’s execution complexity.
  • And even if we do solve one problem optimally, it can have unknown second or third order effects on other issues.

So, in contrast to my previous post, it’s just not that simple. No wonder why the World Economic Forum has recognised complex problem solving as the most needed skill.

How does transdisciplinarity fit into all this?

I think you already know the answer.

Transdisciplinary thinkers, by definition, are less ideologically fixed on a single perspective. They are well positioned to look out for the dynamic linkages between various issues, pose unique questions, and suggest unique solutions. This is particularly valuable in the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world where siloed approaches are restrictive and inflexible.

But also, by definition, these generalists do not have deep subject matter expertise.

Specialists refine knowledge within a discipline, while generalists can focus more on connecting them. Both are equally important, but right now, it seems that generalists are both under-represented and under-appreciated.

The specialist-generalist, or transdisciplinary-disciplinary pairs need not be a binary dichotomy. It is a continuum. I have my reasons for leaning towards generalism, and it would be interesting to hear where you are right now, and where you want to be going forward.

So how can one practice more transdisciplinary thinking?

Familiarise yourself with complexity science. Many of its concepts serve as a powerful mental model for seeing and drawing links between disciplines. Complexity will be a recurring theme in my writing. More to come 🙂

Thanks for reading!

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