Travel and the Renaissance Man

Sramana Mitra quotes an interesting article in the New York Times on the idea of the Renaissance man; those people who can straddle a wide variety of disciplines to be able to bring deep creativity & innovation to most problems. It is a varied cast of characters – from Leonardo Da Vinci to Steve Jobs – those people who can be termed Renaissance men.

I have often thought about this in the past. As we specialise and then super-specialise, we risk narrowing our view of things so much that we lose the woods for the trees. The paradox is that deep, vertical specialisation works – almost all our technical achievements have been built on this. But, we also know from the experience of true breakthroughs that the solution is never in the right answer; it is almost always in the right question.

Asking the right question is often about re-framing a problem. The Apple vs IBM example is instructive. When IBM was figuring out how to make a better computing machine, Steve Jobs was asking how computing power can be made to improve the lives of ordinary people. Same subject; different questions; very different solutions.

Among the various attributes helpful to asking the right questions, arguably the most important is exposure to multiple contexts. And nothing exposes one to alien context as much as travel. Which is why, the ‘after-college-backpack-around-the world’ routine is so powerful in creating innovative minds.

Which now brings me to an unsolicited tourism policy prescription. Maybe the Ministry of Tourism should implement a large scale program to send college-leaving students on 3 month sabbaticals all across the world. If we manage to send, let us say, 300,000 semi-urban & rural students to places across India and across the world, in one generation we will develop a group of superior thinkers who will keep India on a long-term trajectory of innovation and growth. And in a relative sense, it will cost peanuts. A back of the envelope calculation suggests to me that this cannot cost more than Rs 500 crores per annum. A very small investment for a massive potential return.

Click here for my post on upside down maps, a possible way to get truly innovative.


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