Multidisciplinary is absolutely essential to better activism
Working in activism, we can easily miss the forest for the trees. In other words, we focus so intently on the mission, the task at hand, or a specific issue to address, that we miss other details that can be immensely valuable to progress.
This is why being multidisciplinary — having a wide range of skills rather than one specialty in particular — is so valuable to activism work. Rather than getting caught up in specialized or narrow thinking, we can pull inspiration, ideas, and solutions from diverse fields.
In David Epstein’s New York Times Bestseller “Range,” this principle is introduced with a simple story about two world-class athletes. One was introduced to his sport at less than a year old and immediately began training to become a world champion in golf. Another started as a generalist who tried out a wide variety of sports well into adolescence before eventually discovering one that suited him best. He is now one of the most well-known names in tennis.
Those two athletes, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, had very different experiences and pathways which both led to success. Still, there’s an important difference in their sports which is essential to take into account when comparing their stories to our own lives.
One of the sports more closely resembles the kinds of issues we face in activism work. Golf presents challenges that are mostly static and possible to be mastered simply by repeatedly practicing the same thing. Conversely, tennis is a game of dynamics, movement, and adaptation.
When we think of the issues activism aims to solve — just like in tennis — the target is often a moving one, involving various actors with different goals and needs, each one impacting all other elements. Having diverse types of knowledge broadens our minds for creative thinking while allowing us to better adapt in ever-changing circumstances and challenges.
Those who dabble in many subjects have another advantage as well. This approach allows us to experience firsthand different possibilities and eventually choose something best adapted to our interests, skills, and natural gifts. Essentially, it provides new additions to our mental toolkit, so that we don't approach every problem we encounter with only a hammer but instead with an array of options that allows us to choose the tool most suited to a specific need.
It’s important to note here that being multidisciplinary does not mean we can never specialize or master a subject. Rather, the idea is that by first building a solid foundation in diverse topics, we are better equipped to “dive deep” if and when the moment arises. Remaining as a generalist can also serve well in the long-term by building our knowledge and experience which can help us achieve significant accomplishments.
In terms of application to activism, examples of the value of multidisciplinary abound. Addressing the abuse of wealth inequality certainly involves a level of understanding and expertise on the legalities and human rights of the issue. However, those subjects may remain static, complicated, and challenging to interpret.
If we bring in lateral thinking to apply analogies from other fields, we might come across situations that shed greater light on the issue. We might gain inspiration from looking at the way educational rights have progressed in developing countries, or discover an insight based on how governments shift toward democratic values to ensure the voices of the less powerful are also heard.
Applying multidisciplinary to your activism work could look as diverse as multidisciplinarity itself. It could take the form of picking up new hobbies and interests in your personal life. Or intentionally cultivating and encouraging a diverse education and professional development path for employees and candidates, building it directly into the DNA of the work you do.
Multidisciplinary can show up in the simplest of ways, in the conversations we have with others, the movies and books enjoy, and the lifestyle we choose to live. What matters is how we apply the lessons learned from those various facets of life, to better understand and progress in each step we take forward.