Studies Show That People Who Have High “Integrative Complexity” Are More Likely To Be Successful
A self-made billionaire studied Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. An eminent researcher interviewed Nobel Laureates. They each came to the same conclusion.
My 6’5” dad was black and grew up in one of the most dangerous cities in America. He sported a huge afro into the early ’90s, when he died at the age of 35 from lung cancer, one year younger than I am now.
My mother, a Jewish refugee from Poland, arrived in Brooklyn when she was 17 with no money and no English. She was essentially a single mother for most of my childhood.
That makes me a half-black, half-white, 6’5” man born into a half-Christian, half-Jewish family, and raised by a refugee.
So I watch the daily culture wars unfold with mixed feelings. Recently, I listened to a podcast about race in which my people were described as “the victims.” Then I listened to another podcast, and this one cast me on the side of “the oppressor.” The result is that I tend to feel like a chameleon and see both sides of many of the issues currently being debated. I used to feel like I should pretend to strongly take one side or the other. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to embrace this ability to appreciate contrasting viewpoints without labeling one right and the other wrong.
And then I found four studies, independently conducted by four of the greatest thinkers of our time, that basically came to the same surprising conclusion: Many of the world’s top entrepreneurs — like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk — along with Nobel Laureates have a common, rare skill called “integrative complexity.” Integrative complexity is the ability to develop and hold opposing traits, values, and ideas and then integrate them into larger ones.
These findings go against conventional wisdom in the business world, which is that we should double down on our strengths and mitigate everything else. They are also opposed to conventional tribal wisdom that says we should pick one side of every polarity and vehemently fight for it.
Here are the four breakthrough studies on why integrative complexity is a key to success, personal growth, and cultural polarization.
Breakthrough Study 1: Self-Made Billionaire Entrepreneur Studies And Interviews Some Of The Best Entrepreneurs Ever
In the first study, self-made billionaire Ray Dalio (author of Principles) conducted long interviews with and performed comprehensive personality assessments on Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings (founder of Netflix), Muhammad Yunus (social entrepreneur and Nobel Peace Prize recipient), Jack Dorsey (Twitter co-founder and CEO), and other luminaries. To my knowledge, no other study has gone so in-depth with so many high-level, busy leaders.
After collecting the data, Dalio narrowed his findings into a list of seven common traits. Of those traits, Dalio said that the most interesting was this:
All are able to see both big pictures and granular details (and levels in between) and synthesize the perspectives they gain at those different levels, whereas most people see just one or the other. They are simultaneously creative, systematic, and practical. They are assertive and open-minded at the same time.
In an interview with Tony Robbins, Dalio further unpacks his observation:
They also tend to do things that you assume people don’t do together. Let me give you an example... Ordinarily, you’ll have a creative who you say, “Oh, they’re very, very creative but they don’t like structured.” Or a very structured person doesn’t like creativity…
The best ones are people who not only have good mental maps of how things should be done, but they have high levels of humility. [In other words, they are smart and humble.] It may not look that way to an outsider. You may look at some of these people and you might say, “Wow. They sound so brilliant and they’re asking the questions.” But if you’re in discussions with them, and I’m sure that you [Tony Robbins] have been in discussion with them, what you find out is generally speaking that they’re curious, voraciously curious. They’re wondering if they’re wrong. They’re taking in information. So they don’t look as confident when you’re in those conversations.
Breakthrough Study 2: Eminent Psychologist Studies Creative Geniuses
The second study was completed in 1996 by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of Flow), after performing in-depth interviews with a diverse group of 91 creative geniuses, from Nobel Laureates to business tycoons to renowned artists. When describing what these individuals had in common, he wrote this (it’s a long passage, but worth it):
If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it would be complexity. By this I mean that they show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes — instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude’…
These qualities are present in all of us, but usually we are trained to develop only one pole of the dialectic. We might grow up cultivating the aggressive, competitive side. A creative individual is more likely to be both aggressive and cooperative, either at the same time or at different times, depending on the situation. Having a complex personality means being able to express the full range of traits that are potentially present in the human repertoire but usually atrophy because we think that one or the other pole is ‘good,’ whereas the other extreme is ‘bad’…
A complex personality does not imply neutrality, or the average. It is not some position at the midpoint between two poles. It does not imply, for instance, being wishy-washy, so that one is never very competitive or very cooperative. Rather it involves the ability to move from one extreme to the other as the occasion requires.
Breakthrough Study 3: Leading Business Thinker Studies Business Icons
The third study was conducted by Roger Martin, who was named the world’s leading business thinker in 2017. Martin conducted in-depth interviews (some over eight hours long) with over 50 of the world’s top business leaders — such as Michael Dell, former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley, and Jack Welch — and put his findings into several books. His conclusion echoes Csikszentmihalyi and Dalio: “what made them successful was not making trade-offs … just refusing, and then saying, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”
Martin calls this approach “integrative thinking,” and defines it in his book The Opposable Mind as:
The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.
Breakthrough Study 4: Adult Development Pioneer Surveys Tens Of Thousands
Finally, we have the lifetime work of Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan and his peers in the field of adult development. To put their work in context, you should know that in the 1930s, psychologist Jean Piaget identified four universal stages of cognitive development in humans:
Piaget’s work suggested that adolescents reached a final stage, which they remained in throughout adulthood.
This understanding was later turned on its head by the adult development field, where longitudinal studies showed that similar to children, adults go through a series of universal and predictable phases as shown in the model below created Robert Kegan…
The final stage of Kegan’s model, which only one percent of the population reaches, is called the Self-Transforming Mind. What’s fascinating about this stage is that one develops the ability to hold conflicting, contradictory, and paradoxical ideologies, thoughts, and values simultaneously. At this stage, we’re no longer a prisoner to one identity. Instead we can fluidly explore the subtleties and complexities of multiple ways of experiencing reality. For a more a complex overview, I recommend this 20-minute video of Kegan explaining his findings.
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Upon learning about “integrative complexity,” I started noticing the quality in the iconic entrepreneurs I’ve been writing about over the past few years—entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Ray Dalio, Steve Jobs.
Jeff Bezos is a master at balancing short-term and long-term. To this end, one of his favorite quotes is the Latin saying Gradatim Ferociter, which means “step-by-step ferociously.” At the same time, he’s financing the development of a 10,000 year clock on one of his properties to symbolize the value of long-term thinking.
Elon Musk balances incredible vision with exquisite attention-to-detail. On the one hand, he is known for visions decades in the future that include humanity becoming multi-planetary, getting off of fossil fuels, and avoiding an artificial general intelligence apocalypse. At the same time, he literally taught himself how to be a designer, rocket scientist, and car engineer. When Musk showed Ray Dalio his own car for the first time, Dalio says, “he had as much to say about the key fob that opened the doors as he did about his overarching vision.”
And, of course, Steve Jobs was a detail-oriented visionary. He is famous for insisting that the inside of a Mac should be as well designed as the outside — even though no one would ever see it. We learn in Jobs’ biography that as he lay in his bed dying from cancer, he asked for five different oxygen masks so that he could choose the one with the best design.
If the conclusions of these studies are true, they have major implications for business, education, parenting and personal development. They force us to rethink some of our most fundamental beliefs around how we can develop our potential.
Implication 1: Move beyond the strengths-based paradigm of skill development.
The current trend in management thinking is to focus almost solely on our strengths and mitigate our weaknesses by hiring other people. If you have a blind spot or are resisting learning something, that’s fine. Just get someone else to do it.
These studies imply that we may want to instead focus on developing and synthesizing atypical combinations of skills and traits with their opposites in order to develop an emergent skill set that is both rare and extremely valuable.
In other words, the focus would not just be on strengths, but instead on multiplier skill sets where 1+1=10. For more on the power of combining atypical combinations, read my article People Who Have “Too Many Interests” Are More Likely To Be Successful According To Research.
The most eloquent explanation that I’ve ever seen on multiplier skill sets comes from one of the top venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in the world, Marc Andreessen:
The world is becoming an ever more complicated place. Everything is slamming together. Fields that used to be discreet are now combining, due in a large part to what we’ve been talking about. And so it’s not about any individual skill, it’s about combining skills, and then constantly layering in new skills.
Andreessen goes on to give an example of an engineer who is also a writer, and who then becomes knowledgeable in education. Each of these skills is common, but as you combine them you end up with more and more rare skill sets:
When you think about it, the power of atypical combinations is really remarkable. It’s like creating real gold from fool’s gold. It’s the ultimate act of alchemy.
Implication 2: Think about what to learn next in a fundamentally different way.
We’re moving from a one-skill model to a multi-skill model. At a minimum, every few years, we’re going to need a new skill.
And in this rapidly changing knowledge economy, one of the most important and difficult decisions we have to make repeatedly is what to learn next. Do we take that course on data science and machine learning or sign up for a design class? Do we study mental models or receive coaching on how to build relationships? Do we learn the thing that will pay off right away or focus on the long-term goal?
These studies suggest a surprising approach: Learn the polar opposite of a skill or trait you already have. If you’re great at numbers, develop your language skills. If you’re a whiz at keeping track of details, learn how to see the big picture. If you love business, delve into something creative. If you love art, learn about business.
Implication 3: Listen less to your intuition and more to your counterintuition.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” — Carl Jung
In our culture, we’ve deified our gut instinct. Many think of it as a higher power speaking the truth from the heavens. For sure, many of our most creative decisions and insights come to us in a flash from our subconscious.
But so do many of our worst. Over the last 30 years, a growing list of hundreds of cognitive biases have been identified. Many were instrumental to our survival in an ancient world, but can lead to irrational decisions in the modern world.
Three biases, in particular, lead to a decreased ability to handle integrative complexity. Collectively, they give us the feeling that our beliefs are reality, rather than just a fallible model. They’re…
- Confirmation Bias. The tendency to look for ideas that confirm what we already believe.
- Backfire Effect. The tendency to focus on the holes in ideas that go against what we already believe.
- Ingroup/Outgroup Bias. As Dr. David Rock, the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute puts it: “The brain classifies everyone as in-group or out-group. We do that with every person we come into contact with or even look at. The decision that is made is from a wide variety of neurological processes that we’re often not aware of. It impacts the networks we use to perceive movement, empathy, data, and whether we’re motivated to see the person win or lose.”
The finding of the four studies I’ve shared show that we may actually want to do the opposite of what our intuition tells us to do in some cases: run toward difference rather than away from it. As soon as we notice any polarity, rather than defending one side, we should focus on understanding “the other.” In other words, don’t ignore your “crazy” conservative or liberal uncle with opposing ideas to your own. Read the news outlet that represents a view other than your own bubble’s. Try to understand others’ diametrically opposed viewpoints.
Of course, this is easier said than done. But the good news is that the individuals in the studies have shown that it’s possible to improve and even a little bit can make a big difference.
The success of the scientific method over the last few hundred years is proof that humans can at least partially overcome their cognitive biases. The scientific method is designed to counteract our cognitive biases, and it has allowed us to come to very counterintuitive conclusions about how the universe works.
Just consider how counterintuitive it is that the Earth revolves around the sun. How easy it must have been to believe otherwise, when for millennia all humans could see was the sun “moving through” the sky each day. Consider how difficult it must have been for our ancestors to first understand that many illnesses are caused by invisible things called germs. These examples show how often our intuition has been proven wrong, and how much of what we now believe is likely to also be wrong. It’s a great argument for learning more than one side of an issue.
Implication 4: Run toward tension.
“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”
— Self-made Billionaire Charlie Munger
We’re often taught that controversy is a bad thing. But controversy, polarity, conflict, and tension may be one of our biggest opportunities for growth as individuals and as a society. Perhaps when we see any polarity that’s important to us, we should run toward it rather than away from it.
Throughout the world, polarity can create prejudice, discrimination, demonization, and even war. But it can also be an opportunity for learning, growth, and cooperation.
Implication 5: Learn how to work with your opponents instead of just your friends.
I recently watched a livestream interview (43:40) between Scott Adams of Dilbert fame and Naval Ravikant, one of Silicon Valley’s most respected angel investors and entrepreneurs. I admire Adams and Ravikant because they are each independent thinkers.
In this interview, they had a fascinating back-and-forth relevant to this article. Adams posed the following question for each of them to answer:
“Which is the better strategy, becoming better friends with your friends or finding a way to work with your opponents?”
They each resoundly said that working more closely with your opponents was the more growthful path. Ravikant said, “Clearly, if you can work with your opponents, you’ve got it made. You win every time.”
Adams agreed. “It seems to me that wherever you’re looking at a situation like ‘How can I succeed,’ ask yourself who is my opponent and how can I break that. Because that opponent is friction.”
When you look at their responses through the framework of “integrative complexity,” they make total sense.
The Call To Action For All Of Us
“If everyone has a full circle of human qualities to complete, then progress lies in the direction we haven’t been.” ― Gloria Steinem
In life, there are certain lessons that we learn almost immediately. And there are others that we confront over and over throughout our lives. We each have our own sacred battles that can take years and even decades to resolve if they are resolved at all.
For example, when I reflect on my life, I see that many of my struggles ultimately came down to a few polarities. Here are a few examples:
- Being (fully experiencing life now) and Doing (accomplishing things that will pay off in the future). For me, being in a constant state of productivity is what feels comfortable. It makes me feel like I’m living life. When I relax, I feel mild anxiety. While this has led to some parts of my life that I’m most grateful for, it also leads me to run myself into the ground. For example, often, by the time the kids get home from school, my brain is operating on fumes. While this is a polarity that I’m still integrating, I have made progress and spent a lot of time exploring meditation, for example.
- Product and Sales. I started my business as a product person. I focused on developing a quality product and looked down on marketing, which I associated with the unscrupulous tactics of a used car salesman. However, when the business failed to bring in money, I eventually and reluctantly learned that I needed sales skills in order to keep it afloat. Furthermore, if my product was truly solving a problem, then other people needed to learn about it, and that meant I needed to get comfortable promoting it. Now I consider myself both a product person and a salesperson. As soon as I started focusing on sales, the business took off.
- Confidence and Open-Mindedness. Throughout my life, I’ve been very coachable and open-minded. This has helped me grow rapidly when I have the right mentor. It has helped me be comfortable with tension. On the other hand, I’m still getting comfortable with the ability to confidently express my opinions. This has led to me being overlooked and underestimated. I’m currently inspired by the idea “strong ideas, loosely held.”
Polarity is an age-old problem/opportunity. Almost every culture has developed language to describe it. In the East, we have the yin-yang symbol developed nearly 2,000 years ago. In the West, we have the Socratic method, dialectical thinking from philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and antinomies from Immanuel Kant.
As a modern culture, we need to re-remember the value and nature of polarity. Similar to how the skillset of learning how to learn makes it possible to learn anything faster, learning how to manage polarity makes it possible to resolve any polarity faster. The skillset involves:
- The ability to recognize polarity in yourself, your family, your community, your company, your industry, your nation, and in the world.
- The willingness and ability to manage and resolve it.
- Awareness of one’s shadow side.
- The courage and discipline to move toward “the other” rather than away.
I call this set of skills Janus Skills (coined by my mentor Eben Pagan). In ancient Roman religion, Janus was the God of “beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings.” This God symbolizes the resolution of polarity into one while retaining the uniqueness of each.
With Janus skills, the next time you encounter a polarity, you’ll say to yourself, “Oh. This is just another polarity. Therefore, I should move toward it rather than away from it. And here’s what I should do…” You’ll feel excitement, because the polarity is a sign that you’re about to grow in some way.
How To Learn Janus Skills
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” —Walt Whitman
When I write articles, I’m not just sharing the latest thing I’ve learned. I’m sharing something I’ve applied to my life and have been transformed by. Otherwise, what’s the point? Furthermore, I’m not just sharing “good to know” information; I’m sharing rare and valuable information that I think is worth you taking action on now.
This learn-do-share cycle is deeply gratifying, because it allows me to do what I love while experimenting with high-quality ideas that others can copy in a fraction of the time it takes me to learn.
Janus Skills is one of the most important skill sets I’ve developed and am developing. Every time I have resolved a polarity, I’ve then had a major breakthrough in multiple areas of my life that I had previously stalled at.
The “mental model” of Janus Skills is just one of many valuable mental models we can use to improve our lives and businesses.
A mental model is a concept that describes “how things work” at a fundamental level — it illustrates a phenomenon that’s been repeatedly noticed and confirmed through many years of observation. Mental models are extremely useful because they identify processes that underlie all disciplines and domains. In other words, whether you’re an architect, a psychologist, or a CEO, the mental model of polarity applies to your field.
There are hundreds of mental models for us to learn. So I created the Mental Model Club, where we take a deep dive into one of the most valuable ones each month.
When you join the club, you get our best Mastery Manual.
When you join the Mental Model Club, you also make it possible for me to invest dozens of hours writing articles like this one. As a result of the 500+ members who have joined so far in addition to the students in my Learning Ritual Course, I’ve been able to transition to writing full-time. As the club becomes larger, I will continue to invest more and more into increasing the quality and quantity of the articles I write.
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This article is part of a series of articles on Learning How To Learn that I’ve written over the past two years. Becoming a polymath is just one of many approaches to learning faster and more effectively which I share. You can watch my webinar that summarizes some of the biggest principles by following the link below…
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“Oddly enough, the paradox is one of our most valuable spiritual possessions, while uniformity of meaning is a sign of weakness.” — Carl Jung
This article was written with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.