This is an article that pays tribute to Freeman Dyson, a British born American theoretical physicist and mathematician who died in 2020 at the age of 96. Dyson stated that we need both focused frogs and visionary birds that fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out of the far horizon. In other words, we need both specialists and generalists to successfully solve complex problems.
Birds delight in concepts that unify thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape, frogs live in the mud below and focus on flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects and they solve problems one at a time. As a mathematician, Dyson label himself a frog, but contended it is stupid to say that birds are better than frogs because they see further, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper into the world. He wrote that the world is both broad and deep and that we need both birds and frogs working together to explore it.
Dyson used Bacon and Descartes to exemplify his frogs and birds in his talk he named “The Einstein Talk”. But since these 17th-century characters might not be well known to you, I thought I might struggle to succeed in coming through to you with the analogy. So let’s find someone closer to home. Let’s use someone who not only went by the same name but also together changed the modern world as we know it. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Since these two don’t need much introduction, I don’t need to deep dive into their story in details, but one without the other would never have made a dent in world history. Needless to say; Steve Jobs was a bird, Steve Wozniak is a frog.
The analogy of birds and frogs points to the importance of having specialists and generalists on a team to be able to successfully solve complex problems. Being a frog or being a bird has little to do with the role you currently possess or the job you are currently doing. Some people are better at seeing far than others, period. It’s more about individual traits, not tools nor skills. In order to master the birds perspective, you have to possess the mindset of a scout, which is to observe and be notoriously curious, open-minded and be able to change perspective, embrace ideas, theories and change be able to your opinion as others change Instagram filters, you need range. As a bird, you consider facts from experts, but not their opinions. You have multiple domain knowledge, but you’re not an expert in any of them. But you know enough to be able to see patterns and analogies across domains in order to apply patterns from one domain to another, also known as lateral thinking.
Mastering the role of the frog requires different traits, the ability to deep dive into a field to push the boundaries and conventions to find solutions to problems no one else have thought of, and to expand the solution space based on the given information you have. Specialists wear the necessary blinders in order to truly focus on one problem at a time. Pushing the boundaries and setting new levels of quality of their craft and their ability to build and create things is their prerogative. It requires deep knowledge and a talent, and some people simply just don't have the patience or the talent for such level of detail. These are the people who find new and innovative solutions that lie hidden in the cracks that no one else sees, because they wouldn’t know where to look.
What are you? A frog or a bird?