Anyone who’s familiar with life in India, where even the most mundane of tasks can turn into an exhausting and mind-boggling experience, knows that it’s impossible to survive without some jugaad. Even more so if, like most Indians, you don’t have the means for an easy answer. Jugaad refers to the deftness to tackle problems or adverse situations with minimal resources and unlimited ingenuity. This often results in a deceptively simple and novel solution, born from a dire need and humility, which make you marvel at the creativity and wit of the mastermind behind it.
In a very nice essay on Aeon, Robert Twigger recalls a similarly lowbrow and inventive solution his Bedouin cook came up with when a tyre of the car they were traveling in got punctured in the middle of the desert. “Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand.”
I like the analogy of the Bedouin cook. Call it the misfortune of the privileged who lack this survival instinct to cope with any situation under any condition. Enjoying a life in comfort quells the need to think on your feet and make do with whatever you have, be it skills or knowledge. Having many options to ‘outsource’ your problems may seem like an easy way out, but if you get caught in a situation where you can’t buy a solution or get someone else to fix your problems, then panic sets in.
Lacking a varied set of skills and knowledge leaves you unprepared to face unpleasant surprises with confidence. Twigger considers this a great loss, and I couldn’t agree with him more. Because unpleasant surprises not only pop up in India or in the desert of Egypt; they’re an integral part of life. Tackling them requires an acceptance of whatever happens and an open mind. But Twigger signals a single-mindedness in the Western world rooted in industrialization and the division of labor, which promote specialization. A trend that I think isn’t restricted to the Western world.
Ours has become the age of the ‘monopath’; a person with “a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests”, Twigger laments. “We doctor our CVs to make it look as if all we ever wanted to do was sell mobile homes or Nespresso machines.” In a hilarious example of this reverence for ‘the expert’, he recalls how the producer of a radio show kept calling him ‘Dr Twigger’, eventhough he holds no PhD, just because he wrote a book on the topic he was asked to talk about. “My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert – otherwise why would anyone listen?”
As Twigger points out, the problem is that many people think that learning is only for students, and that our ability to master new skills depends on some kind of innate talent. This stops them from pursuing other interests. But this ‘monopath’ mindset also nurtures a very defensive, and I would say rather self-righteous view of what we think we know well and the way we think things should be. It shuts the mind for what it’s unfamiliar with and stops us from imagining beyond what we know or understand. Not exactly a rich breeding ground for innovation and invention.
After all, as Twigger reminds us, it was the ‘mastery of many trades’ that made Renaissance man thrive. Likewise, it’s the cross-fertilization of different disciplines that is leading to advances in areas as far afield as science and the arts. The polymath, the ‘Jack of all trades’, embraces different learnings and views as it helps him or her make new connections to find better solutions. Research has shown that if we try, and try hard, to learn new things we can continue to grow and evolve as we age, keeping the brain fit and sharp.
So perhaps it’s time to ditch that narrow-gauge one-track and move to the broad-gauge multi-track, as Twigger suggests. If not for our mental health, then I would say for the appreciation that what we know or have today may be useless or gone tomorrow. Life is unpredictable and totally random. One option is to remain static and hope that things will get back to the way they were. But it comes at the risk of turning grumpy and resentful if they don’t. The other is to accept that change and renewal are inherent to life. That we need to continuously invent and reinvent ourselves, keeping our mind wandering and wondering while gathering honey along the way.
See for more on jugaad and how it can transform lives: http://jugaadinnovation.com/