Specialists vs. Generalists in Asia: The Yale-NUS College Experiment


The boldest experiment in education today is taking place in Singapore. Yale-NUS College (click HERE) has been operating as a residential college focused on liberal arts and sciences in Asia since it opened its doors in 2013 and welcomed 157 students from 26 countries.

I think of Yale-NUS as an audacious experiment for two reasons. First, given the historical emphasis on memorization and rote learning of facts, Asians seem uncomfortable with the very idea of a liberal education. Second, Yale-NUS has completely reimagined the curriculum of a liberal education (Click HERE). It wasn’t enough to merely introduce a controversial option for higher education; the Yale-NUS partnership completely redesigned what a liberal education should be for the 21st century!


By acknowledging our current “age of commodified information,” the Yale-NUS curriculum focuses on helping students learn how to think, not what to think. The focus is on methodology and process, not on specific facts. Departments don’t exist; and core classes address issues that transcend singular perspectives.

Consider one required course called “Current Issues” in which several faculty members address topics such as climate change, food, poverty, ageing, etc. from both scientific and social perspectives (click HERE). Without departments, cross-fertilization and collaboration around topics such as these are more likely and students acquire a depth of understanding that enables intelligent engagement on a broad range of topics.

The interdisciplinary curriculum emphasizes both breadth of exposure and rigor in methodology. As noted by the inaugural curriculum committee, “We do not put much value on broad but shallow learning. We aim, instead, to give depth to the breadth we offer.”

Yale-NUS College has the potential to transform higher education in the 21st Century by modeling a radically different approach to undergraduate education, but the experiment is not yet complete and cultural and social barriers still exist.

Of the 330 currently enrolled students at Yale-NUS College, 3% have chosen to drop out and leave the college, with several citing lack of specialization as a motivating factor (click HERE). Is this just a fundamental discomfort with the liberal arts model? After all, given that students are disproportionately occupied with required courses during the first two years, departing students may be leaving just before they begin to explore topics more deeply.

Is there an Asian cultural and social commitment to specialization and expertise that will take time to break?

Consider the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (“PISA”) survey, a 2012 test administered by the OECD to more than 500,000 high school students in 65 countries (click HERE). At the top of the rankings for mathematics are China, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. The United States ranks 27th of the 34 OECD nations.  The test is a measure of specific skills.

But as noted by Fareed Zakaria, despite this data, Americans believe they are the best in math…and it may be this self-esteem that allows Americans “to challenge their elders, start companies, persist when others think they are wrong, and pick themselves up when they fail”(click HERE). It drives American entrepreneurship.

Further, there is significant evidence that businesses prefer to hire smart and motivated individuals rather than those with specific skills to match current needs (click HERE). A recent survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93% of employers believe “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major” (click HERE).

So What? The 3% drop-out rate for Yale-NUS bothers me. I believe Asia needs to look beyond the skills-based specialization models that dominate its educational landscape, and Yale-NUS offers one alternative. Asia seems destined to be a driver of the global economy for decades to come, and having a more dynamic and flexible labor pool will increase its resilience. Embracing liberal education in Asia offers the world a brighter future, one driven by more creative approaches to the world’s most pressing problems. I genuinely hope the 3% metric is an anomaly that will pass as the experiment progresses.

But I’m also hopeful Yale-NUS succeeds because it may provide a much-needed catalyst to change American higher education – it may catalyze greater interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching, a modification of the entrenched department-based fiefdoms and silos, and a general improvement in accountability. It may help implement the seemingly radical prescriptions in Columbia Professor Mark Taylor’s controversial New York Times piece “End the University as We Know It” (click HERE).

In today’s interconnected, dynamic, and rapidly shifting technological world, breadth of experience will soon trump depth of expertise (click HERE); the pendulum between specialists and generalists has swung too far towards specialists; the value of generalists seems poised to rise (click HERE for my 2012 HBR post “All Hail the Generalist”).


Given a key output of a liberal education is the ability to integrate perspectives, it’s worth noting Harvard biologist EO Wilson’s assessment of our most pressing problem: “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

Globalization Meets Healthcare: Medical Tourism Boom Forthcoming!


Thirty-five years ago, 75% of the world’s middle class was based in the developed world, with only one out of every four consumers living in the emerging markets. Within the next ten years, the percentages will flip: by 2025, 75% of a rapidly growing global middle class will be in the emerging markets. The world is on the verge of a global consumption boom that will affect everything from agriculture to education to energy and air travel.


The expanded availability and rising affordability of international air travel has combined with increased accessability of online information about medical services to create a rapidly growing market for medical tourism. And while the world’s wealthy have for decades been traveling to the developed world for healthcare services, the global middle class has proven more willing to go elsewhere. Healthcare is colliding with globalization, generating enormous shifts in the geography of medical service delivery.

Top destinations for medical travelers are no longer only in the Western world. According to Patients Without Borders (click HERE), the most frequent destinations for medical travelers were Thailand (1.2 million patients), the US (>600,000), Mexico (between 200,000 and 1 million), Singapore and Malaysia (each > 500,000), India (> 250,000), and Brazil (~180,000) in 2013 (click HERE).

This booming market is driven by consumers seeking quality care at reasonable costs. Although the market initially focused on cosmetic surgeries, it has expanded to include dentistry as well as cardiovascular, bariatric, organ transplant, eye, orthopedic, fertility, and cancer-related procedures (click HERE).

Cost savings for patients (after incorporating travel costs) can range between 30%-90% depending upon the procedure and destination. Consider that heart surgery that would cost $286,000 in Houston would cost $26,000 in Colombia (click HERE); or that a knee replacement costing $48,000 in the United States would cost ~$10,000 in Thailand (click HERE).

Several innovative and forward-looking healthcare companies explicitly target medical tourists. Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand currently serves 520,000 patients a year from over 190 countries with more than 900 physicians covering more than 50 specialities (click HERE). Apollo Hospitals in India notes that it has treated over 42 million people from 120 countries over the past 30 years via its global footprint of hospitals (click HERE). And Parkway Hospitals in Singapore has more than 1200 accredited specialists on staff to treat the hundreds of thousands of patients it receives from nearby Indonesia (click HERE). Within the United States, the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic both receive thousands of international patients per year.


So what? First, medical tourism is big business! The market for treating traveling patients is enormous and growing quickly. It is estimated to generate ~$55 billion this year (click HERE) and is growing between 15%-25% per year (click HERE).   The booming middle class will likely sustain strong growth for the foreseeable future.

Secondly, as cost-pressures continue unabated within developed markets like the United States, medical tourism growth seems poised to accelerate. American health insurance companies such as Anthem and Blue Cross Blue Shield already have pilot programs sending US patients to Apollo Hospitals in India and Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand (click HERE). It’s easy to imagine these programs expanding.

Traveling great distances for medical treatment goes back to ancient times. The Sumerians (~4000 BC) constructed healthcare facilities around hot springs, and hill tribes in St. Moritz noted the therapeutic benefits of drinking and bathing in iron-rich mineral springs during the Bronze Age (click HERE). Later, the Greeks began the first network facilities catering to the needs of medical tourists with a network of Asclepia Temples that catered to the healthcare needs of those from near and far (click HERE). Ancient India also catered to the healthcare needs of those from afar, with Ayurvedic medicine and yoga-based healing at various locations around the country (click HERE).

What’s different this time is the scale of the phenomenon. There are literally billions of middle class consumers that have the ability to travel and the access to information to evaluate global medical options. And the world is aging, further pressuring the demand for healthcare. Consider the following chart from The Economist:


The double whammy of a larger consumer class and an older world is likely to drive a global healthcare boom unlike any the world has previously seen…and while the timing and pace of this boom are ambiguous, one thing is certain: humans are happy to spend whatever they must in their never-ending quest to extend life.



Our Quest for Diversity is Misguided


Last week, I attended a two-day seminar run by the National Association of Corporate Directors. Over the course of the many sessions, I heard about everything from cyber-risk management to talent development. Most of the sessions were interesting and informative. One of the discussions about board composition got me thinking about our misplaced need to categorize individuals into particular boxes.

Because many corporate boards use recruiters to identify candidates, very specific criteria usually guide the search for new directors. Boards now regularly search for individuals with specific functional expertise. They also want to assure gender, racial, and ethnic diversity. Plus, in today’s global marketplace, geographic experience matters…Oh, and also industry knowledge.


In this quest to assure diversity, have boards effectively eliminated some of the most promising candidates? What about those who have had multiple functional experiences across several industries? Or what about the value of fresh, unadulterated perspectives that outsiders may offer? The tyranny of box-thinking usually dismisses those candidates that don’t fit neatly into boxes.

And this box-thinking is everywhere! Consider the Myer-Briggs personality tests that try to place candidates into one of sixteen separate boxes, based on how individuals rank on four separate criteria (click HERE). It is used by more than 200 federal agencies (click HERE) and 89 of the Fortune 100 (click HERE). Only problem is that it generally doesn’t work. Up to 50% of people who take the test a second time get a different categorization (click HERE) and many psychologists dismiss the test as useless (click HERE). And yet the boxes continue to reign supreme – the Myers Briggs test generates tens of millions of dollars in fees each year.


So what? I believe our incessant search for diversity is misguided. We’re prioritizing the wrong type of diversity. Well-rounded groups have replaced well-rounded individuals. Expertise and specialization are revered, and those with many different experiences are seen as unfocused. We've become so focused on diversity of expertise within a group that we've forgotten about diversity of experience within the individual.  But breadth of vision often leads to innovative and more successful decision-making in the face of uncertainty (click HERE).

The depth-breadth pendulum has swung too far, and it’s time to revalue those with a broad set of experiences (click HERE) at least as much as we value those with deep expertise.



Beauty Battles Bombs While Prosperity Produces Peace?



Imagine a country plagued by extremely high murder rates, rampant violence, widespread smuggling and corruption, and organized crime networks that rival the government for authority in many regions of the country. The country is home to the most dangerous city in the world. And last but not least, the country is suffering a civil war that has been raging for decades.   When I’ve described this scenario to friends and colleagues, the two most common guesses are Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.

Without revealing the country, I then go on to describe that in the last decade or so, the country has massively improved on virtually every metric. At this stage, most people are scratching their heads. When I reveal that the country I’m speaking about is Colombia, many are stunned.

Consider the following facts. In 1993, the world’s most dangerous city was Medellín and had a homicide rate that may have been as high as 820 per 100,000 people per year, almost double the national average of 420 (click HERE).   Today, the national average is in the low 30s, implying a drop of 90%+ (click HERE).  Global media outlets such as The New York Times are now featuring Medellín as a tourist destination (click HERE).

Separately, Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory estimates that guerilla groups kidnapped ~25,000 people between 1970 and 2010. In 2003 alone, more than 2100 people were kidnapped, roughly 6 per day. In 2013, approximately 300 kidnappings took place, a drop of ~85% (click HERE). In terms of global kidnapping “hot-spots,” Colombia has been displaced from the number one position to no longer being in the top ten. Mexico, India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Nigeria top the 2015 list (click HERE).

Further, Colombia has improved economic freedoms so rapidly that it now ranks ahead of South Korea, France, Italy, and China in global comparisons (click HERE). Bureaucracy has shrunk, and correspondingly, the World Bank’s 2015 “Doing Business” rankings placed Colombia above Brazil, Mexico, and Belgium (click HERE); Colombia’s rank is also improving faster than the other 188 countries (click HERE). Not surprisingly, Colombia’s debt was upgraded in 2011 from junk to investment grade (click HERE). In 2014, the country passed Chile to become Latin America’s third largest economy behind Brazil and Argentina (click HERE).

Amidst all the negative chatter relating to commodity prices and global economic headwinds, Colombian President Juan Miguel Santos is joining forces with the presidents of Chile, Mexico and Peru to launch the “Pacific Alliance” in an effort to help the country pivot towards Asia. One of the explicit goals of the economic bloc is to generate the most attractive gateway to Latin America for Asian capital and companies. Labeled by The Atlantic magazine as “The Most Important Alliance You’ve Never Heard Of,” the Pacific Alliance has already reduced tariffs between the countries and is, as a unit, the world’s eighth largest economy and seventh largest exporter (click HERE). More than 25 countries (including India, Finland and Israel) have applied for observer status in the alliance.


But the country is not resting on its economic laurels. On top of this ambitious economic agenda, President Santos and his team are also working on ending what has become the world’s longest running war (click HERE), an armed conflict between the Colombian military and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (“FARC”) that has left more than 200,000 dead and millions displaced (Click HERE for detailed background). The peace negotiations, taking place in Havana, Cuba, have centered on five key topics: 1) land reform, 2) political participation, 3) drug trafficking, 4) disarmament, and 5) victim’s rights and post-war justice.   Leaders have agreed on how to handle the first three topics. The last two remain open.

Earlier this year, the FARC even invited Miss Universe Pauline Vega, Colombian winner of the 2014 competition, to help in the peace negotiations (click HERE). Although it reminded me of the Hollywood-caricature of the peace-seeking beauty queen (click HERE), this situation is a real opportunity for Pauline to have a meaningful and positive impact.  In April of this year, violence erupted and threatened the entire peace process (click HERE), resulting in a temporary escalation of hostilities. Despite this setback, informed commentators still believe the process is on track and that both sides are genuinely seeking peace (click HERE).

So what? Colombia’s remarkable turnaround is wonderful evidence that countries can and do change.   Sadly, our perceptions often lag these underlying realities, as seen by my poll of colleagues and friends.   As noted by many a commentator (click HERE), it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. Despite this hazard, I’m ready to suggest that the outlook for peace in Colombia is improving as the country becomes an economic power.


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