Author: David Epstein
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World David Epstein 2019
Range How generalists win in a specialized world: If your child changes a circle or section for the 33rd time, and you yourself tried to change a university or are thinking about moving to a different career path, thoughts involuntarily come into your head that you won’t achieve anything this way, you need perseverance and consistency. As they say, it is better to start from a young age, hit one point, and then success will definitely come. But is it?
David Epstein is sure not. A “test period” at the beginning of a career is not only acceptable but also desirable for future success. This is true even in areas where very early specialization is accepted, such as sports or music.
Epstein studied the careers of athletes, scientists, entrepreneurs, musicians, and inventors: among those who have achieved success, many came to their business only after having tried many other activities. For example, star tennis player Roger Federer began training seriously as a tennis player relatively late, even though his mother was a tennis coach. At first, he tried many other sports – however, preferring everything related to the ball.
Why is the trial period important? First, life is complex and varied, and success requires different skills and the ability to combine them creatively. Second, even if the activity subsequently chosen is extremely specialized and narrowly focused, experience from other fields helps to enrich and refine it.
The myth “The sooner you start, the sooner you get to the top of your career”
This myth has become entrenched thanks to sensational examples. In the 1970s, the Polgar sisters from Hungary studied at home, played chess all day long from an early age, and became famous international chess players, achieving seemingly unattainable heights for women in this sport.
American golfer Tiger Woods also started playing before he went to school and spent long hours on the course. Looking at such examples, it seemed that the key to success was the right environment and many hours of practice.
However, studies have shown that the rule of an early start and many hours of practice guarantees success only in some areas – in those where the norms are unchanged and, in fact, there is no uncertainty, that is, the human factor. There are very few such areas, not even every sport can be counted among them. Experience helps to make the right decisions only if the person had enough quick feedback 1, that is, the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Discoveries and successes in creative fields are made by people with a broad outlook, with versatile skills.
Successful scientists and Nobel laureates are much more likely than their lesser-known counterparts to have hobbies that they engage in at a fairly high level.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
The luxury of learning from others
The ability to think abstractly is better developed in us than, say, in our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. In traditional societies, people relied primarily on their own experience, so learning based on trial and error was effective.
In the twentieth century, along with universal literature and technological progress, the skill of abstract thinking began to actively develop. Over the past hundred years, scientific concepts have become well known, and abstractions (like the concept of a percent) are easily operated by almost any person, regardless of education.
This is reflected in standard IQ tests: each generation performs better than the previous one, and the rating scale is gradually shifted so that the average result remains at the level of 100 points.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
Abstract thinking allows a modern person to draw conclusions based on a description of a situation that he has never encountered in reality.
The modern world forces us to make decisions not on the basis of our own experience, but on the basis of logical conclusions, so traditional training does not suit us and does not guarantee success.
Research shows that high marks in classical subjects do not correlate with the ability to think critically and creatively apply theoretical concepts. To develop the skill of abstract thinking, universities develop courses in complex process analysis and teach students how to apply scientific methods in various fields.
When less is more
In the 17th century, Antonio Vivaldi composed music, and his namesake Antonio Stradivari created the violins that have become priceless today. However, a significant contribution to the development of classical music was made not only by these celebrities but also by numerous pupils of the Ospedale Della Pieta, a Venetian monastery that had an orphanage and a music school. It was this children’s orchestra that was often the first to perform the works of Vivaldi, and the composer wrote some parts specifically for specific musicians. Pupils and adult nuns of Ospedale Della Pieta owned many instruments and changed them both throughout their lives and during one concert. In addition, music was not their only subject: in parallel, a lot of wisdom was taught in the monastery. But it was the Ospedale Della Pieta orchestra that was known far beyond the borders of Italy.
Today, this approach seems unproductive and confusing: a lot of tools, a minimum of a system, not many hours of practice on a single tool – how can all this lead to success and outstanding results? However, the biographies of some world-famous musicians of our time confirm its effectiveness.
For example, the famous American cellist Yo Yo Ma, before choosing the cello, played the violin and piano. And a lot of jazz stars (including Django Reinhard and Dave Brubeck) didn’t have a formal education and didn’t even read musical notation very confidently.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
Relying on imitation and improvisation promotes creativity and skill development and can produce excellent results.
Learn fast, learn slow
Research shows that if in the process of learning a student (or child) actively participates in the search for solutions and overcomes difficulties, information is remembered for a long time, plus the skill of applying it in different contexts is developed. Repeated and frequent repetitions do not give such an effect.
Therefore, the effect of math classes, in which the teacher suggests which formula to substitute in order to successfully pass the test, does not last long.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
Most educational programs for preschoolers have low effectiveness because children are trained to perform certain actions, but they are not taught to understand the process and system, and they cannot apply the acquired skills outside of standard situations.
The desire to see quick results hiders effective learning.
In an effort to get high test scores, students highly appreciate teachers who are prone to coaching around difficulties.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
The power of metaphor
Analogies, juxtapositions, and associations help us a reason and understand processes beyond personal experience.
This is clearly seen in the diaries of Johannes Kepler, who in the 17th century explained the laws of motion of the planets of the solar system using the metaphor “celestial choir”, first proposed by Pythagoras.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
Analogies are close and distant. In order to see something new and better understand a process or object, several distant analogies are preferable to one close one, which can affect the assessment too much.
American international students were asked to consider the case “one country attacked another, should the US intervene?”. If before that they were reminded of the Second World War, then they were more likely to intervene, but if it was about Vietnam, then they were against it.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
Using several analogies allows you to look at the situation through the eyes of an open-minded external observer. A look from the inside often prevents an objective assessment.
This is clearly seen in entrepreneurs who open startups: although the statistics are well known, it seems to each of them that it is he who is destined for success, not failure.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
Too much perseverance and willpower
“Persistence and hard work will grind everything.” Is it so? Research shows that most people who change jobs are more satisfied with their lives than those who don’t.
Perseverance is perhaps overrated when you consider that 85% of workers in 150 countries around the world are not involved in their work and are not passionate about it.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
Changes are dictated by the specifics of the times. While decades ago an enterprise determined the career paths of employees, today employees themselves decide how their work biography will develop and consider the opportunities that lie beyond the walls of a particular enterprise.
This became evident in the case of the US Army, which had to give its employees more freedom in choosing areas of military service in order to retain the most talented people who otherwise could not be retained after the expiration of the contract even with money.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
It is interesting that those who were forced to choose a narrow specialization very early change their career direction especially actively. Of course, the period of self-discovery takes time and expense, but in any case, it is cheaper in youth than when mature specialists radically change the scope of work and start trying something from scratch.
Thus, persistence and perseverance can be counterproductive. It is much more important to be able to quickly change direction as more information is received and correlated with one’s own character and preferences.
Flirting with “who I could be”
Around us, there are more owners of non-standard careers than is commonly thought. Characteristically, none of them initially had a long-term plan. Usually, they acted on the basis of short-term planning. By acting, these people learned more about themselves, their capabilities, and the world around them, as well as about what suits them and what does not. They usually didn’t ask themselves the question, “Who do I want to be?” Rather, they thought, “Which part of my personality do I want to get to know now? How can I do it better?
There is no unequivocal answer to the question of whether everything is inherent in us by nature or the social environment has a stronger influence because one or the other comes to the fore. Therefore, the results of the well-known marshmallow test are now perceived not as unambiguously as they were a few years ago.
A marshmallow test by psychologist Walter Mischel showed that children who were able not to grab a treat right away, but to endure a little in order to get more sweets, achieve greater success in life. However, in 2013, the results of the marshmallow experiment, conducted on just 32 children, were refuted in a study that included 900 children. And the fate of those participants in the first test who could not hold out for the required time turned out quite well: contrary to the conclusions of the researchers, they are all right with self-control and will.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
The achievements of those who started late tried different things, and made decisions along the way prove that this approach works.
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami began his literary career relatively late: at first he dreamed of becoming a musician and owned a bar. And 4-time Ironman Triathlon champion Chrissy Wellington only realized she was a good cyclist at the age of 27.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
In recent years, platforms like InnoCentive or Kaggle have been actively developing, where you can publish an unsolved problem, and anyone can try their hand and get rewarded for a successful solution. Inside companies, as a rule, complex and non-standard problems are left to narrow specialists, while in practice it turns out that a simple and effective solution can be borrowed from another area.
The more information is available, the more actively amateurs and non-specialists can join in solving problems.
Also, a non-standard approach is used in medical research: machines analyze large volumes of medical publications and identify connections that were not visible to specialists.
Who is more successful in inventions
Nintendo managed to conquer the world and change the whole industry when it released the Game Boy, which was based on already outdated technology at that time. Behind the development of the Game Boy and other toys was the engineer Gumpei Yokoi, who was broad-minded (his hobbies: from playing the piano to ballroom dancing), was not a narrow specialist and willingly hired more knowledgeable and narrow specialists to implement projects .Range How generalists win in a specialized world
The research made it possible to single out three groups of modern inventors who receive patents: among them, there are narrow specialists, generalists, and super-broad specialists. Due to the availability of information, the latter easily switch between subject areas. The ability to correctly operate with new knowledge becomes key. The wider the inventor’s outlook, the more diverse interests and hobbies he has, the better he sees the connections between disparate facts, and the more successfully he can combine them into a system in a special, original way.
Charles Darwin had very broad interests, he corresponded with more than 200 specialist scientists from a wide variety of fields. Combining the information gleaned from them, he was able to develop a theory of evolution.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
Groups of specialists with similar backgrounds receive significant patents in the most predictable areas. Where uncertainty is higher and directions of progress need to be predicted, patents that are relevant to the field are more likely to be registered by groups consisting of a wide variety of specialists with different backgrounds.
Diversity and creativity are important not only in technology areas.
Thus, the most successful comics are created either by diverse teams, or by one artist who has experience in many genres (not just comics).Range How generalists win in a specialized world
Narrow specialists, as a rule, make poor predictions. They focus on details and don’t see the big picture, and tend to overlook facts and trends that don’t fit into their usual picture of the world.
The end of the 1960s provided an example of the battle between two narrow expert approaches. Then some experts said that the population would grow continuously and the resources of the planet would not be enough for everyone; others argued that technological advances would solve problems of both quality of life and environmental pollution. More than half a century later, we see that both sides were proven wrong: although technological progress has provided resources, it is unable to solve the problems of environmental pollution.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
Philip Tetlock, author of Super Forecasting: The Art and Science of Foresight, has been researching what predictive accuracy depends on since the 1980s. He showed that the experts are divided into two groups: “hedgehogs” and “foxes”. The former know well one, but a very large-scale thing, the latter know many small things. Foxes are better predictors they tend to take into account new information, see parallels between events, and question their own opinions.
Tetlock’s research has shown that forecasting is done well by teams that do not consist of narrow specialists, but of broad-minded people who are ready to discuss, understand the opposing point of view, learn from their mistakes, and take into account new facts, even if they contradict the original concept. Of course, this does not mean that the services of hedgehog experts should be completely abandoned because they make a significant contribution to the multiplication of knowledge. But the limitations of their approach should be considered.
The ability to refuse familiar tools
The 1986 Challenger disaster was not due to a lack of data but to a failure to account for facts that cannot be quantified.
The inelasticity of the O-rings was recorded in the photographs taken after the tests, but the visually obvious material failure was impossible to describe in numbers. At that time, it was customary at NASA to operate with numbers, without which the arguments were not accepted, and the engineers did not insist.
Professional firefighters in extreme situations die if they cannot throw equipment or equipment into a fire. And surgeons who place stents are doing so to more patients than required, despite the risk of postoperative complications.Range How generalists win in a specialized world
To avoid mistakes dictated by limited thinking within a given procedural framework, an organization needs to create a culture of exchange of opinions at different levels, and not only top managers should participate in decision-making.
Top 10 Thoughts
1. Early specialization and persistent practice in one fixed direction do not guarantee success in the modern world.
2. Training based on a large number of repetitions is effective only for areas in which the rules of the game remain unchanged.
3. Abstract thinking, familiarity with scientific concepts, and descriptions of other people’s experiences help modern people make logical decisions even where they have no experience.
4. Learning based on improvisation and imitation contributes to the liberation of creative skills.
5. Learning that requires active search, overcoming obstacles, and embedding new data into the picture of the world is most effective in the long run.
6. Late start and repeated changes in career path are not an obstacle to a successful career.
7. Metaphors and analogies from distant areas help create original concepts and better understand unfamiliar phenomena.
8. Teams of specialists with diverse backgrounds are more likely to make significant discoveries in areas where forecast uncertainty is high.
9. When changing specialization, the key is the ability to correctly operate with information – that is, to think flexibly and be able to go beyond the usual.
10. Organizations need to cultivate the free exchange of opinions and participation in solving problems of specialists with different experiences and knowledge.
1. Read more about this in the summary of the book by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman Think Slowly… Decide Fast.
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