Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
In March I attended my first book buyer’s retreat and was grumbling about the fact that all the publishers were sending me fiction books – didn’t they know that some book buyers really prefer nonfiction? Until, finally, the last book arrived before I made my way up to Rhinebeck, New York – Range by David Epstein. I was THRILLED. And it was even more exciting when the only author whose book we were sent to attend the retreat, was the man himself. Needless to say, I fangirled, hard. And then quoted his own Atlantic article at him without realizing it… thankfully I got the details right.
From the Inside Flap:
What’s the most effective path to success in any domain? It’s not what you think.
Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start. Butt a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule.
David Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters, and scientists. He discovered that in most fields – especially those that are complex and unpredictable – generalists, not specialist, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.
[…] Failing a test is the best way to learn. Frequent quitters end up with the most fulfilling careers. The most impactful inventors cross domains rather than deepen their knowledge in a single area. As experts silo themselves further while computers master more of the skills once reserved for highly focused humans, people who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will thrive.
A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.
While David doesn’t directly include the old rhyme in his book, it kept running through my head, every page I turned. For years, we are taught that if we want to excel at something, one has to start early and focus all of our energy into it. One cannot realistically decide to be a Olympian at 15, surgeon at 25, or an astrophysicist at 35 (as my dejected husband believes, his dream job, long story). Those lofty goals require years and years of dedication, or so we’ve always been told. But David starts off his book with a call back his first book, The Sports Gene, with the tales of 2 world class athletes, Tiger Woods & Roger Federer, the former a specialist, the latter a generalist, to turn society’s misconceptions on their heads.
Each chapter of Range covers a different topic, from sports to music, to mathematics instruction, emphasizing the underlying theme that those with a more general knowledge base are, essentially, able to problem solve better by using their disparate areas of knowledge to make connections between different scenarios and situations that benefit their ability to work and explore the world efficiently.
Some of the chapters focus on mastery of a particular skill within a larger field, i.e. trying lots of sports or instruments before focusing on one. And in these chapters, the examples offered are of people who found success in their chosen skill without having a known proclivity or outside influence encouraging them towards a particular activity or skill. Orphans in Italy who played musical instruments beautifully, those with no musical background taking quickly to the nuances of their instruments.
Conversely, he shows that how we learn greatly affects our ability to problem solve. Those who memorize, whether knowingly or not, have difficultly applying their knowledge across different types of problems and explaining their thinking or thought process (meta-cognition). He offers the example of chess grand masters who cannot adjust their thinking to asses a chessboard that has simply been rotated 90 degrees as well as mathematics students who appear to “learn” math skills but are really guessing until they receive the right feedback from the teacher.
I know the year is only half over, but Range is my favorite nonfiction book of the year and I don’t think there are many candidates for unseating it in my reading pipeline. I feel like it validates my life choices when it comes to what topics I pursued throughout my education as well as the employment opportunities I’ve taken. It’s difficult to shrug off your AP Stat teacher in high school when you drop his class for 2D Art and he tells you, the naive teen who wants to be a medical researcher what a big mistake you’re making. And it’s as if Range is looking back on teen me and saying, it’s okay. You made the right decision (it’s also been 12 years, I should probably just let it go at this point…)
From his discussion of sports (I played ice hockey), music (I’m a violist & composer), mathematics (I’m a math teacher who doesn’t shut up about number sense and mathematical theory when given the chance), am dual lingual (Wie geht es Ihnen?), and finished college with a history major focusing on American Legal History after having changed my mind half a dozen times (I started in biomedical engineering), and with 5 teaching certifications and 5 minors ranging from fine arts to chemistry.
I don’t say all of this with the intention of being a braggart, but because I’ve never really known what to do with all of my interests and which would be helpful in securing me a position/job/career. It seems every employment opportunity I’ve pursued, the organization (mostly schools) want specific areas of focus and experience. A generalized work history isn’t always what they’re looking for, but it is what I can offer.
And now I work at a bookstore, putting my vast general knowledge to use recommending books across a variety of genres and age ranges. And while I love it, staying in the same position is mentally taxing. It’s like I have a unique form of ADHD (along with actual ADHD…) And when my husband takes the jack of all trades rhyme to heart as well, it means that we have a house full of the spoils and accouterments related to all of our various interests – it was a necessity in our new house to have room for an art studio, space for a 1,000 book strong library with plenty of academic texts on everything from architecture and anthropology, and space for a motorcycle work shed out back.
In the old days, I feel like I would be an academic – the ivory tower would be the only place that would know what to do with me. I’d be like da Vinci or Jefferson (though not really because I’m a woman…), pursuing all sorts of different interests simultaneous and sequentially, jumping from one to the other as the interest arose. Right now I’d love to learn how to fly a Spitfire. But regardless of what I do, what I continue to do with my life, I’ll know that I can at least hold up one book, and many examples, of how my life is happier and better off for the vast array of my interests and knowledge. (That’s my viola, Kerry, my heavily-Post-it-ed advance copy of Range, and my pink-laced hockey skate below).
Rating: 10 out of 10 stars