We have all heard of the proverb ‘Jack of all trades and master of none.’ Moreover, we have been, since our childhood, told that there is no value in being a ‘jack of all trades’, and that ‘mastering one thing’ takes us towards success. This has brought about the focus on early-life specializations and getting an early head start to our careers.
On the contrary, Range (2019) by David Epstein shows that curiosity and a more generalist outlook has more benefits than specialization. Epstein takes examples from sports, science, business, medicine, academia, and human psychology to prove that broadening one’s range gives more power than narrowing one’s specialization.
While it is true that generalists tend to find their calling a little later, it is also true that generalists tend to be more creative due to the increased ability to make connections. Keeping one’s interests broad can lead to innovation and open minds to curiosity, excellence, and ultimately success.
Specialization – Fashionable And Dubious?
Tiger Woods has for some time now, been the poster-boy for specialization and early focus on a career in golf. He has embodied the concept of getting a head start and intense practice since the age of two. While such early-life focus on specialization is most common in the world of sports, it can be seen in other fields such as academia, medicine, finance, etc. For example, oncologists now consider cancer as a general area and specialize in organ-specific cancer studies.
Though specialization is the fad of the century, there are studies that prove that it isn’t the yardstick that defines successful performance. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein, in 2009, studied how performance and experience are connected. They found that experience is essential to some professions such as firefighting, where years of experience can train firefighters to understand behavior and patterns of flames, enabling them to make eye-blinking decisions. Yet in many other fields, experience holds little value.
Kahneman studied recruitment trends and predictions of recruiters, versus assessments and feedback of Israeli Defence Forces. He found a complete disconnect between experience and performance, as recruiter predictions based on physical and mental abilities at the time of recruitment were a far cry from actual performances. He saw that many fields such as the armed forces need the flexibility and creativity that can be found with generalization.
Expertise With Experimentation
There is no doubt that specialization has its merits. Tiger Woods is an example of that. However, there is ample proof that sampling and experimentation is a reliable route to expertise and success. Let us take the example of Roger Federer.
His path to tennis success began much later in life. Despite his mother being a tennis coach, she never pushed him towards the sport. As a child, he tried his hands at skiing, wrestling, skateboarding, squash, badminton, basketball, and tennis. In due course, he found that he preferred sports with balls. He started playing tennis in his teens though not instinctively. He later acknowledged that his skills in tennis, athleticism, and hand-eye coordination were because of his wide-ranged experience in playing different sports.
This applies to other fields as well. Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist began his career in music at a young age with the violin and piano. He moved to the cello simply because he did not like the first two. Yo-Yo Ma isn’t an exception. John Sloboda, the music psychologist studied students in British boarding schools who were taking structured music lessons. He found that children who had tried that hands at two or more instruments were identified as ‘exceptional’ whereas those focusing on one instrument were ‘average’.
Even Vincent Van Gogh jumped from job to job, from preaching to teaching and working in bookstores to dealing in art before he found his calling in painting and made a mark in history!
Increasing IQ’s And Abstract Thinking
In 1981, political sciences professor James Flynn from New Zealand stumbled upon reports that led to a study, which has changed the way we think about thinking today. In his study, he saw that the IQ test scores of American troops had drastically improved between World War I and II.
He found that based on IQ, a WWI soldier in the 50th percentile would be placed in the 22nd percentile in WWII. He then compiled data from 14 other countries that showed similar improvements from generation to generation. This phenomenon was named the Flynn effect. He propounded that every decade people’s IQ increases by an average of 3 points. He found the same trend in over 30 countries.
This brings us to another research conducted in 1931 by the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria. In a time when the Soviet Union was undergoing rapid change, pre-modern, remote villages that had been functioning unchanged for centuries, were seeing planned development, production, and division of labor with industrialization.
Luria took the opportunity of the change to conduct some experiments. In one experiment, he asked villagers to sort some wool into groups. In some of the modern villages, the villagers sorted the wool into different categories such as shades, types, quality, etc. however, in the villages that were still remote, the villager was simply unable to categorize the wool because they saw each piece of wool as different.
Luria’s experiments showed that people are able to make better conceptual connections between abstract notions and objects as they were further exposed to modernization.
Based on these studies, it is clear that in today’s modern world, our minds are better equipped to make abstract connections and diverse ideas all at once. Yet, a wide majority consider narrowing down specializations and conceptual focus to be the only way to succeed!
Learning Shouldn’t Be Easy And Fast
We often remember our harshest teachers better and with more fondness later on in life. Why is that the case?
A group of economists conducted a study of the long-term results of about a thousand Calculus I students at the US Air Force Academy. The observation found students with better grades giving higher student evaluation ratings to professors, whereas those with lower grades gave harsher feedback. The long-term study found that students giving positive feedback had a net negative effect. Moreover, those giving harsh feedback were more inspired towards better performance in the long run. These professors who chose desirable difficulties were actually imparting a better way to learn.
In addition to difficult learning, it is seen that learning at a slower pace or using the concept of ‘spacing’ yields better learning. In spacing, there should be some time given between learning and practicing. In a 1987 Journal of Experimental Study, Spanish students were separated into two groups. One group was tested on vocabulary they had learned the same day and the second group was tested weeks later. After a span of 8 years, the two groups were tested again. It was found that the second group had a success rate of about 200%. Similarly, there have been benefits of short-term spacing as well, proving that slow and difficult learning is more effective than quick and easy learning.
An Outside Viewpoint Is Better Than A Specialized One
In a 2015 study, Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Anupam Jena found that heart failure and cardiac patients were more likely to survive if they were admitted when the top cardiologists were not available. For example, specialists such as cardiologists are so good with their work – like placing stents in blood vessels – that they start performing these surgeries reflexively. Even in dangerous situations, they come in with a mindset that ‘we have done this a million times before’.
The concern here is that the narrow and detailed focus makes specialists too conditioned and reflexive. For specialists, repetitive functioning can lead to making extreme judgments and narrow-minded to view only what they specialize in.
University of Sydney professor Dan Lovallo conducted a study involving private equity investors. They were told to conduct a detailed assessment and return on investment (ROI) estimates of ventures they would consider investing in. Next, they were told to write notes on other broadly similar projects. The results showed that for the businesses the investors were actually planning to invest in, the estimates of ROI were about 50% higher than the other projects.
Narrow focus and specialization can put up blinders that prevent a holistic viewpoint. At times, an outside view that isn’t colored by narrow focus and specializations can save people from making bad calls.
The Value Of Having A Breadth-Wide Experience
Innovator of the year 2013, Andy Ouderkirk from 3M has his name on about 170 patents, conducted research on the members of innovative and successful teams. His study revealed that to win the innovation-recognizing Carlton Award at 3M, he needed a team of polymaths rather than specialists. Polymaths are those who have specialization and depth in one area but have diverse expertise in other areas too. These inventors used their knowledge from other areas and applied it to a different field altogether.
Similarly, Norwegian School of Management’s Alva Taylor and Henrik Greve studied the success of comic creators post-1971. They too found that breadth of experience is vital to success. While they predicted that more comics created, would lead to honing skills and thus more success, however, they learned that it is the wide range of exposure to different comic genres that decided success.
Therefore, at times, it is essential to do away with the ‘perfect fit requirements’ during hiring, and that recruiters should consider people who don’t fit in one category, and whose has more breadth-wide experience in all areas.
Why Experts Don’t Have Active Open-Mindedness
Forecasting expert Philip Tetlock assessed the predictions of 284 experts during the Cold War. Tetlock’s study revealed that experts are very bad at making predictions. In fact, his study showed that an expert’s ability to have access to classified information, years of experience, and even their academic degree made no difference to their (lack of) ability. They suffered from having a narrow focus and outlook towards their predictions.
Psychologist Jonathan Baron attributed their disability to a lack of active open-mindedness – ability and willingness to question one’s own beliefs. He said that it boils down to the fact that experts’ opinions get laced by their own existing beliefs, a problem most people face.
Yale’s Dan Kahan conducted a study where he asked anti and pro-Brexit voters to decipher statistics about the effectiveness of skin cream. Next, they were given the same statistics as the link between crime and immigration; their interpretations of the statistics were influenced by their political beliefs. This did not happen during the first task with the skin cream.
The concern lies in the fact that expert opinions are often based on existing beliefs to the extent that one can tend to disregard existing evidence. How does one stay impartial then?
According to Kahan, the difference lies in pursuing scientific curiosity where one desires to learn more, accepts new evidence, and analyses with an open mind, rather than scientific knowledge where one is focused on what and how much they know. There is therefore a need to change one’s attitude and the way one thinks about success and learning.
It’s All About The Range
How does one ultimately expand their range? The answer lies in accepting failure and more importantly embracing it. While being patient, taking a wider route, a more disorderly experimental path may delay success; it is a more successful route to success.
In addition, experimentation, applying out of the box thinking to concepts one is already an expert at, and trying to achieve a wider range of knowledge, and applying it can make all the difference. In other words, having a generalist attitude can add immense value to specialization.