Should you become a specialist or a generalist? In a previous post, I argued that unless you were a genius or a polymath like Leonardo Da Vinci, you should specialize. If you are normal, it will take you a long time to become good enough at something to be able to innovate or add value in any meaningful way, or to have an edge over others who are doing the same thing. Only a few people throughout history have managed to become experts at multiple domains, so unless you are very conceited, you should specialize.
But that is not the whole truth. In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World , Epstein shows that there are plenty of examples of people (not geniuses) who have managed to benefit from their broad knowledge, to solve problems that specialists could not solve.
His argument is that we focus too much on early specialization. Tiger Woods specialized early, Roger Federer stuck to tennis much later. When Epstein looked at a large sample of successful people, they resembled Roger more than they did Tiger. In chess or music, specialization is great. Since these environments are closed and predictable, there is a clear correlation between effort and result. But the modern world is unpredictable.
The kinds of problems that need to be solved are “wicked” — they need conceptual reasoning skills that transcend one’s own personal experience.
A wicked problem is a social or cultural issue or concern that is difficult to explain and inherently impossible to solve. Examples of wicked problems in today’s society include things like education design, financial crises, health care, hunger, income disparity, obesity, poverty, terrorism, and sustainability.
Epstein’s conclusion is not that you should never specialize, but that you should specialize later. Instead of spending 10,000 hours on one thing early in life, you should sample a large variety of things, and then focus on one thing.
Be a generalist, but temporarily.
Think of knowledge as a tool. The specialist wields a potent tool, but as he develops it, he becomes more powerful in one domain. Whereas the generalist wields many half-developed tools. The generalist may not be as efficient, but he recognizes that not all problems require the proverbial hammer — this allows him to diagnose the problem more accurately.
The terms “generalist” and “specialist” are not precise, in the same way “extrovert” and “introvert” are not precise. Between the person who has spent decades honing one skill, and the person who spends every month honing a different skill, there are countless variations in between. But, like “introvert vs extrovert”, they are useful tools to understand different patterns of human behavior.
What one should gravitate towards depends on many things — end goal, personality type, and what others are doing. In a world that is hyper-specialized, it makes sense to broaden your knowledge base, rather than narrow it down.
In entrepreneurship, there has been a shift towards lean thinking, popularized first by Steve Blank in Four Steps to Epiphany and then by Eric Ries in The Learn Startup. The idea of lean thinking is “don’t commit to one strategy before you have tested it out.” In previous decades, aspiring entrepreneurs were told that they should construct an encyclopedic business plan, stating all the risks and details involved in managing a business. By doing this, they would protect themselves from unforeseen consequences.
But it is not that people were stupid, it was that times were different.
One, business models were simpler before and business was more predictable. There was less competition, the speed of innovation (and disruption) was slower, technological change was slower (tools changed less frequently), and there was less change in consumer tastes. A business plan that presupposed that all these variables would remain the same in the foreseeable future was not mistaken.
Two, most of the value in writing a business plan came from the act of planning, rather than the plan itself. Hence the quote from Eisenhower, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” By thinking through how things can go wrong, and what should be done, you will be better at estimating your costs, and therefore, will have a more realistic idea if your business idea is sustainable.
More recently, it has become more feasible to make short term plans and be more flexible and agile. But there is a deeper point to lean thinking, which is connected to the question of whether you should be a specialist or a generalist.
In economics, when there is a mismatch between how much a commodity is demanded and how much of it there is, then its value will either increase or decrease. If there is more demand than supply, its price goes up. And if there is less demand than supply, its price goes down.
Just like a commodity or product, the value of human labor fluctuates according to the immaculate law of supply and demand.
In any society, if there is an overabundance of people who are experts in one skill, the perceived value of this skill by the other members of society will decline. But this is not the same as saying that the rarity of a skill is the only factor that determines how valuable it is. Someone can be unique in having a completely useless skill. In which case, nobody will see any value in it.
A specialist in a useful subject is valuable because they have unique expertise that is difficult to access. But their skills are valuable so long as their skillset has not been commoditized. But what happens when specialists become commoditized? You get an army of jobless PhD’s.
The world is hyper-specialized today because specialization is becoming easier than before.
But, of course, the implication is that as specialization becomes easier, the barriers to entry become larger.
The Dangers of Early Specialization
You have probably heard of the Flynn effect, the observation that IQ scores have been rising over time. James R. Flynn is an intelligence researcher from New Zealand (the Flynn effect was named after him by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein). Flynn was greatly disappointed when he discovered the degree to which society (and higher education) has pushed specialization, rather than focusing early training on conceptual, transferable knowledge.
In a study he conducted on seniors at one of America’s top state universities, he found that the correlation between the test of broad conceptual thinking and GPA was about zero. In other words, students performed poorly at questions not related to their specialty. While all students were able to do well on conceptual reasoning skills that required no formal training (detecting circular logic), they did poorly when they had to broaden the application of their conceptual skills.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport makes a similar argument to Epstein, when giving advice to people who presumably want to be entrepreneurs. He says that an opportunity is only good if people are willing to pay for it. If no one is willing to pay for it, it is not an opportunity.
Find a craft, build your skills, engage in deliberate practice, get feedback from people to gauge your progress. Push yourself until you have reached a plateau, until you are minimally competent. And then push harder. That is the only way to achieve mastery — to “find” your passion.
A lot of people are reckless. They think that they will get a badge of honor if they drop out of their job and become full-time (Insert hobby). But that is not how the world works. Getting people to pay you for anything is very difficult, and you need a lot of career capital for that. Many people push this dangerous idea: only your fears are holding you back from getting what you want. And worse, people believe them.
Steve Jobs might have been a yoga instructor if he had followed his passion. Instead, he took small bets, and one of them worked astronomically well. But only after he had built his skills, only after he was selling a product that was truly valuable.
Creativity, impact, control are three factors that define great work. Unfortunately, when you are first starting out, you will have none of them. You must build a skillset that allows you to have these attributes. Ira Glass, host of This American Life, was an intern, who moved on to become a tape cutter. He then got the chance to host some segments on air and won awards for them. He got what he wanted with patience and hard work. The best chess players studied the game for much longer than novice chess players — about 5 times more. The main theme that Newport stresses here is time. Nothing comes easy, nothing comes without a significant investment of time.
Instead of having a grand vision that you want to carry out, think smarter. Make several small bets, implement multiple strategies without investing too much in each, and over time, with feedback, you will figure out what works.
In other words, do not specialize too early. Keep your options open.
It is not only individuals who change course. Many major corporations had vastly different visions of the future when they started out.
Coca-Cola began as a pharmaceutical product. Tiffany & Co., the fancy jewelry store company, started life as a stationery store. Raytheon, which made the first missile guidance system, was a refrigerator maker. Nokia, who used to be the top mobile phone maker, began as a paper mill. Avon the cosmetics company started out in door-to-door book sales. And Dupont, now famous for Teflon cooking pans, started out as an explosives company.
In Law 23: Concentrate your Forces, Greene points out the limitations of specialization. If you are not already powerful, it is clever to disperse your energies. He uses the example of guerilla warfare — small, underfunded armies who must disperse their energy to survive. If a guerilla army concentrates its forces, it will easily get destroyed.
Taleb calls the problem of specialization “domain dependence” in Antifragile. The academic typically fails to transfer knowledge from the academic sphere to the private sector.
Think of someone who knows that going to the gym is good for their health, but they take an elevator to get there instead of the stairs.
We understand that our health benefits from small stressors, but we forget to transfer this knowledge in other parts of life. Small stresses on income can keep you vigilant and humble. Small fights in a relationship can make it stronger and avoid big fights. Small stresses on your beliefs can help you avoid catastrophic errors in the future.
The early specialist will typically not be good at applying their understanding in other areas. So, the problem is not only that the specialist does not have useful cognitive tools (Fermi problem thinking), but if even if they do have useful ideas, they may not understand how to transfer them to broader contexts.
Fermi questions encourage creative thinking involving different solution strategies, so they promote a range of problem-solving skills requiring students to be logical and inventive. Students like Fermi questions because they are: Open-ended problems. Have no exact answer, no definite solution.
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.