Generalists in an Age of Specialization

In today’s hyper-competitive, Amazon-customized world, it’s tempting to think you need to be super specialized in everything you do in order to carve out your niche and build your personal brand.

We live in an age of 13-year-old professional soccer players, 17-year-old Nobel laureates, perfect SAT scores and eight-way ties for the national spelling bee championship because the folks at Scripps who run the bee ran out of challenging words. Conventional wisdom is that to attain genuine excellence in any area — sports, music, science, whatever — you have to specialize, and specialize early: That’s the message. If you don’t, others will have a head start on you.

In a world that increasingly believes you need 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become competent in any type of endeavor, the last thing you want to be is a generalist who’s a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none.”

But wait. David Epstein’s highly acclaimed new book, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” takes the opposite view. Epstein argues that “breadth is the ally of depth, not its enemy” and that in many areas of life, generalists are better positioned than specialists to excel.

From sports, science and business, to the arts and even the space program, Epstein believes the advantage is increasingly shifting to generalists who have broad integrative skills. These are people who become experts at pattern recognition—recognizing common challenges between industries or disciplines and bringing innovative solutions to bear.

Epstein is an accomplished researcher and storyteller who has ample data and case studies to support his views. Range is not always an easy read, but Epstein provides readers with two important reasons for thinking generalists might have an edge over specialists:

(1) Generalists are better at navigating “wicked” learning environments in which the rules and the playing field are constantly changing and not constrained by narrow boundaries.

 

(2) Generalists end up with better “match quality” — the degree of fit between who they are and what they do for a career.

He argues that students who take an interdisciplinary array of science courses are better at thinking analogically; researchers with offbeat knowledge combinations score more “hit” papers; Nobel laureates in science are more likely than their less-recognized peers — 22 times as likely! — to have artistic pursuits outside their field.

Matt Topley, chief investment officer of Fortis Wealth and author of the daily blog View from the Top told me the other day that he has held the following jobs: Newspaper route, YMCA janitor, landscaper, bartender, uniform salesman, hair salon owner, bar owner, stock trader, chief investment officer, partner, chair of endowment committee, chairman of charity board and real estate investor. “Each one of these jobs brought more experience than personal wealth,” recalled Topley. “This wide disparity of occupations has given me an eclectic lens into the working world. More importantly, each and every one of these jobs I held, starting at age 10, gave me important experience dealing with, and managing, people from widely unrelated backgrounds.”

My 85-year-old father is finally pursuing the art career he started in high school. While his canvases sell for a fraction of what he earned during his “career detours” as a chemical engineer and later as a vascular surgeon, it’s the same pattern recognition, spatial relationships and endless curiosity about how things work, that keep him going strong.

Conclusion

We tend to look at the world in black and white terms, but the truth is somewhere in between. Most introverts have some extroverted traits and vice versa. Most generalists have some specialist tendencies and vice versa. What successful people seem to have in common regardless of age, gender, educational background or career path is a commitment to lifelong learning and the courage to get out of their comfort zones time and time again.

# David Epstein #Matt Topley #Henry Berkowitz, MD # Career Development

 

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