Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World 1/5
There is a popular assumption that going deep (i.e. specializing from early years) is a recipe for success; however, multiple examples demonstrate that late specialization is equally as successful as the person gets various experiences and is able to go wide, expanding the toolset.
You should know by now that the 10 000 hours rule (Malcolm Gladwell) is not true; he has simply made it up (maybe unknowingly).
[MK: There are lots of sports examples in the book; I’m not following any sports, so sorry, I’ll skip most of those examples.]
Younger people are not smarter (thanks Zuck); the chance of a 50 y/o person starting a blockbuster company is 2x of the 30 y/o one. A 30 y/o founder will most definitely beat the 20 y/o founder.
Breadth of knowledge, diverse experience [MK: that’s what I vehemently fight for in the Corporate and Advisory Boards] and less intense initial focus are super-important for a generalist person / manager / founder / etc.
1/ The Cult of the Head Start
We’ve heard stories of people who specialized in certain tasks from very early age and succeeded enormously. Most tasks are not as certain, though.
Experience and expertise are not the same. [MK: 10 years of experience could often be 1 year of expertise repeated 10 times.]
There are two types of learning environments: the “kind” ones with defined rules (chess, golf, tennis, soccer), and the “wicked” ones with loosely defined rules, if any at all. The “wicked” games don’t have immediately obvious repeated patterns, and there may be no feedback at all.
The key issue for many people who think they’re playing the “kind” game (e.g., firefighters) relying on the pattern recognition in situations are helpless in the “wicked” situations when things go not as planned. OK, let’s throw MBA students with their cases here, too!
Patterns are recognized only when they make sense (like the mid-game chessboard setup), but they’re not perceived as a snapshot: they are combinations of multiple sub-patterns, so artificially created patterns may leave practitioners dumbfounded.
It can be argued that the AI tools can be trained to perfect the activities in the “kind “environments, but not the “wicked” ones.
Experience leads people to become inflexible the longer they are playing this game. [MK: I’ve read an interesting passage in Quora another day: Larger companies will be reluctant to hire ex-Google people because they know there is no skill transfer because Google’s notorious not-invented-here mentality means your skill set is frozen at the time you were hired by Google.]
Many people while confronting novel problems are looking for shortcut solutions, not the understanding of the issue at large and the underlying principles. Any business setup rewarding short-term thinking is an example of this pattern.
Most humans are not developing in the “kind” environments.
2/ How the Wicked World Was Made
People are getting smarter over time; we all are getting more and more exposed to abstract thinking from the very early ages. Associative thinking rules!
Modern world requires knowledge transfer between people of different backgrounds (of all kinds) as well as storing the knowledge (wiki, knowledge base, confluence, Javadoc, etc.).
Non-repetitive challenges require cognitive flexibility.
But ¾ of US college graduates are doing something different from their degree, choosing simpler jobs requiring a single skill, not an interrelated collection of skills.
In the past the “old” people were “wise” people who learned and taught from their experience, but failed at learning without experience (i.e., lacked conceptual reasoning skills).
[MK: I can argue that the core of the innovations now is the reuse of exiting concepts / tools / methods in new environments and contexts. And this ability can’t be based purely on the lived experience.]