Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World 3/5

David Epstein

Parts 1, 2.

5/ Thinking Outside Experience

  • Deep analogical thinking is the practice of recognizing conceptual similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that may have little in common on surface. (direct quote) But it’s a powerful tool for approaching / solving wicked problems.

  • Surface analogies are the ones from our experiences and if things look similar on the surface, they most likely are relationally similar (i.e. have the same set of relationships). The world where all that’s needed are surface analogies is a kind world (see above), which is OK for old societies with lower mobility and similarities in routines, but this is simply not true for the current complex world.

  • Intuition is good for solving repeatable problems but is helpless for novel or “ill-defined” problems. Relying in experience from a single domain may prove disastrous when it comes to human life, for instance.

  • An “inside view” is an attempt to liken the new situation to a previous one and employ the same assumptions (think updating your previous project’s time forecast for a new one vs creating a new project plan from scratch). It’s the key reason people never learn beyond the realm of their domain knowledge.

  • An “outside view” requires ignoring surface similarities between projects (ignoring expertise) and searching for projects with structural similarities, and not necessarily from the same domain. It’s counterintuitive but looking at one’s project from the outside perspective provides a much more realistic assessment of pros, cons and costs. It’s the outcome of dropping an emotional investment into one’s project.

  • Narrow focus builds confidence but increases the margin of error.

  • Successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it. (direct quote)

6/ The Trouble with Too Much Grit

  • People who specialize too early in their trade / education are more likely to switch to unrelated jobs than those who specialize later. The “match quality” (i.e. the fit between the person’s skills, abilities and interests and the job they are performing) of early specialisation is lower than of the late specialisation. Treating careers like dating probably could result in better long-term outcomes: you usually don’t marry the first person you meet.

  • Switching careers does involve taking a hit on skills, but the gap is filled much faster than learning from the ground up.

  • “Winners never quit, and quitters never win” is one of the worst advice one can give or receive. Switching to achieve a better match is a blessing, not a sin.

  • Grit has two components: work ethics + resilience and the “consistency of interests” (i.e. knowing what one wants). Checking for grit is fine but keeping in mind the consistency of the population base.

  • A good strategy for the development of young people is taking as many acceptable risks as possible early in the career and obtaining fast feedback. While the hit ratio is very low, the quality of the feedback and the way it will shape the person is precious. A 40 y/o person doesn’t nearly have the same risk profile as a 20 y/o.

  • The “fail fast” approach can be applied to dropping the current activity and switching to a new one if there’s no fit or if one doesn’t feel “right” about the choice that’s been made. [MK: this always poses a question of the subjectivity of the word “right”.]

  • In the 1980s with the new “knowledge economy” there was a major shift from the companies’ “kind” working environments being responsible for the person’s career progression (growing by doing more of the same) towards the employee being in charge of their own career (via building opportunities).

  • However, over time most companies accumulate staff that are disengaged and who will be better off leaving but are staying due to their investment in the firm. [MK: this can also be attributed to the “gold handcuffs” or simply a curse of an above-market salary: leaving will mean lowering the income.]

…to be continued