March 20, 2020

(Emanuele Ravecca EyeEm / Getty Images)

*This piece was originally published on June 14th, 2019*  

Should you be the best at one skill, or be pretty good at a bunch of different ones? David Epstein, the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, says that practicing one skill for 10,000 hours (as some have suggested) might not necessarily set you up to be the next Tiger Woods or the next chess grandmaster. But in a world where we’re constantly encountering new experiences, Epstein believes that the ability to take knowledge from one situation and apply it to another, to generalize, is what really pushes us ahead.

Three Takeaways:

  • According to psychologist Robin Hogarth, in life we encounter both “kind” learning environments, where we have clear rules, goals, and recognizable repeating patterns, as well as “wicked” learning environments, where more experience doesn’t necessarily mean we’re getting any better at our job. And wicked learning environments characterize many of the jobs we consider complicated work.
  • Specialists are important to have in a complex world with complex systems, but we can’t completely do away with generalists. We need people who look at the small pieces of the puzzle, as well as those who see the whole picture. But right now, we’re telling too many people to be specialists, and we’re losing the bird’s eye view.
  • Types of learning based on memorizing procedures and repetitive patterns often make us feel that we are making the most progress, but they can undermine more long-term development. The more we can learn more general, abstract concepts, the better.

More Reading:

  • IQ scores increased substantially over the course of the twentieth century, attributed in part to our greater attention to the types of abstract concepts that Epstein mentions. Science Alert, however, documents how this increase in IQ isn’t necessarily sustainable. 
  • Laszlo Polgar raised his three daughters, through intense specialization, to be champions of chess, a game that is the epitome of a “kind” learning environment. Psychology Today explores the girls’ upbringing and what factored into their success. 
  • The safest time to check into the hospital for a heart-related problem could be when all the cardiologists are away at a conference. Harvard Medical School explains how what these specialists might overlook could affect your health.
  • David Epstein talked with author Malcolm Gladwell about whether early specialization in the sports world indeed makes sense - here’s their discussion.

Business, David Epstein, Generalist, Specialist, Education

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