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Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

By David Epstein
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Range by David Epstein

At a time when many see specialization as the route to success, Range (2019) shows that having broad interests and taking your time to find your focus in life lead to excellence and innovation. Drawing on examples from business, sports, science and human psychology, Range urges us all to stay open-minded and curious.

Key idea 1 of 9

Starting early and specializing is fashionable, but has dubious merit.

At the age of ten months old, Tiger Woods picked up his first miniature golf club. At two, he showed off his golf drive on national television. Later that same year, he entered and won his first tournament in the under ten category. Tiger Woods embodies a now popular idea that the key to success in life is to specialize, get a head start and practice intensively.

This trend toward specialization doesn’t only show up in the sports world. In fact, it’s also true of academia, our complex financial system and medicine. Oncologists, for example, now rarely focus on cancer alone. Rather, they specialize in cancer of a particular organ. The writer and surgeon Atul Gawande notes that when doctors joke about right-ear surgeons, we shouldn’t be so quick to assume they don’t actually exist.

But is specializing really the way to go? Simply put, no. In many walks of life, building up experience in just one field doesn’t help performance. In a 2009 paper, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein explored the connection between experience and performance.

Klein shows that experience counts in certain fields. For firefighters, for example, years of focused experience trains them to recognize patterns in the behavior of flames, which enables them to make 80 percent of their on-the-job decisions instinctively in seconds.

But Kahneman found that in other areas, experience counted for nothing. Studying the assessment of officer candidates in the Israeli Defence Forces, he found that recruiters’ predictions of a recruit’s future performance, based on physical and mental abilities, were no more reliable than guesswork. Crucially, as the recruiters received more and more feedback after multiple recruitment rounds, they didn’t get any better at making predictions. Kahneman concluded that there was a complete disconnect between experience and performance.

Some fields of life resemble golf or firefighting. While not necessarily easy, they offer recurring patterns or simple rules that govern decision-making. But there are many more fields of life, like army recruitment, that are much more nebulous and require the creativity and flexibility that generalization offers.

Let’s find out how this works.

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