The human world has been shaped in large part by a trend toward increasing specialization. From the agricultural revolution through Adam Smith’s teachings about division of labor to thriving medical specialties such as Gerontological Podiatric Vascular Specialist, the trend has been toward knowing more and more about less and less on the way to knowing everything about nothing. However, it’s become increasingly apparent both that hyper-specialization has its downsides, and that well-rounded generalists can solve some problems and make some innovations that specialists – blinded by their silos – can’t. Epstein’s premise is not that we need to roll-back specialization, but rather that we need to recognize what it does well and where it tends to fail, and to value generalists for what they bring to the table – which is often substantial.
If Epstein’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably for his previous book, “The Sports Gene,” which examined the science of athletic excellence. This book’s introduction sets up the discussion with a pair of sports-based examples. The first is Tiger Woods, a golfing legend who is one of the dominate forces in his sport. Woods is the poster-child for obsessive specialization and the frequently-cited (if greatly misunderstood and over-applied) 10,000-hour rule. [An idea that — on average — one needs about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of an activity. It turns out to be demonstrably wrong when applied to many activities, and seems to have contributed to a lot of repetitive stress injuries, if not mental health issues, owing to fanatical parents and coaches who bought into the idea hook, line, and sinker.] From his earliest childhood, Woods’s life was built around the game. The Woods case seems to bolster the idea that children who wish to be world-class elite athletes must focus their efforts on one sport as soon as possible. Until, however, it is juxtaposed to the story of Roger Federer, an athlete who has also been at the top of his sport (tennis,) but who took a much more meandering and varied route to becoming a champion.
The book consists of twelve chapters that seek to illuminate different dimensions of the specialist-generalist divide. The first chapter doesn’t dive into the arguments for generalization and well-rounded training as one might expect, but rather it shows how the idea that specialization is essential to success gained hold. The case that Epstein takes up to explain this tendency is that of the Polgar sisters, a trio of Hungarian siblings who became globally-recognized chess masters. Their father fought to be able to homeschool the girls (this was Cold War Eastern Europe — so doing one’s own thing wasn’t something one just decided to do and then did,) arguing that he could achieve greatness, launching his girls to the top of their field. The fact that Polgar succeeded could be taken as further iron-clad evidence for the virtue of specialization, but what it really does is to set up a discussion of how we might might go about differentiating fields where intense specialization is beneficial from those where it isn’t. It is convincingly argued that chess is not universally analogous to many other activities.
Chapter two explores the topic of cognition, and the effect that a general education has had on humankind’s thinking. The discussion centers on the “Flynn Effect” a steady rise in test scores that are supposed to measure innate intelligence (e.g. IQ tests,) but the fact that there has been a steady improvement on tests suggests there is something more at play than innate intelligence. It’s the third chapter that finally explicitly delves into the case for generalization, and it does so through through the fascinating case of a Venetian Women’s musical group that became legends despite the fact that: a.) they were only allotted a quite limited amount of time for music study given the competing requirements of their chores, general education, and other obligations; b.) even within the domain of music, they were famous for being able to switch instruments mid-act, or to serve as both vocalist and instrumentalist.
Chapter four completely changed my perspective on “new math.” I’d always shared in the widespread curmudgeonly attitude towards it, as if it were purely to accommodate the laziness of the youth, but I came away thinking about the topic very differently. The argument Epstein advances is that in a rush to teach the subject as quickly as possible, students of my generation were taught to memorize a massive number of rules and strings of sequences needed to solve problems. Because of this, such students had no intuition for why said sequences of operations worked – not to mention very little love for the subject of mathematics, which seemed both difficult and pointless [a deadly combination – either one of those characteristics will meet with limited resistance, but together they spell doom.] Chapter five investigates how use of analogies from outside a discipline can open up pathways to solutions that weren’t found from within. Chapter six shares a unique view on “grit,” the ability to keep digging through all the challenges to achieve a desired goal. Grit is typically perceived as an excellent trait, but Epstein shows that too much of some types of grit can trap people in the wrong academic field or line of work. There is a fascinating discussion of the US Military Academy and the Army’s attrition problem. They kept getting high-grit people who would power through the challenging parts of selection, but who [after great investment by the Army] would leave as soon as their minimum service requirement was met. It turned out the people they were paying the most to get into service were the least likely to stay, and the process they thought would weed out those who weren’t career material didn’t work at all.
Chapter seven tells the story of Francis Hesselbein, a housewife turned CEO, and how the exploration of one’s possible selves can help one achieve great and unexpected things. Chapter eight investigates a number of cases in which outsiders with broad knowledge bases were able to achieve what experts could not. Chapter nine discusses Nintendo’s path from a middling playing card manufacturer to one of video-gaming’s top names. They hired an engineer (a self-proclaimed tinkerer) to do maintenance of their equipment and he – ultimately — developed a principle that would turn into the company’s core innovation philosophy. It was called “lateral thinking with withered technology” and it utilized existing technology for entirely new purposes with respect to game play [e.g. the technology from calculators was put to use in making handheld videogaming units – i.e. the “Gameboy.”] This approach allowed Nintendo to produce at very low cost and to dominate the market at their price point.
Chapter ten examines the fascinating phenomena whereby experts in a field are often notoriously bad at making predictions about future happenings within their area of expertise. The concept of “foxes v. hedgehogs” in forecasting is discussed at length. Specialist experts tend to be hedgehogs, they build their forecasts around a pet hypothesis and then dig in and are quite reluctant to adjust to changing information. [Foxes look at many types of information and approaches, and quickly adjust to changing information.] The penultimate chapter uncovers another common defect among specialist experts, attachment to familiar tools. The central case of this discussion involves NASA engineers disregard of evidence of a potential danger that couldn’t be put in terms of quantitative data. A secondary example is provided by firefighters who literally couldn’t drop their tools [chainsaws, axes, etc.] when they needed to run to escape advancing wildfires. [I could see another example from my training in the martial arts. In learning weapon disarms and retention, it often takes some hard lessons for martial artists to not maintain a white-knuckle grip on a weapon that they don’t control and can’t immediately put to use – all the while they are tying up their hands, they are also taking a beating. Knowing when to let go, and change one’s tactics, doesn’t come easy.]
The last chapter offers some examples of generalists who achieved greatness by applying a broader understanding than others. The people who learn less and less about more and more on the way to knowing nothing about everything have their purpose in this world. There’s a conclusion that lays out some basic ideas for applying the concepts from the book. The Kindle edition that I read had a substantial “Afterword” that was introduced with the paperback edition and which examined some different cases to clarify the generalist advantage.
I found this book to be an enlightening read. It used many fascinating cases to make clear where generalists have particular value. If you are interested in where the jack-of-all-trades will excel, this is an excellent book to give a read. Along the way, it also lends insight into learning, innovation, and creativity.