The Big Idea
Generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel in most fields. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.
“It seems very clear,” the psychologists wrote, “that sheer amount of lesson or practice time is not a good indicator of exceptionality.”
10/10 – this book was a paradigm shift for me and I wish it had come out 10 years earlier
Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a “sampling period.” They play a variety of sports, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area.
One study showed that early career specializers jumped out to an earnings lead after college, but that later specializers made up for the head start by finding work that better fit their skills and personalities.
I dove into work showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident—a dangerous combination. And I was stunned when cognitive psychologists I spoke with led me to an enormous and too often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.
Overspecialization can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action.
The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.
When Kahneman probed the judgments of highly trained experts, he often found that experience had not helped at all. Even worse, it frequently bred confidence but not skill.
The difference between what Klein and Kahneman documented in experienced professionals comprised a profound conundrum: Do specialists get better with experience, or not?
Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise, they agreed, depended entirely on the domain in question. Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform.
The domains Klein studied, in which instinctive pattern recognition worked powerfully, are what psychologist Robin Hogarth termed “kind” learning environments. Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid.
In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.
Moravec’s paradox: machines and humans frequently have opposite strengths and weaknesses.
Psychologists Fernand Gobet (an international master) and Guillermo Campitelli (coach to future grandmasters) found that the chances of a competitive chess player reaching international master status (a level down from grandmaster) dropped from one in four to one in fifty-five if rigorous training had not begun by age twelve.
Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.
Marcus gave me this analogy for the current limits of expert machines: “AI systems are like savants.” They need stable structures and narrow worlds.
He studied high-powered consultants from top business schools for fifteen years, and saw that they did really well on business school problems that were well defined and quickly assessed. But they employed what Argyris called single-loop learning, the kind that favors the first familiar solution that comes to mind. Whenever those solutions went wrong, the consultant usually got defensive. Argyris found their “brittle personalities” particularly surprising given that “the essence of their job is to teach others how to do things differently.”
His suggestions for avoiding it are about the polar opposite of the strict version of the ten-thousand-hours school of thought: vary challenges within a domain drastically, and, as a fellow researcher put it, insist on “having one foot outside your world.”
As psychologist and prominent creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton observed, “rather than obsessively focus[ing] on a narrow topic,” creative achievers tend to have broad interests. “This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.”
Connolly’s primary finding was that early in their careers, those who later made successful transitions had broader training and kept multiple “career streams” open even as they pursued a primary specialty. They “traveled on an eight-lane highway,” he wrote, rather than down a single-lane one-way street.
He started in 1981, intrigued by a thirty-year-old paper that reported IQ test scores of American soldiers in World Wars I and II. The World War II soldiers had performed better, by a lot. A World War I soldier who scored smack in the middle of his peers—the 50th percentile—would have made only the 22nd percentile compared to soldiers in World War II.
To put that in perspective, if an adult who scored average today were compared to adults a century ago, she would be in the 98th percentile.
A child today who scores average on similarities would be in the 94th percentile of her grandparents’ generation.
“The huge Raven’s gains show that today’s children are far better at solving problems on the spot without a previously learned method for doing so,” Flynn concluded.
Three-quarters of American college graduates go on to a career unrelated to their major—a trend that includes math and science majors—after having become competent only with the tools of a single discipline.
The professor later explained that these were “Fermi problems,” because Enrico Fermi—who created the first nuclear reactor beneath the University of Chicago football field—constantly made back-of-the-envelope estimates to help him approach problems.
“It seems very clear,” the psychologists wrote, “that sheer amount of lesson or practice time is not a good indicator of exceptionality.”
“The strong implication,” the researchers wrote, is “that that too many lessons at a young age may not be helpful.”
The psychologists highlighted the variety of paths to excellence, but the most common was a sampling period, often lightly structured with some lessons and a breadth of instruments and activities, followed only later by a narrowing of focus, increased structure, and an explosion of practice volume.
In offering advice to parents, psychologist Adam Grant noted that creativity may be difficult to nurture, but it is easy to thwart.
Spacing, testing, and using making-connections questions were on the extremely short list. All three impair performance in the short term.
Here is the bright side: over the past forty years, Americans have increasingly said in national surveys that current students are getting a worse education than they themselves did, and they have been wrong. Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the nation’s report card,” have risen steadily since the 1970s. Unquestionably, students today have mastery of basic skills that is superior to students of the past. School has not gotten worse. The goals of education have just become loftier.
College football coaches rated the same player’s potential very differently depending on what former player he was likened to in an introductory description, even with all other information kept exactly the same.
In 2001, the Boston Consulting Group, one of the most successful in the world, created an intranet site to provide consultants with collections of material to facilitate wide-ranging analogical thinking. The interactive “exhibits” were sorted by discipline (anthropology, psychology, history, and others), concept (change, logistics, productivity, and so on), and strategic theme (competition, cooperation, unions and alliances, and more).
It is a myth that Vincent van Gogh died in anonymity. An ecstatic review cast him as a revolutionary months before he died, and made him the talk of Paris.
Adjusted for inflation, four of Van Gogh’s paintings have sold for more than $100 million, and they weren’t even the most famous ones. His work now graces everything from socks to cell phone covers and an eponymous vodka brand. But he reached far beyond commerce.
According to Levitt, the study suggested that “admonitions such as ‘winners never quit and quitters never win,’ while well-meaning, may actually be extremely poor advice.”
Winston Churchill’s “never give in, never, never, never, never” is an oft-quoted trope. The end of the sentence is always left out: “except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
Switchers are winners. It seems to fly in the face of hoary adages about quitting, and of far newer concepts in modern psychology.
The expression “young and foolish,” he wrote, describes the tendency of young adults to gravitate to risky jobs, but it is not foolish at all. It is ideal. They have less experience than older workers, and so the first avenues they should try are those with high risk and reward, and that have high informational value.
Persevering through difficulty is a competitive advantage for any traveler of a long road, but he suggested that knowing when to quit is such a big strategic advantage that every single person, before undertaking an endeavor, should enumerate conditions under which they should quit.
The important trick, he said, is staying attuned to whether switching is simply a failure of perseverance, or astute recognition that better matches are available.
The more likely the Army is to identify someone as a successful future officer and spend money on them, the more likely they are to leave as soon as possible. The Army’s goal is developing
In return for three additional years of active service, the program increased the number of officers who can choose a branch (infantry, intelligence, engineering, dental, finance, veterinary, communication technology, and many more), or a geographic post. Where dangling money for junior officers failed miserably, facilitating match quality succeeded.
But I was learning about the kind of training that worked for me, and I was improving. In my senior season, I cracked the university’s all-time top ten list indoors, was twice All-East, and part of a relay that set the university record. The only other guy in my class who held a university record was my gritty roommate, the other walk-on. Nearly the entire recruited class from our year quit.
So after you retire, travel, write a poem, try to start your own business, stay out a little too late, devote time to something that doesn’t have a clear end goal.”
‘Oh, I’m going to fall behind, these people started earlier and have more than me at a younger age,’” Ogas told me. “They focused on, ‘Here’s who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, and here are the opportunities.
Which of these is the best match right now? And maybe a year from now I’ll switch because I’ll find something better.’”
Ogas uses the shorthand “standardization covenant” for the cultural notion that it is rational to trade a winding path of self-exploration for a rigid goal with a head start because it ensures stability.
Psychologist Dan Gilbert called it the “end of history illusion.” From teenagers to senior citizens, we recognize that our desires and motivations sure changed a lot in the past (see: your old hairstyle), but believe they will not change much in the future.
In Gilbert’s terms, we are works in progress claiming to be finished.
The precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been. That feels like the most unexpected result, but it is also the most well documented.
Adults tend to become more agreeable, more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and less neurotic with age, but less open to experience.
adults grow more consistent and cautious and less curious, open-minded, and inventive.* The changes have well-known impacts, like the fact that adults generally become less likely to commit violent crimes with age, and more able to create stable relationships.
The most momentous personality changes occur between age eighteen and one’s late twenties, so specializing early is a task of predicting match quality for a person who does not yet exist.
With Mischel, he began to study “if-then signatures.” If David is at a giant party, then he seems introverted, but if David is with his team at work, then he seems extroverted. (True.) So is David introverted or extroverted? Well, both, and consistently so. Ogas
Instead of asking whether someone is gritty, we should ask when they are. “If you get someone into a context that suits them,” Ogas said, “they’ll more likely work hard and it will look like grit from the outside.”
“It’s no use going back to yesterday,” she said, “because I was a different person then.” Alice captured a grain of truth, one that has profound consequences for the best way to maximize match quality. •
If that sounds facile, consider that it is precisely the opposite of a vast marketing crusade that assures customers they can alight on their perfect matches via introspection alone.
“All of the strengths-finder stuff, it gives people license to pigeonhole themselves or others in ways that just don’t take into account how much we grow and evolve and blossom and discover new things,” Ibarra told me. “But people want answers, so these frameworks sell. It’s a lot harder to say, ‘Well, come up with some experiments and see what happens.’” If
Instead, she told me, in a clever inversion of a hallowed axiom, “First act and then think.” Ibarra marshaled social psychology to argue persuasively that we are each made up of numerous possibilities. As she put it, “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.”
We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.
Their confidants advised them not to do anything rash; don’t change now, they said, just keep the new interest or talent as a hobby. But the more they dabbled, the more certain they were that it was time for a change. A new work identity did not manifest overnight, but began with trying something temporary, Hesselbein style, or finding a new role model, then reflecting on the experience and moving to the next short-term plan. Some career changers got richer, others poorer; all felt temporarily behind, but as in the Freakonomics coin-flip study, they were happier with a change.
“Which among my various possible selves should I start to explore now? How can I do that?” Be a flirt with your possible selves.* Rather than a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly. “Test-and-learn,” Ibarra told me, “not plan-and-implement.”
Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway.
“My passion for the sport hasn’t waned,” she said when she retired, “but my passion for new experiences and new challenges is what is now burning the most brightly.”
Bingham had noticed that established companies tended to approach problems with so-called local search, that is, using specialists from a single domain, and trying solutions that worked before. Meanwhile, his invitation to outsiders worked so well that it was spun off as an entirely separate company.
Yokoi was the first to admit it. “I don’t have any particular specialist skills,” he once said. “I have a sort of vague knowledge of everything.”
“If you’re working on well-defined and well-understood problems, specialists work very, very well,” he told me. “As ambiguity and uncertainty increases, which is the norm with systems problems, breadth becomes increasingly important.”
When the National Transportation Safety Board analyzed its database of major flight accidents, it found that 73 percent occurred on a flight crew’s first day working together.
Even without the pope’s assistance, the world’s population growth rate began a precipitous decline that continues today. When child mortality declined and education (especially for women) and development increased, birth rates decreased. Humanity will need more innovation as absolute world population continues to grow, but the growth rate is declining, rapidly.
Many experts never admitted systematic flaws in their judgment, even in the face of their results. When they succeeded, it was completely on their own merits—their expertise clearly enabled them to figure out the world. When they missed wildly, it was always a near miss; they had certainly understood the situation, they insisted, and if just one little thing had gone differently, they would have nailed it.
Scott Eastman told me that he “never completely fit in one world.” He grew up in Oregon and competed in math and science contests, but in college he studied English literature and fine arts. He has been a bicycle mechanic, a housepainter, founder of a housepainting company, manager of a multimillion-dollar trust, a photographer, a photography teacher, a lecturer at a Romanian university—in subjects ranging from cultural anthropology to civil rights—and, most unusually, chief adviser to the mayor of Avrig, a small town in the middle of Romania.
Often if you’re too much of an insider, it’s hard to get good perspective.” Eastman described the core trait of the best forecasters to me as: “genuinely curious about, well, really everything.”
She felt exactly the same as Eastman. Narrow experts are an invaluable resource, she told me, “but you have to understand that they may have blinders on. So what I try to do is take facts from them, not opinions.” Like polymath inventors, Eastman and Cousins take ravenously from specialists and integrate.
It is not that we are unable to come up with contrary ideas, it is just that our strong instinct is not to.
When participants were then given a chance to get paid if they read contrary arguments, two-thirds decided they would rather not even look at the counterarguments, never mind seriously entertain them. The aversion to contrary ideas is not a simple artifact of stupidity or ignorance.
When an outcome took them by surprise, however, foxes were much more likely to adjust their ideas. Hedgehogs barely budged. Some hedgehogs made authoritative predictions that turned out wildly wrong, and then updated their theories in the wrong direction.
He adds that the data are particularly ambiguous because for some reason the chief mechanic didn’t plot the race temperatures when the engine didn’t fail. “Okay, so, Dmitry, here comes a quantitative question,” the professor says. “How many times did I say yesterday if you want additional information let me know?” Muffled gasps spread across the room. “Four times,” the professor answers himself. “Four times I said if you want additional information let me know.” Not one student asked for the missing data. The professor puts up a new graph, with every race plotted.
The temperature and engine failure data are taken exactly from NASA’s tragic decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger, with the details placed in the context of racing rather than space exploration.
where the person who made the PowerPoint slides puts data in front of you, and we often just use the data people put in front of us. I would argue we don’t do a good job of saying, ‘Is this the data that we want to make the decision we need to make?’”
As Maclean succinctly put it, “When a firefighter is told to drop his firefighting tools, he is told to forget he is a firefighter.”
Dropping familiar tools is particularly difficult for experienced professionals who rely on what Weick called overlearned behavior. That is, they have done the same thing in response to the same challenges over and over until the behavior has become so automatic that they no longer even recognize it as a situation-specific tool.
Accident Investigation Board concluded that NASA’s culture “emphasized chain of command, procedure, following the rules, and going by the book. While rules and procedures were essential for coordination, they had an unintended negative effect.” Once again, “allegiance to hierarchy and procedure” had ended in disaster.
On the very first day the instructor asked the class, rhetorically, for the single most important principle in decision making. His answer: to get consensus. “And I said, ‘I don’t think the people who launched the space shuttle Challenger agree with that point,’” Geveden told me. “Consensus is nice to have, but we shouldn’t be optimizing happiness, we should be optimizing our decisions.
When five orthopedic clinics in Finland compared the surgery with “sham surgery”—that is, surgeons took patients with knee pain and a torn meniscus to operating rooms, made incisions, faked surgeries, and sewed them back up and sent them to physical therapy—they found that sham surgery worked just as well. Most people with a torn meniscus, it turns out, don’t have any symptoms at all and will never even know. And for those who do have a torn meniscus and knee pain, the tear may have nothing to do with the pain.
One needs to let the brain think about something different from its daily work, he would say. “On Saturday,” as Smithies put it, “you don’t have to be completely rational.”
The provost told me that chemists reliably fall off a cliff twenty years after they get their PhDs. Smithies laughed. “Yeah, well, my most important paper was published when I was about sixty,”
University of Manchester physicist Andre Geim employs (with no relation to Smithies) “Friday night experiments” (FNEs). It was a Friday night when he began the work that led to his 2000 Ig Nobel Prize.
“I always advise my people to read outside your field, everyday something. And most people say, ‘Well, I don’t have time to read outside my field.’ I say, ‘No, you do have time, it’s far more important.’ Your world becomes a bigger world, and maybe there’s a moment in which you make connections.”
As business writer Michael Simmons put it, “Baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four.” In the wider world, “every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs.”
The tidy specialization narrative cannot easily fit even these relatively kind domains that have most successfully marketed it. So, about that one sentence of advice: Don’t feel behind. Two Roman historians recorded that when Julius Caesar was a young man he saw a statue of Alexander the Great in Spain and broke down in tears. “Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable,” he supposedly said.
You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help. Instead, as Herminia Ibarra suggested for the proactive pursuit of match quality, start planning experiments. Your personal version of Friday night or Saturday morning experiments, perhaps.
I feel a little like Inigo Montoya after he finally got revenge: What now?? But I’m about a million times more excited and less fearful about “What now?” than I would have been before I did the research that went into this book. I closed the acknowledgments of my last book with a note about Elizabeth: “If I ever write another book, I’m sure that one will be dedicated to her too.” (Even though she was waffling between me and John Dewey for her book dedication.) At the close of my second book, I think it’s safe to say that if I ever write another book, I’m sure that one will be dedicated to her too.