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IAN MANN REVIEWS: Why the world doesn't need more specialists

Aug 24 2019 07:30
Ian Mann

Range: How generalists triumph in a specialized world, by David Epstein

"We are often taught that the more competitive and complicated the world gets, the more specialised we all must become (and the earlier we must start) to navigate it," author David Epstein explains.

This is intuitively correct given that the world has moved from being just complicated, to being very complex, with very small changes having very large effects. The system just keeps changing very fast.

While this is intuitively correct, it is factually wrong. While some factually wrong understandings can be overlooked, this one cannot. It misleads parents in their attempts to raise successful children, and adults from being as successful as they could be.

In 2014, soon after Germany had won the World Cup, a study was published by a team of German scientists that showed that players in this squad were typically late specialisers. They hadn’t played more organised soccer than amateur-league players until age twenty-two or later.

Nearly identical findings can be seen from studies of artistic creators.

Narrower and narrower

Why is this a problem, as opposed to an interesting observation? Only because highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident. That is a dangerous combination. Epstein reports that a recent study found that cardiac patients were actually less likely to die if they were admitted during a national cardiology meeting, when thousands of cardiologists were away!

We saw a similar phenomenon in the global financial crisis. Huge numbers of specialised groups who were optimising risk for their own tiny pieces of the big picture, created a catastrophe for the largest parts of the world economy.

The challenge this book addresses is how to derive the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration on a pinhead, in a world that increasingly incentivises and demands hyper-specialisation.

What we need are people who start broad so that they can build a personal body of diverse experiences and perspectives as they progress. Epstein calls this "people with range."

You have probably heard that 10 000 hours of thoughtful and deliberate practice is the formula for success. And it is correct - but only for environments where patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. Golf and chess are good examples of this - what is termed "kind learning environments".

The alternatives are "wicked" environments, where the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete. Here there may well not be repetitive patterns that may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both. In extremely wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons.

IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat Kasparov at chess and their Watson did the same to the best Jeopardy players.

The AI that drove both initiatives was subsequently used as an aid to oncology and pitched as a revolution in cancer care. It flopped so spectacularly that it was withdrawn. As one oncologist put it, "The difference between winning at Jeopardy and curing all cancer is that we know the answers to Jeopardy questions." With cancer, we’re still working on posing the right questions.

The danger is treating the world as if it was only a ‘kind’ environment when so much of it is ‘wicked’.

In sport, golf is kind; tennis is wicked. Tennis is much more dynamic because players must adjust to opponents every second, to surfaces, and sometimes to their own teammates. The world is not golf and most of it is far more wicked than even tennis.

So, what is to be done to address this complexity and volatility? ‘Range’ – the polar opposite of hyper-specialisation.

Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to be amateur actors, dancers, magicians, or other types of performers. Nationally recognised scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glass-blowers, poets, or writers of fiction and nonfiction.

The central conclusion of research that involved years of studying expert scientists and engineers, Epstein reports, "was that those who did not make a creative contribution to their field, lacked aesthetic interests outside their narrow area."

This and many other reports imply that the hugely successful were excellent at taking knowledge from one pursuit and applying it creatively to another, and at avoiding "cognitive entrenchment".

It is undoubtedly true that modern life requires ‘range’, making connections across far-flung domains and ideas. However, this insight has not penetrated our professional education, let alone our amateur attempts at child rearing.

In higher education we have responded by pushing specialisation, rather than focusing early training on conceptual, transferable knowledge.

Professor James Flynn, (a political scientist credited with having changed how psychologists think about thinking,) conducted a study comparing the grades of seniors at one of America’s top state universities, with their performance on a test of critical thinking. Participants were students studying subjects from neuroscience to English literature.

The test was of their ability to apply fundamental abstract concepts from economics, social and physical sciences and logic, to common, real-world scenarios. The correlation between this test of broad conceptual thinking and students’ grades, was about zero. This is an indication that there is no development of anything other than a narrow critical competence. "They aren’t giving students the tools to analyse the modern world, except in their area of specialisation. Their education is too narrow."

Just one discipline

Three-quarters of graduates go on to a career unrelated to their majors. The problem is that they have become competent only with the tools of a single discipline.

InnoCentive is a crowd-sourcing platform where wicked problems, often of a sensitive nature, are posed to the world in exchange for cash prizes for successful answers. It was initially the brainchild of Alpheus Bingham, the research strategist at Eli Lily. Unable to find solutions from their internal, world-class scientists, they bravely opened these problems to all.

Strangers created solutions that had befuddled Eli Lilly chemists. A little more than one-third of challenges were completely solved; one for example, came from a lawyer!

Tiger Woods played golf from early childhood, and his father coached him and pushed him ahead consistently and cleverly.

Roger Federer’s mother was a tennis coach who refused to coach him because he was difficult to work with. His father’s only sporting advice was "don’t cheat." Federer liked and played many sports "as long as they had a ball," and only settled on tennis in his early teens. His parents’ involvement in this decision was only to encourage him not to take tennis so seriously. When his tennis coach wanted him to play with older boys because he was so good, he declined because he enjoyed being with peers he played other sports with.

When Federer finally gave up other sports to focus on tennis, players his age were years ahead of him, already working with strength coaches, sports psychologists, and nutritionists. His wide early exposure to many sports, and late specialisation didn’t inhibit development in the long run. In his mid-thirties, when even legendary tennis players are typically retired, he was still ranked number one in the world.

Epstein’s suggestion for dealing with an extraordinarily complex world that needs hyper-specialisation? We need more Federers as our guide, and less Tiger Woods.

Readability         Light ----+ Serious

Insights              High +---- Low

Practical              High ---+- Low

 *Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and ‘The Executive Update.’ Views expressed are his own.

ian mann  |  graduates  |  book review  |  studies  |  specialisation
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