Monday, July 08, 2019

Tiger and Federer, and the Case for Generalists

Source: Bleacher Report
David Epstein has published a terrific new book titled, "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World." He makes the case for not specializing too early in life, but instead, taking advantage of a period of sampling and discovery. He makes a strong case for why generalists tend to innovate more effectively. In fact, he offers an interesting contrast in the book between Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Tiger specialized at a remarkably young age. Federer did not. He argues that we seem to be favoring the specialists such as Tiger, and extolling the virtues of intense focus, and failing to recognize the value of generalists. Here's an excerpt:

I found more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range—and that it is worth it. I dived 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 by an enormous body of work demonstrating that learning 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 a lot like falling behind.

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. While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger's precocity and clarity of purpose, we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.

I wholeheartedly agree. I've argued that we need more polymaths, more Renaissance men and women, because they often can connect intriguing ideas and concepts from disparate fields in ways that lead to creative breakthroughs. Moreover, specialists can become closed-minded and dogmatic as their expertise deepens in a particular field. Of course, we need specialists in our organizations, but we must take great care to nurture the inquisitive, curious generalists who just might help us develop our next groundbreaking new product or service.  Sometimes, these generalists may seem as though they don't add as much immediate value. Sometimes, their minds might wander.  They may tinker a bit too much, at least according to the typical ways that executives might evaluate their performance.  We just might want to tolerate a bit of that unorthodox thinking though if we want new ideas to flourish. 

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