David Epstein makes an interesting argument for how to succeed in any field by developing broad interests and skills, instead of following the crowd around you and rushing to specialize.
Favorite quotes from the book:
I dove into work showing that highly credentialed experts can be come 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.
The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.
Knowledge with enduring utility must be very flexible, composed of mental schemes that can be matched to new problems.
“When all the members of the laboratory have the same knowledge at their disposal, then when a problem arises, a group of similar minded individuals will not provide more information to make analogies than a single individual,” Dunbar concluded.
The trouble, Godin noted, is that humans are bedeviled by the “sunk cost fallacy.” Having invested time or money in something, we are loath to leave it, because that would mean we had wasted our time or money, even though it is already gone.
“You have to carry a big basket to bring something home.” She repeats that phrase today, to mean that a mind kept wide open will take something from every new experience.
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.
Trying things is the answer to find your talent.
“Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do some things, but it also makes you blind to other things that you could do.”
Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable. Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.
But it’s often the case in group meetings where the person who made the Power Point 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?‘.
To recap: work that builds bridges between disparate pieces of knowledge is less likely to be funded, less likely to appear in famous journals, more likely to be ignored upon publication, and then more likely in the long run to be a smash hit in the library of human knowledge.
Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. 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.