UPDATED ON 12/28/2021
Generalists can live in perfect harmony with specialists in the workforce and be deceptively more powerful than people think.
My local library emailed me last week.
A book I had put on hold months ago had finally arrived.
Usually, by the time the library informs me of a book’s arrival, the book is no longer relevant to me and I do not even bother checking it out.
This time was different.
My career-changing and generalist clients needed this book. Heck, I needed this book.
You see, today’s work environment has become impatient. Businesses constantly want to hit the ground running without giving any leeway to the learning curve, and because of this, they continually crave specialists.
There is nothing wrong with that.
What they do not realize is that by doing so, they become blinded — or worse, ignorant — from seeing what generalists can offer.
This book not only challenges the current corporate world. It equips generalists with arguments that they can used on their resumes and in their job interviews to justify their case to recruiters and hiring managers.
And that is why I want to talk about this book.
Range by David Epstein.
It was written as a rebuttal to “The 10,000 Hour Rule”, first introduced by Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.
Whereas Outliers advocates specialists, Range vouches for generalists.
At last, a book that offers scientific evidence proving generalization has been terribly undervalued in today’s workforce.
Now, I want to disclose that I am not favoring one more than the other. I am simply stating that there is no reason for generalists to feel inferior to specialists just because it seems that way in the office.
It is time for generalists to take a stand.
Let’s start with a brief reminder of conventional thinking.
“The 10,000 Hour Rule” as Popularized in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
When Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers in 2008, he unintentionally popularized a concept first introduced by Anders Ericsson: The 10,000 Hour Rule.
The rule states that in order to be a master at any specific task, one needs to spend at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice on it.
Gladwell’s favorite example is Mozart. History has led us to believe that the composer was a child prodigy at music composition from the age of four when, in fact, he insisted on playing music for three hours a day so that by the time he was six, he had already accumulated 3,500 hours. Yet, his best work did not come until his 20’s.
Another more recent example Gladwell uses is Bill Gates. The computer whiz was exposed to a computer at the age of 13 and programmed on it until he was 1000% certain that he could succeed without Harvard.
So there is something to be said in specializing in one particular thing.
As long as we do not expect ourselves to be good at something overnight, we will eventually master it if we dedicate enough time to deliberately practice it.
That said, Gates made an excellent point in a subsequent 92Y interview with his father, Bill Gates Sr.
In short, Gates clarified that the 10,000 hours went in cycles. People like him likely practiced in cycles of 50 hours and evaluated whether they liked the discipline at the end of each cycles. If they still like, they go to the next cycle. If they do not, they quit. In other words, he and people like him are fanatics of their specialty.
That makes specialists very passionate enthusiasts, and companies absolutely love and certainly need them.
Nevertheless, as we all know — and Gladwell later conceded other factors as well — not all specialists are created equal.
Some specialists became specialists because they were forced to as children by their parents.
And it is this caveat that David Epstein points out in Range.
In his data-driven way, Epstein discovered that many specialists burn out later in life just as late bloomers start to establish their footing and surpass their counterparts.
He loves to compare Tiger Woods with Roger Federer.
While Woods swung a golf club before the age of two, Federer was urged to try a gazillion sports until he fixated on tennis at 15.
To me, 15-years-old is hardly late.
Anyway, here we have one who played nothing but golf and another who played a bunch of activities including skateboarding. Yet, both reached the pinnacles of their respective sports…
…at least early on.
Have you noticed that Woods began to decline about a decade ago while Federer is still ranked fourth as of March 2020?
This is the phenomenon that Epstein emphasizes.
Although specialists may be a step ahead early on, generalists will eclipse them later in life.
One major reason is most companies are immersed in “wicked” environments. These environments exist with high levels of ambiguity and unpredictability.
Specialists are trained to recognize learned procedures and patterns, so they formulate expert solutions based on their focused experience and grow disheartened when those solutions unexpectedly worsens the problems.
By contrast, generalists tend to approach issues from a beginner’s mindset, learn about the problem as is, and create solutions based on experiences from a wide array of disciplines. This has proven to be a great asset.
In addition, generalists are more willing to find interests that most match their personality and preferences, which adds to their professional longevity.
My Experience as a Late Bloomer
In college, I was a total specialist. Every class counted toward my two majors and a minor. I did that on purpose.
What I did not expect was the enormous self-doubt pullulating during my junior year.
That led to burnout before I even stepped into the workforce, just like Epstein has stated.
As a result, I became a generalist fighting to be a specialist ever since.
Although I have a wide spectrum of experiences, I did not embrace the idea of generalization. I would concentrate on one area for a time, then another one, hoping to be a specialist. Yet, by the time I learned one, it would evolved on me.
I hated constantly feeling like an amateur. I felt utter incompetent during what should be my prime professional years. Instead, it led to depression.
If only David Epstein published his book a decade earlier.
This article is not meant to discourage us from being specialists. We definitely need them in the world…as long as they are nuts about their specialties.
What I hope to do is cheer on those of you who don’t know what you want to do when you “grow up”, and feel like you are constantly playing catch up.
Range has given me a new perspective on my life and ignited my spirit to embrace my curious beginner’s mind. That is something specialists can learn from generalists. Treasure our specialties while keeping a curious, open attitude.
The more we grasp Epstein’s positive angle, the better we can articulate our unique propositions to others.
It does not mean that we cannot become specialists sometime down the line. Gladwell’s research remains relevant. The difference now is we choose to specialize, not because of Mom and Dad.
So should we be specialists or generalists? I say be both.
For more on David Epstein’s research, go to his TED Talk.