Popular wisdom drives the importance of a head start and specializes early. Not so fast, advises journalist David Epstein.
After Epstein wrote about the famous 10,000 hour rule in his first book, The sporting gene, he was invited to debate Malcolm Gladwell, whose book outliers had brought the rule into the main stream. To prepare for the debate, Epstein collected studies that looked at the development of top athletes and saw the trend not early specialization. On the contrary, in almost every sport there was a "sampling period" in which athletes got to know their own abilities and interests. The athletes who postponed the specialization were often better than their specialized peers, who plated at lower levels.
Epstein has written this information until he was asked by the Pat Tillman Foundation to have a conversation with a group of military veterans. These were people who changed careers and had doubts that many were aware of: whether they were doomed to stay behind because they didn't hold on to one thing. Epstein became interested in researching the benefits of a specialist versus a generalist and ended up writing Reach: Why generalists triumph in a specialized world (Penguin Random House).
The edge spoke to Epstein about & # 39; friendly & # 39; versus & # 39; bad & # 39; environments, the importance of doing instead of planning, and the difference between having reach and being a dilettant.
This interview has been slightly adjusted for clarity.
When did this cult of specialization develop? You of course mention the 10,000-hour rule, but it was certainly before that time.
The 10,000-hour rule simply gave it a more common language and actually intensified it. I really think that Tiger Woods himself (to whom Epstein writes in the beginning of the book) has kicked it up when he went on television as a two-year-old. It started this explosion of parent thinking, I have to let my child do this. There are a number of prodigies like this. Her easy to conceptualize and give someone a head start. We give a lot of lip service to & # 39; try and fail & # 39; but we don't really encourage it if the rubber hits the road.
I also think sharing video & # 39; s and movies of prodigies, whether that is Looking for Bobby Fischer or the Polgar story or the Tiger story – and those things are always in classical music, chess or golf because those domains are so susceptible to things like that – have fueled our natural tendency to give children a head start. And the 10,000-hour rule codified it and extrapolated it to every other domain, where it doesn't necessarily belong.
Right. One of the most important ideas of your book is that early specialization and a lot of intentional exercise work in certain & # 39; friendly & # 39; environments, but it is not so useful to succeed in & # 39; bad & # 39; environments where it might be better to be a generalist. Tell me more about this distinction.
It is clear that Tiger Woods was the best golfer in the world. Nothing I wrote had to say that this didn't work, but the problem was that extrapolate to everything else that people want to do. Golf is a psychologist Robin Hogarth a & # 39; friendly environment & # 39; and Hogarth set out the spectrum from friendly to poor environments.
The most friendly environment is one in which all information is fully available, you do not have to search for it, repeat patterns, the possible situations are limited, so that you encounter the same kind of situations over and over again, feedback on everything you do is both immediately as 100 percent accurate, there is no other human behavior involved than yours. While on the other hand, with poor environments, not all information is available when you have to make a decision. Usually you have to deal with dynamic situations in which other people are involved and judging, the feedback is not automatic and if you have feedback, it may be partial and may be inaccurate.
Most of the things that people want to do are much more toward the bad end of the spectrum than golf. You do not know any of the rules, they can be changed at any time without notice, and again and again. Early specialization is not the best way to go.
You talk about the importance of a "sampling period". But how long should this optimal sampling period last? In theory, someone could simply sample forever, but that makes no sense either.
That is the question of a million dollars. Or a billion dollar question. In sports, it seems that athletes who want to be the best, cut out other things in the mid-years, around fifteen. But it is not clear to me whether that is the optimal way to do it or whether it is because they have to specialize. We saw in a study of German football players, some of whom went to play in the World Cup, that they were still doing other sports informally when they were 22 years old. With Cirque du Soleil, they began to teach their artists the basics of the disciplines of other performers – not because they were going to perform it, but because it helped them be more creative when designing new shows and that the number of injuries would be reduced by a third Reduce. But I don't think we know exactly what would be optimal.
In addition to discussing the benefits of a generalist, the book also examines the disadvantages of specialization and how that can blind us. Do you have a favorite example of this that you like?
Part of what interested me here was that I realized that I had committed a statistical error in my own master's degree. I cannot say that I have "love" about it, it is a bit embarrassing. And that research is still published.
The problem is that when I went to a gradual school in geological sciences, I was rushed to this highly specialized research before I even learned how the tools for thinking and science work. So I studied very specific information, not knowing what happened when I pressed the computer buttons and got statistically significant results, and published them and obtained a master's degree for that.
There is a replication crisis in science and a huge amount is exactly what I did: people who don't think about how their statistics work. You can now get enough data and there are powerful statistical programs, so you don't have to know how scientific thinking works. I think that's a big problem.
That comes from Herminia Ibarra, an organizational behavior specialist who studies career transitions. She gave me one of my favorite sentences related to the "act and think". It is "We learn who we are in practice, not in theory." There is a lot of research that shows that we can take personality quizzes and things like that, but our understanding of ourselves is limited. It is similar to the end of history illusion, acknowledging that we have changed a lot in the past, but thinking that we will not change much in the future, but we are wrong at every stage.
This industry is trying to give you a quiz or initial advice to sit down and see and think about what you want to do, and it really contradicts what we know about how people develop and how personality develops develops over time. We have to do things and think about it. And that's how we learn about our skills and interest and opportunities for the world, as opposed to having and adopting a theory of ourselves. Try things and take the time to think. The best students tend to reflect on things they have done because they learn who they are.
Another thing that is interesting is the idea to have intellectual reach and take a lot of information. How does that tie in with all research into cognitive prejudice that keeps us from believing information that contradicts our beliefs? How do we have an intellectual reach?
It is really difficult. Algorithms reinforce that and unless you stop yourself and realize what is being done to you, you don't think about it. That is partly what Chapter 10 is about. You look at people who develop good judgment around the world, and people who were truly specialized and with limited focus, became even worse as they gathered more information because they were better able to fit in a story or what their opinion too. One of the most important characteristics of people with better judgment who could prevent them from constantly falling into their own cognitive prejudices was a characteristic that & # 39; scientific curiosity & # 39; is called.
There were smart surveys where people were given statistics to analyze and sometimes it's just a dull clinical trial with skin cream and sometimes it's something very political, such as whether control over the gun reduces deaths. Numeric people often become uncountable when confronted with those numbers in that context. It's not a matter of clarity – they could interpret the numbers well if it wasn't political. The people who went against the trend were the ones who were the highest in scientific curiosity. No science knowledgebut the curiosity about science was measured by the fact that if they were dealing with information that did not match their biased information, would they conduct the research broadly or would they put it aside and ignore it and leave it there?
So I think we should try very proactively to go outside the algorithm and do the opposite of what we tend to do. We should see if we can falsify our ideas. That was a characteristic of what the people with the best judgment do. Ultimately, it comes down to collecting a large number of sources to test their own ideas. You can get so much positive feedback for not do that as long as you stick to your little corner of the universe.
For those of us who stay in the same field, it is possible to be a generalist and a specialist?
At the end I focused on scientists and scientific research. Scientists, to the outside world, are in a way the model of specialization and I wanted to be sure that I included people who were viewed that way. Among these people who, compared to the general population, are highly specialized, what does it mean to have reach? How do you capture the benefits of reach, even at the point in your career where you have specialized to a certain extent?
So I looked at people like that Andre Geim (who has won both the Nobel Prize and Ig Nobel Prize, which is given to "trivial" research). I called the man who started the Ig Nobel and they tell people in advance so they can decide if they would rather not have it and reject it. But I think Geim was proud of it in the first place. He talks about how "it is psychologically disturbing to change what I do every five years, but that's how I make my most important discoveries." He says he doesn't do research, just "search." I liked that because we all specialize in one degree or another and the question is how we capture the benefits.
I loved your book and recommended it to several friends because it speaks to concerns that so many people have, such as "Am I just lazy because I can't stick to one thing?" To some extent, the book helps some of those fears to be alleviated, but I wondered: when will you reach and when will you be a dilettant?
I don't think it's great to give advice like, "Don't worry about interest or hard work for something." I like to think about the study of inventors at 3M. They identified generalist and specialized inventors, but there was also a class of inventors that was not that wide and that didn't have that much depth. They do not tend to make contributions. They were the dilettants. They flashed somewhat between things, but did not learn as many different technological classes as the generalists. But also the tendency not to go deep into a certain technology, so they ended up without an intellectual house, but also without the possibility of connecting disparate domains in a new way.
I think that is symbolic of the difference. You really have to make an effort and be curious about things, because part of the hunt for some economists & # 39; match quality & # 39; is diving into things in a way that gives you a maximum signal about yourself. And if you're superficial, I don't think you get the signal that helps you find where you are in the world.