Be A Generalist Not A Specialist If You Want To Excel

A new book by David Epstein, Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World, makes the case for Generalists. As a Generalist, I’m happy someone wrote a book about Generalists for everyone; not just business people.

Everybody purports to value the generalists as leaders, innovators and visionaries, but nobody wants to hire generalists. You have to be a specialist to get most jobs, after some time you can then spread out. It’s at the top, CEO, where being a Generalists is useful; but you have to get there by the specialized route.

Borrowing and adapting

Just like a Generalist borrows and adapts from other domains, Epstein borrows from other books to make the case for Generalists. New challenges require new perspectives and ideas. Generalists find them, compile them and put them into new context. Discovering is important; assembling is too. Generally, assemblers are responsible for more effective innovation.

Innovation cannot be created directly; else it would not be innovation. Epstein encourages lateral thinking and that is best accomplished by broad knowledge and broad contacts. Recall that innovation is not the same as invention. Innovation involves using new inventions but more often by applying existing factors in new ways.

Foxes beat hedgehogs

Epstein uses the old metaphor of hedgehogs and foxes to compare specialists and generalists. Hedgehogs know one thing very deeply; foxes know lots of things but not in detail. Both are necessary. Hedgehogs develop inventions and ideas. Foxes assemble. In stable or short-horizon situations, hedgehogs do better, since they can apply bodies of knowledge and experience. This is where grit pays off. Most of life is like this. If this was not true, there would be little use in any sort of professional expertise or practice.

In new or uncertain situations, however, it is the foxes that excel. Because as problems get more complex, you need more questions than answers; which Generalists are happy to ask. Specialists become limited by what they know and ignore other perspectives.

Foxes beat hedgehogs consistently when trying to predict uncertain events. Epstein mentions the work of Phillip Tetlock, who did a multi-decade study of experts in political pundits. He found that the experts were no better than random chance in predicting big political events out more than a short time or innovations. In fact, the specialists were often worst in their own specialties, and the most famous were often worst of all.

The foxes do much better because they are willing to listen to broad and new information and to change their minds. Theirs is a more iterative process, incorporating new information as available and a willingness to “flip-flop” when it makes sense.

Embrace cross-disciplinary thinking

This is not a business book. It’s a book for professionals, educators and parents; really everyone will benefit from reading this book. The main takeaway, which I’ve written about in this blog for a long time, is that you should be curious, experiment and try many things.

The future is not yet created, it’s not a set point; it’s a range of possible outcomes. Both specialists and generalists have a role to play in creating it; but it is generalists who are the most capable to adapt and endure the roller-coaster of life.