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  • Writer's pictureDavide Ferrari

Range, how generalists triumph in a specialized world - the book review


There is so much to say about this book. It is a twelve-chapter journey that aims to tell the reader the difference between generalists and specialists through true stories from a variety of eras of which we have historical records.

Here it is explained how these two attitudes can be researched in everyday life and ultimately it also makes us understand which of the two groups we belong to.

In this review I will try to distil the most relevant concepts, however I already know that it will not be enough to express everything as I would like, so I invite you to stay tuned for a series of dedicated articles in which I want to deepen in a dedicated way the most salient aspects.

Specialists and Generalists, who are they?

Giving an unambiguous definition is certainly not easy, especially since sometimes it is not even possible to consider oneself only a generalist or only a specialist. However, a simple way to describe the main difference lies in the breadth and depth of knowledge we acquire in our lives.

The specialist is the one who identifies a specific area of interest and, however broad it may be, devotes all his energies within that area by delving as deeply as possible.

This often happens when we think of school and university, where we choose a specific course (physics, history, journalism, etc.) and spend years studying every specific aspect of that subject; sometimes even choosing and isolating ourselves in very specific sub-themes.

Think of medicine, for example, and how, increasingly, surgeons are now not even called such without a termination specifying which part of the body they are responsible for.

This is certainly good, after all, when we are sick, we want our doctor to be the best in the ailment that afflicts us, and we do not care if he is also competent in something that instead is not making us sick.

In the same way, when we buy a house, we want the architect who designed it to be the best in building houses and we care little if he knows how to build a bridge or if he knows history.

Similarly, we can define generalists; these are people who cannot find enough satisfaction in a single topic and are willing to sacrifice detailed insight in favour of a wider range of views on even disconnected topics.

Usually, this condition occurs in people who develop personal curiosity and pleasure in studying topics of various kinds.

This condition is typical of those who instead of being able to deal with a problem to its most hidden details, are instead able to increase the level of abstraction of the way of seeing the world with the natural consequence of learning to connect issues and knowledge even diametrically opposed to each other.

Kind and Wicked Learning Environment: chess vs medicine

To each of these two types of people, there corresponds a suitable type of learning environment.

In fact, specialists generally perform best when their field of application is very well defined, governed by precise, sometimes immutable rules within which to move.

This is the case, for example, with the game of chess. The rules are very precise and immutable; the difficulty lies in the number of possible combinations of moves, and skill in this area is determined mainly by experience.

In fact, there are neuropsychiatric studies that show that long experience, especially if gained at a young age, is one of the best predictors of success in this and similar fields.

To increase the level of difficulty, it is necessary to increase the complexity of the rules, but they remain mostly fixed and predictable. The game of Go, for example, is extremely more complex than chess.

However, it is not a coincidence that these areas, are also those most easily replicated and dominated by automatic algorithms and artificial intelligence programs that, by their nature, are extremely good and performing in contexts with fixed and predictable rules, however complex they are. We will call these contexts, Kind Learning Environments.

Case in point is what we will call Wicked Learning Environments instead.

These types of contexts are characterized by a set of rules that is not fixed, changes over time, and is sometimes not even fully known.

A perfect example of this is medicine; the complexity of physiology, pathology and all biological mechanisms make this context extremely complicated, in which human intuition is still unbeaten in its ability to connect and exploit very different and often unpredictably useful information.

Generally, specialists are well-placed in kind learning environments because their training is based on the study of precise and unchangeable skills and their practical application.

Conversely, generalists are often more comfortable in wicked learning contexts because they are required to explore beyond the patterns of current knowledge in search of new ways of approaching problems.

I know I just said that doctors are specialists, and that medicine is a wicked learning system, however this still needs to be contextualized.

It is true that doctors are increasingly specialists, however it is necessary that the approach to medicine is also open to the integration of intuition and transversal knowledge; this is perhaps one of the aspects that makes the profession of the doctor so complicated.

An important disclosure is that being a generalist, or a specialist have nothing to do with your job, indeed you can approach any job or activity in both ways.

So, it is more an attitude to life and knowledge than an intrinsic characteristic of a job.

Abstraction Thinking

One of the typical characteristics of generalists is their ability to abstract concepts and construct conceptual associations between fields that are even very different from each other.

The ability to abstract a concept is the exact opposite of the rigid application of rules or knowledge learned by heart without the ability to attribute meaning to the specific context in which they find themselves.

Ultimately, abstraction is a measure of reasoning compared with the ability to memorize.

This kind of difference is easily understood by the difference between having to memorize a recipe and learning to find that recipe when needed. Learning a recipe not only requires memory and rigor, but also means that when a new recipe arrives, it must be learned in turn.

The ability to search for a recipe instead allows you to search for any recipe by extension. The abstraction of the search for a recipe makes the whole process of accessing information more efficient and scalable.

Fermi Problems

From this aspect a class of problems has been defined, the "Fermi Problems". This can be defined as any question whose solution requires an approximation of the result with the sole use of external information or information not directly related to the problem itself.

For example, "how many times can you pronounce the alphabet in an hour?" or "how many litres of water does a school use in a day?"

In such questions the two different kind of people usually behave in opposite ways: the specialist can have difficulties if the specific requested information was not part of his education, while generalists usually are more able to estimate the answer with a certain level of accuracy based on external information that he can gather.

For example, to the question "how many litres of water does a school use in a day?" the specialist looks for evident measurements that he may not have available to answer the question.

On the other hand, the generalist try to infer that value based on the average amount of water that students use and the approximate number of students that are in a school based on the number of classes.

This kind of wide reasoning pattern is typical of generalist people who link a lot of information to come up with a realistic answer.

Teaching: procedures vs connections

The difference between learning a concept by heart and learning to reproduce a concept with reasoning is the basis of the difference between teaching processes by procedures and by connections.

Procedure learning is based on transmitting the rules one by one in a mnemonic way. This teaching strategy, although it can lead to a result compatible with the average school level, has nevertheless proved to be inferior to its equivalent based on reasoning.

Take for example the teaching of mathematics and how to solve equations. Teaching by procedure involves the explanation of each possible case and the request to the students to replicate exactly what was explained by the teacher.

On the contrary, teaching by connections is based on the natural process that leads the student to discover the basic rules underlying the resolution of equations.

This is certainly the most strenuous process in cognitive terms because it requires the student to employ reasoning and logic to fix the concepts in mind.

However, it has also proved to be the most effective approach as it allows students to acquire the ability to abstract a generic problem, to recognize it in other situations in slightly different forms through recurring patterns, and finally to reproduce the solution strategy in a way adapted to the new form of the problem.

Learning by procedures is typical of specialists who rely on a fixed and very rigid number of rules and strategies.

Learning by connections is typical of generalists who instead learn to reason for more general concepts and to connect common elements in solving problems or creating knowledge.

Match quality

Regardless the job you choose, or the learning system you grew up with, there should always be an important evaluation to be done at every stage of our lives: how good do you match with the endeavour you are in?

Having a good match with a job or a study field is something that is not easily measurable in a simple way but is something that you can feel while doing it.

You can easily tell whether you can fit very well in a job position, or whether you like a study field, and this is possible only if you allow yourself to try and make mistake.

There are studies that prove how usually more successful and fulfilled are those who dedicated more time in trying to find the best endeavour, allowing themselves to make mistakes, jump from one topic to a completely different one and dedicating more time to exploration rather than specialization.

Not that specializing is wrong, again, but there are differences. Some people fit better in a specialization path, others instead need the freedom to try and float on multiple endeavours.

Evaluating the match quality with what you are doing is then very important to make a better use of your time, especially if you are about to make decisions about some future planning for your life.

Flirting with your possible selves

Everything changes…this is what time exists for, let things change; our lives and attitudes are no exceptions.

It is not easy to discover our attitudes, strengths, and weaknesses, but this process is necessary if we want to reach our full potential and be at our natural best.

Unfortunately, those things change all the time as time passes and life go on, and the most critical period of our life is in our twenties. The most hit people are those who need more time, or chose to take more time, to find themselves and what is their best match for their lives.

There are two ways to approach this situation, one is deleterious, while the other is empowering, guess which:

  1. I am going to fall behind, these people started earlier and have more than me a younger age

  2. Here is who I am now, here are my motivations, here is what I found I like to do, here is what I would like to learn and here are the opportunities. Which one is the best match right now? Maybe a year from now I will switch because I find something better.

Short term vs Long term plans

In fact, the difference between the two approaches relies on the length of the plan we are designing for our lives.

Those who make long-term plans, need to start early not to waste time, and are better to find immediately the best match for them because it will be painful for them to change midway (feeling of failure).

On the other end there are those who feel lost at the beginning, who struggle to find their perfect match, and this is possibly because there is no such thing like a “perfect match”. Indeed, at most, there is a “perfect match…in this situation”.

Planning your life on the short-term is a key element for a self-discovery process that is typical of those who learn who they are by living, not before. Of course, there is one fundamental question they must answer anyway: which among my various possible selves should I start to explore now?

The most intriguing answer is summed up very well by this sentence: be a flirt with your possible selves.

Instead of working backward from a goal, work forward from promising situation instead.

The outsider advantages

In a process of never-ending discovery and continuous evolution, it is normal that people find themselves to enter and exit environments continuously. The odds to be an outsider are always higher with respect to those who remain in the same field all their lives.

Regardless the position in which we are, outsider or insider, one thing is true: many of the most game-changing discoveries in our history came from an outsider perspective with respect to the specific field.

The cleverest solutions always come from a piece of knowledge that was not a part of the normal curriculum.

Usually, companies and people, try to find solutions to their problem with the so-called “local search”, that is using specialists from a single domain and try solutions that worked before.

Many times, this is the only solution, for example if you want a surgeon to perform an operation, or if you want a plumber to fix a water leak. But those are quite limited environments in which there is no innovation required.

The Einstellung effect consist exactly in employing only familiar methods, whether it is good or not for the outcome of the problem.

Indeed, in situation in which innovation is not an option, relying always on past knowledge and practice is often deleterious. It is then necessary to allow contamination from other fields of knowledge to have different points of view for the known problem.

I am not technically qualified to do this

It is in such context that the more specialist information we have, the more opportunities raise for dilettantes.

Many successful outsiders had the occasion to be chosen to lead and manage projects if fields that were not part of their curriculum. This can be a conflictual situation in which one may say “I am not technically qualified to do this”. That may be true if you did not study for that specific job.

The reality of facts is that for some position, being an insider could be a disadvantage because the risk to fall into the Einstellung effect is very high and bringing new perspective into the company is often the recipe for an unexpected new success.

Fooled by expertise

The opposite of feeling not to be qualified of a certain activity is to feel too much confident about our expertise and think that it will always be enough to solve any kind of problem within our field.

Often, if you are a too much of an insider, it is hard to find a good perspective, and those are the settings in which it become important to get facts from narrow experts, not their opinions.

Opinions are often altered by the expertise and, as we already said, having only one point of view is often misleading in complex settings.

In such contexts it is then important not to have one opinion, but many of them, and proceed aggregating them to have a broader and clearer view of the problem or situation.

The best forecasters, indeed, view their own ideas only as hypotheses in weed of testing, not as irrefutable truths.

Dan Kahan, Professor of Law and Phsycology at Yale University, showed how more scientific literate adults are more likely to become dogmatic about politically polarizing topics in science.

It is then important to always consider having an “Active open-mindedness”.

Active open-mindedness

Active open-mindedness is the disposition to be fair towards different conclusions even if they go against one’s initially favoured conclusion.

This is what kept Einstein blocked for 30 years on his General Theory of Relativity: he was too less open-minded and too tied up to his beliefs. In fact, good judgers are also good beliefs updater.

The common treat that unites active open-minded people is their tendency to always question statements they are asked to provide, or they listen to, especially if they are not about their specialization topic.

Relying on our knowledge is fundamental because those are the ingredients to better read the reality and understand the world and the people, but sometimes it is also important to completely detach from our knowledge and our most familiar physical and cognitive tools to go towards a better and more successful path.

Learning to drop your familiar tools

Dropping familiar tools is what many eminent people in history were not willing to do, for example at NASA during the 60s and 70s.

In that context they developed very detailed and precise protocols and procedure that were designed to never make mistakes and to protect engineers in case of errors. Protocols like that are very important to keep order and scientific bases in complex contexts like engineering and medicine.

However, they are a double-edged weapon.

In God we trust, everyone else bring data NASA

This means that if you had to make any change to any procedure or protocol, you must have had the data to support your beliefs, otherwise there was no scientific base to justify that modification.

That is what happened when no data was available about a flaw in the behaviour of some specific pieces of the Space Shuttle. Some engineers were conscious about that, but never had enough data to justify a change in the protocol, so their gut guided concerns were always rejected.

This led to few of the most tragic events in space exploration history.

Experienced groups become rigid under pressure and regress to what they know best. In case of NASA engineers, they took refuge in their beloved protocols that always worked, except for that unpredictable situation that glimpsed in engineers’ minds and was never considered to be enough documented and important.

In every company, especially the biggest one, the chain of communication should always be less informal than the chain of command.

If orders are given, there must be a reason, but to communicate the reason to those who make decisions there must be more freedom and informality at all levels so that trust is built much stronger.

Deliberate amateurs

Arturo Casadevall, current Faculty Director of the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, and one of the most eminent researchers of the past decades is a deliberate amateur.

Young scientists are rushed to specialize even before they learn how to think;they end up unable to produce good work themselves and unequipped to spot bad work by their colleagues Arturo Casadevall

Indeed, it is his belief that students, especially scientists, should always live their approach to science in two different ways: the rational way and the creative way.

Most of the time, to be welcome in the scientific community you must follow rational rules that limit you in scientific discovery. Rigid methods are often required to be enough reliable and to provide convincing proof of your research.

However, he suggests also to dedicate some time also to your own creative way to do science, study and experiment the world.

The Saturday morning experiments

On Saturday you don’t have to be completely rational”, he said; so, he started his Saturday morning experiments. They were scientific experiments that were conducted under his own rules, to take advantage of his creativity and fantasy. Those turned out to be crucial in his scientific career.

This kind of work is something that belongs only to your curiosity and should be protected from external influence by those who do not believe that it will work.

Work that builds bridge between disparate pieces of knowledge is less likely to be funded, less likely to appear in famous journals and 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.

This happened, for example, to the first medication against HIV. No one even knew that kind of retrovirus to be part of human physiology, but it was already studied by scientists curious about some animals’ tumour.

When it was discovered that the same kind of virus was the primary cause of AIDS, the research did not have to start from scratch because of those curious animal biologists, and so in very few years an effective medication for AIDS was ready to help infected people.

Scientific progress on a broad front result from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choices … in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown Vannevar Bush, Dean of MIT in 1945

Do not feel behind!

To conclude the summary of this brilliant book, Epstein insist on this important concept: do not feel behind!

Generalists and all of those who are still in the process of finding themselves, their best environment and their strengths can often feel to be behind their peers who choose to follow a simpler path or, simply, are lucky enough to already have found their place.

This is an infinite process and life-long learner should know it very well: focus on the process and not on the result. These words are typical of the most top performer CEOs and Managers.

There is nothing inherently wrong in specialization. We all specialize to one degree or another at some point or other. Research in myriad areas suggest that mental meandering and personal experimentation are source of power, and head start are overrated.

It is an experiment, as all life is an experimentSupreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
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