Published on:19 August, 2019
Whilst David Epstein’s latest book, ‘Range’, has ignited the debate on Generalists vs Specialists, we believe that the ideal recipe is a combination i.e. in any competitive profession the people who will rise to the top are those who have: (1) the skills/experience to deal with a wide variety of challenges; AND (2) deep expertise in the core competence offered by the profession to its customers.
“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” – Bruce Lee as quoted in ‘Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit’ (1994) by Bruce Thomas
David Epstein’s fine book triggers a debate
Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller ‘The Outliers’ (2008) popularised the concept that with 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate’ practice under the guidance of an expert/coach anyone could become a world beater at anything. That in turn led to ambitious parents enrolling their kids into coaching classes as early as they could to ensure that their children started clocking those 10,000 hours ASAP.
Now, however, in an equally well written book ‘Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World’ (2019), David Epstein says that the ‘10,000 hours of practice’ theory is not only misguided, it could also be damaging. Epstein argues that specialists flourish in “kind” learning environments (such as golf, classical music, technology innovation, chess), where patterns recur and feedback is quick and accurate. By contrast, generalists flourish in “wicked” learning environments (business, politics, fund management, medicine, day-to-day life), where patterns are harder to discern and feedback is delayed and/or inaccurate. Why so?
Epstein cites two reasons why generalists outperform specialists in ‘wicked’ learning environments. Firstly, generalists tend to have a more rounded set of skills and hence are able to adapt to difficult/fluid learning environments better than specialists (who tend to be more uni-dimensional in their talents & training). Secondly, generalists have better “match” quality i.e. because they have done a broader range of things in life, the odds are relatively high generalists have settled upon/specialised in an activity which fits (or matches) their talents better. As it happens, another recently published book, ‘Bruce Lee: A Life’ (2018), by Matthew Polly provides an almost ideal exemplification of Epstein’s theory in a setting many of us can identify with, namely, the rise of Asia amidst the ascendancy of the US after World War II.
Bruce Lee: the ultimate “Generalist”
Polly begins the book by giving us the outline of Bruce Lee’s life. He was born San Francisco in 1940 to Chinese parents who were in the US on a working visa. He then grew up in Hong Kong and became a child movie star before he was banished by his father to the US when he was 18. He finished his schooling in Seattle and set up his first martial arts (kung-fu) school there even before we he went to the University of Washington. Another kung-fu school in Oakland followed three years later before Hollywood discovered Bruce Lee at the Long Beach Karate Championships in 1964.
Small roles in US TV serials followed but Hollywood couldn’t get over its mental block about an Asian man helming a movie. Instead, in 1971 Bruce Lee’s big break came from Hong Kong – his lead role in “The Big Boss” made him a superstar in Asia. Over the next two years, four more hit movies (the final one being “Enter the Dragon”, widely considered to be the finest martial arts movie of all time) established Bruce Lee as a global superstar before his tragic death in Hong Kong in 1973 in mysterious circumstances. Whilst some say that Bruce Lee died due to an allergic reaction to a prescription painkiller, Polly says that Bruce’s death was caused due to his body overheating as he had had the sweat glands in his armpits removed so as to help him film for longer without having to change shirts. Without sweat glands, Polly claims, Bruce’s body could not cool down swiftly enough in the peak of the Hong Kong summer.
More than his death in mysterious circumstances, what makes Bruce Lee interesting is his fusion of many different styles of fighting not just to create a unique style of combat (which would go on to be called Mixed Martial Arts) but also to create a new genre of cinema – the martial arts movie.
As a schoolboy, Bruce Lee began by learning wing chun, an obscure style of kung-fu, in Hong Kong from his first and only formal guru, Ip Man. He then studied other styles of kung-fu whilst learning judo from his pupil in Seattle, Jesse Glover, and taekwondo from his friend in Oakland, Jhoon Rhee, also known as the “father of taekwondo in America”. In fact, Bruce Lee learnt martial arts from so many people that when he became a star, several people – from Chuck Norris and Jhoon Rhee – claim to have taught him his famous side-kick.
Whilst still in his early teens, Bruce was taught the basics of Western-style boxing by Father Gordon, a schoolteacher in Hong Kong. After he moved to America, Bruce studied boxing films closely, especially those of Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Marcellus Clay, the man whose life inspired the name of our firm), to understand how the entire body can be used to pack an enormously powerful punch. Bruce also took from boxing its training techniques – skipping, weight training, punching heavy bags five hundred times in a day and a five-mile run at the crack of dawn to build stamina.
In his early teens, Bruce also learned the basics of fencing from his brother. He would go on read and build a library of many dozens of books on fencing. Not only did he become an expert fencer, he combined kung-fu and fencing to create the pose which he holds in his iconic photographs wherein he “leads” with his right hand and “finishes” or signs-off with his feet. Bruce called his style of kung-fu “fencing without a sword” see https://academyoffencingmasters.com/blog/bruce-lee-the-worlds-most-famous-fencer/ for more details).
In his twenties, after reading American body building magazines, Bruce Lee adopted the dietary practices recommended by them i.e. a protein rich diet accompanied by weight training with lots of repetitions to improve muscle definition. Addicted to non-stop training, whilst watching TV or whilst waiting for his next shot on the sets of a movie, Bruce would do hundreds of repetitions.
Battling Hollywood’s relentless racism, from acting coaches Bruce Lee learnt how to slow down his English so that it was easier for Western audiences to follow him and how to slow down his fighting so that the camera could actually see him. By slowing down his fight scenes – most of which he choreographed himself – Bruce Lee transformed the Asian martial arts movie from a sideshow to mainstream entertainment in the US market. (Sadly, 45 years on some people in Hollywood are still can’t stop tripping over the issue of race:
Alongside all this training & movie work, Bruce Lee was reading and writing at a frenetic pace. He extensively read Western, Taoist and Confucian philosophy and was particularly influenced by Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s religion-less philosophy. Martial arts coach to the biggest Hollywood stars of his time, Bruce Lee went on to write two martial art guides to his style of kung-fu, “Chinese Gung-Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense” and “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do”. The latter book, published after his death, has become the largest selling martial arts book of all time (see https://blackbeltmag.com/store/books/tao-of-jeet-kune-do-expanded-edition
In the 1971 American TV series, ‘Longstreet’, Bruce Lee narrated the lines which have almost became his epitaph: “Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” (Source: Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000))
Whilst ‘Range’ makes a compelling case that all of us should strive for broadness throughout our careers, long before we had heard of David Epstein, we at Marcellus were not only fans of reading material from a wide range of disciplines (as exemplified by the “3 Longs & 3 Shorts” pieces which we send you every Sunday morning), we had also created a recruitment process which filtered in people from eclectic backgrounds (Engineering, Accounting, Statistics, Economics, Law, etc).
More generally, we fail to see the conflict between Epstein’s ‘Range’ and Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. In fact, the two books appear to be complementary for it seems self-evident to us that in any competitive profession the people who will rise to the top are those who have:
(1) the skills/experience to deal with a wide variety of challenges; AND (2) deep expertise in the core competence offered by the profession to its customers.
So, regardless of whether you are a cricketer, a politician, a fund manager, a dancer or a film star, it is hard to believe that in the rapidly evolving flux of a complex and competitive society: (a) a uni-dimensional expert; OR (b) an incompetent expert will reach the summit.
The mental-model for achieving success in complex “wicked” societies such as ours is therefore that of a “T” i.e. broad based knowledge along deep-focused expertise. In case you want a simple way to remember the same, you could consider making this Bruce Lee poster your screensaver:
To read our other published material, please visit “https://marcellus.in/blog/Saurabh Mukherjea is the author of “The Unusual Billionaires” and “Coffee Can Investing: the Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth”.
Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor investment advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this publication in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services and as an Investment Advisor.
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