Generalise, don’t specialise: why focusing too narrowly is bad for us
Author: David Epstein
Source: The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jul/12/generalise-dont-specialise-why-focusing-too-narrowly-is-bad-for-us)
In his best-selling book The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talked about the power of singular focus and specialised training over ‘10,000 hours’ as a means to achieve success in any given field. David Epstein, (who also authored The Sports Gene) in his new book ‘Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World’ questions this thesis and turns it on its head through research shows that there are as many merits to stay a generalist, especially in the growing up years sampling a diverse set of disciplines, which in later years actually helps excel in the chosen area of specialisation. In this piece in The Guardian, which is an adaptation of his book, Epstein demonstrates how whilst Tiger Woods has been the poster boy of ultra-specialised training and dedication from a very young age, exhibits for the generalist camp include none other than Roger Federer, who played a variety of sports until his late teens before going onto focus on tennis and become the legend that he is now. He gives a slew of other examples of multi-disciplinarians making it big, such as the program that backed the British Olympics team of 2012, American quarterbacks Tom Brady and Nick Foles, Czech athelete Ester Ledecka who actually won golds in two different events (skiing and snowboarding) in the same winter Olympics, Ukrainian boxer Vasyl Lomachenko, the Jazz legend Duke Ellington and the award winning mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani.
“Elite athletes at the peak of their abilities do spend more time on deliberate practice than their near-elite peers. But scientists have found that, at a younger age, those who go on to become elite athletes typically devote less time to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a “sampling period”. They play a variety of sports, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in on one area. The title of one study of athletes in individual sports proclaimed “late specialisation” as “the key to success”; another was titled Making It to the Top in Team Sports: Start Later, Intensify, and Be Determined.”
Epstein says that specialisation and narrowing the focus can have negative consequences and gives examples of specialized doctors who wears same lens for all their patients.
“Specialised healthcare professionals have developed their own versions of the “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” problem. Interventional cardiologists have grown so used to treating chest pain with stents – metal tubes that pry open blood vessels – that they do so reflexively even in cases where voluminous research has proven that they are inappropriate or dangerous. A recent study found that cardiac patients were less likely to die if they were admitted during a national cardiology meeting, when thousands of cardiologists were away; the researchers suggested it could be because common treatments of dubious effect were less likely to be performed. Arturo Casadevall, an internationally renowned scientist, believes that increasing specialisation has created a “system of parallel trenches” in the quest for innovation. Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even if the solution to their problem happens to reside there. Casadevall is taking it upon himself to attempt to despecialise the training of future researchers; he hopes that eventually it will spread to training in every field. He profited immensely from cultivating range in his own life, even as he was pushed to specialise. And now he is broadening his purview again, designing a training programme in an attempt to give others a chance to deviate from the Tiger path. “This may be the most important thing I will ever do in my life,” he told me.”
Epstein adds that delayed specialization and advantages of breath are enormous as it gives a person ability to view things in holistic manner.
“The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivises or even demands hyperspecialisation. While it is true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases – as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part – we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.”