How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

David Epstein

Summary in 100 words or less

Our greatest strength is not narrow specialization, but the ability to integrate broadly. To solve open-ended real-world problems, you want to take knowledge from one domain and apply it creatively to another. Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. An effective problem-solving culture balances standard practice with forces that push in the opposite direction. The most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind. So don’t compare yourself with younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate—and you probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going.


My Highlights

The most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.

In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.

In the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons.

Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly. According to Gary Marcus, a psychology and neural science professor who sold his machine learning company to Uber, “In narrow enough worlds, humans may not have much to contribute much longer. In more open-ended games, I think they certainly will. Not just games, in open ended real-world problems we’re still crushing the machines.”

The successful adapters were excellent at taking knowledge from one pursuit and applying it creatively to another, and at avoiding cognitive entrenchment. They employed what Hogarth called a “circuit breaker.” They drew on outside experiences and analogies to interrupt their inclination toward a previous solution that may no longer work. Their skill was in avoiding the same old patterns. In the wicked world, with ill-defined challenges and few rigid rules, range can be a life hack.

Conceptual schemes are flexible, able to arrange information and ideas for a wide variety of uses, and to transfer knowledge between domains. Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. Our most fundamental thought processes have changed to accommodate increasing complexity and the need to derive new patterns rather than rely on familiar ones. Our conceptual classification schemes provide a scaffolding for connecting knowledge, making it accessible and flexible.

As statistician Doug Altman put it, “Everyone is so busy doing research they don’t have time to stop and think about the way they’re doing it.”

The more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.

“Desirable difficulties,” obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower, and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long term.

Space between practice sessions creates the hardness that enhances learning.

“Blocked” practice. That is, practicing the same thing repeatedly, each problem employing the same procedure. It leads to excellent immediate performance, but for knowledge to be flexible, it should be learned under varied or mixed practice, or , to researchers, “interleaving.”

Desirable difficulties like testing and spacing make knowledge stick. It becomes durable. Desirable difficulties like making connections and interleaving make knowledge flexible, useful for problems that never appeared in training. All slow down learning and make performance suffer, in the short term.

Knowledge with enduring utility must be very flexible, composed of mental schemes that can be matched to new problems.

When a knowledge structure is so flexible that it can be applied effectively even in new domains or extremely novel situations, it is called “far transfer.”

Successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it. Less successful problem solvers are more like most students in the Ambiguous Sorting Task: they mentally classify problems only by superficial, overtly stated features, like the domain context. For the best performers, they wrote, problem solving “begins with the typing of the problem.”

According to Seth Godin, quitting takes a lot more guts than continuing to be carried along like debris on an ocean wave. The trouble, Godin noted, is that humans are bedeviled by the “sunk cost fallacy.” Having invested time or money in something, we are loath to leave it, because that world mean we had wasted our time or money.

Instead of asking whether someone is gritty, we should ask when they are.

We learn who we are only by living, and not before.

We maximize match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives. And repeat.

Rather than expecting an ironclad a priori answer to “Who do I really want to become?,” their work indicated that it is better to be a scientist of yourself, asking smaller questions that can actually be tested—”Which among my various possible selves should I start to explore now? How can I do that? Be a flirt with your possible selves. Rather than a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly. “Test-and-learn,” Ibarra told me, “not plan-and-implement.”

Big innovation most often happens when an outsider who may be far away from the surface of the problem reframes the problem in a way that unlocks the solution.

Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do some things, but it also makes you blind to other things that you could do.

Lateral thinking is a term coined in the 1960s for the reimagining of information in new contexts, including the drawing together of seemingly disparate concepts or domains that can give old ideas new uses.

Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable. Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.

In wicked domains that lack automatic feedback, experience alone does not improve performance. Effective habits of mind are more important, and they can be developed.

An effective problem-solving culture was one that balanced standard practice—whatever it happened to be—with forces that pushed in the opposite direction. If managers were used to process conformity, encouraging individualism helped them to employ “ambidextrous thought,” and learn what worked in each situation. If they were used to improvising, encouraging a sense of loyalty and cohesion did the job. The trick was expanding the organization’s range by identifying the dominant culture and then diversifying it by pushing in the opposite direction.

Hierarchical teams benefitted from a clear chain of command, but suffered from a one-way chain of communication that obscured problems. The teams needed elements of both hierarchy and individualism to both excel and survive.

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

Going where no one has is a wicked problem. There is no well-defined formula or perfect system of feedback to follow.

Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.

Approach your own personal voyage and projects like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise.

More book notes

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari
Company of One
The $100 Startup
The Power of Habit

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