By the age of 21, Tiger Woods was the greatest golfer in the world. He had picked up his first putter when he was just seven months old. Around the same time, the Hungarian Polgar sisters — Susan, Sofia and Judit — became some of the world’s highest-ranked chess players and their success was all thanks to their father’s instruction from a very early age.
It might be tempting to think that if we imitate Tiger Woods and the Polgar sisters, and devote all of our time and energy to just one task, that we too can achieve major success. But journalist David Epstein says: Not so fast.
Epstein, the author of "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World," thinks that we are looking at the wrong examples for our paths to success. “We’re obsessed with precocity,” he says. “When we hear the Tiger Woods story, we extrapolate it to everything. We use the dramatic stories.”
Golf and chess are the exceptions, Epstein argues. They don’t, unfortunately, reflect many of the environments we encounter on a daily basis. Indeed, golf and chess are what psychologist Robin Hogarth calls “kind learning environments,” situations where there are clear rules, clear goals, repetitive patterns and accurate and immediate feedback.
“Most of us,” Epstein says, “are not in the chess or golf area spectrum in our work.” We live in a complex world where repetitive practice doesn’t necessarily make us any better at our jobs. “With repetitive experience, people become more confident, but not necessarily better,” Epstein explains.
But in navigating such a complex world, don’t we want to have some specialists around? Epstein suggests that we do need specialists, but that we should not forget about promoting generalists, too. “The problem is,” Epstein says, “we’re telling everyone to be specialists, basically. But in addition to specialists, you need someone who’s zoomed out, looking at the larger outcomes you actually care about, not just the reductionist pieces of the puzzle in isolation.”
And it turns out that this more generalized, more abstract way of thinking, is well adapted to our modern society and modern work, according to Epstein. In becoming more abstract thinkers with the ability to classify knowledge and learn from situations we have not experienced before, we are able to take skills and transfer them across jobs.
The development of these conceptual thinking skills has implications for all of our learning, Epstein thinks. “You want to foster those broader skills,” he says. “Then, when the time comes to pick up more specific things, you have an ability to do that and your knowledge is more flexible. You can apply it to things you haven’t seen before.”
We no longer live in an industrial economy where each worker is trained to stand at one station, completing the same task over and over for the entire workday. Our modern world calls for learning beyond simple procedures and adopting strategies to face different kinds of unforeseen problems. As industries change, develop and grow, Epstein thinks it is more relevant now than ever to broaden our skills and embrace generalization.