Lessons Learned From Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World – Part 3

Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Hardback Book

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/David-Epstein/Range–How-Generalists-Triumph-in-a-Specialized-World/23483102

This book contains so much wisdom I have had to split the posts into separate parts.

In the first part I looked at what Epstein told us about abstraction and learning environments and in the second part Interleaving and analogies.

In this third part, I am going to summarise Epstein’s findings on why job-switching can be a good thing, when a generalist or specialist is best for solving problems and how being a generalist can make you better at prediction.

Job-Switching Can Lead to Greater Happiness

The traditional career path of our grandparents was to get a job, stick at that one company, learning the ropes and gradually climb the career ladder through hard work. Today, millenials change job more than any previous generation. Epstein’s research tells us that is not a bad thing. Phew! I’ve had 5 jobs 5 years out of university!

Successful job-switching does require some planning to be successful though.

The key is to try your hardest to get something out of the job before you move on. Learning what you do and don’t like requires dedication. Job-switchers, are more likely to find a satisfying career, than people who stick at their first job.

Epstein tells about how Van Gogh became one of the greatest painters of all time. He was the best switcher in the game, he tried a different art style every few weeks. Each time he would try a completely new style. Become obsessed with it and completely focus all his efforts on perfecting it. Then one day he would get bored, and drop it. The he’d move on to a new art style doing the same thing all over again.

A typical few months for Van Gogh could look like this:

  1. Learn oil paints
  2. Master oil paints
  3. Never oil paint again
  4. Learn charcoals
  5. Master charcoals

… You get the idea

Fear of Changing Career

Quitting a career path can feel like you have wasted too much time and effort getting to where you are. This is often called the sunk cost fallacy and is the wrong way to think about this problem. Epstein quotes Seth Godin, saying the time is already wasted. It’s actually braver to quit and start something new, than to keep on in a career you hate.

Little Bets Beat Grand Plans

When you leave school and often many years before, people will ask you “what do you want to do?”. For most of the western world, we start our first careers between the ages of 18-29. Between these ages, you tend to change more as a person, than at any other point in your working life. These personality changes make it almost impossible to plan your career. You’re planning for a stranger.

A better method to make effective career decisions is to make a short plan, test it, then reflect. Little bets.

Little bets allow you to try out lots of different ideas and learn from each one. You will learn more by making these little bets than you would from deep introspection. You can get real data about how you respond to certain jobs and environments. Analysing the data allows you make better decisions.

The analysis can be simple e.g. working as data analyst:

  • Did I like working behind the scenes or would I rather be on the front lines?
  • Did I like the intellectual challenge or do I want a different kind of challenge?
  • Did I like being at a compute all day or do I want to be outside more?

When Hyperspecialisation is Blinding

Hyper-specialisation has created experts who know very narrow topics at extreme depth. This has led to many fields having problems that their experts can’t solve. These experts think too narrowly, they can’t connect ideas outside of their expertise.

A new point-of-view can often help solve a problem. This is the logic behind sites like https://www.innocentive.com/. The site offers up problems to the public for anyone to solve. The problems have usually stumped experts for too long. The hope is someone not specialised in the field will see something no one else has. The reward for doing so, is a cash prize.

Depth Vs Breadth

Lateral thinking is being able to think broadly and make connections across multiple concepts and fields.

Vertical thinking is being able to think deeply and specialise in a topic.

Deep thinking doesn’t trump broad thinking and vice versa. But together they make great teams, when they are able to work as a team. Often a T-shaped person, someone who has both depth and breadth, can bridge the two types of thinker.

3M studied inventors and found :

If the question is unclear and the outcome you want is unknown, hire a broad thinker.

Do you have clear problem with specific limitations? You need a specialist.

Polymaths often have wider interests than generalists, but less depth than a specialist. These tend to be the most successful inventors of all.

Specialists Make Bad Predictions

Professor Tetlock, author of Superforecasters, has names for the two types of forecaster: Hedgehogs and Foxes.

Hedgehogs can do one thing very well and tend to do that thing often (specialists)

Foxes can do many things quite well but not as good as any hedgehog at each thing (generalists)

Foxy Thinking

Foxes make the best forecasters, not because they know more, but because of how they think.

Foxes view their ideas as hypotheses they can test. Foxes will update their ideas when new information disproves their original idea. They change their ideas to match evidence, not the other way round.

Foxes do everything they can to disprove their own ideas. They don’t aim to prove they’re right, they aim for the truth.

Foxes are open-minded and flexible. They don’t follow simple cause and effect models. It’s not if X then Y, but rather many small chunks of information combined. Each chunk having its own cause and effect. Foxes use statistics to find what is most likely, rather than attempting to find certainty.

Hedgehog-Style Thinking

Hedgehogs makes predictions based on a specialised theory. Once they gain new information they change their interpretation of the data to fit their original idea. Hedgehogs have low open-mindedness.

Hedgehogs tend to be stubborn. They believe that if they succeed, their theory was correct, if they fail, then it must have been a near miss.

Hedgehogs are so specialised they tend to think with blinkers on. They don’t have a super focus on ignoring new evidence that disagrees with their beliefs. They excel at finding evidence that supports their beliefs. A good example would be any conspiracy theorist.

Lessons Learned From “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World” – Part 2

Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Hardback Book

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/David-Epstein/Range–How-Generalists-Triumph-in-a-Specialized-World/23483102

The Slow Power of Interleaving

Interleaving is practising many skills in one session. Block learning is practising each skill one at a time. An example of a study plan for each, where the exam contains the 3 topics Shapes, Sums and Algebra is below:

DayTopics
1Shapes, Sums, Algebra
2Shapes, Sums, Algebra
3Shapes, Sums, Algebra
An interleaved study plan
DayTopics
1Shapes
2Sums
3Algebra
A block learning study plan

Block Learning

Block learning is easier and leads to quicker progress in the beginning. The quick progress feels good to students. Students who feel good in their learning, leave better reviews of their teachers. However, the surveys don’t mean everything, as the block-taught students often get worse exam results.

Block learning only teaches you how to do a skill, not when to use it. You can end up knowing lots of solutions to problems, but not be able to match solutions to the right problems. For example, if you were a software developer, you may know the perfect way to write an algorithm but have no idea when it’s useful. Making your development skills pretty poor.

Interleaving

Compared to block learning, interleaving feels like more of a struggle. Short-term progress is slower, but this discomfort is good, you learn more deeply.

When you interleave, you learn to look at a problem and figure out which method will fix that problem. In the working world, you will face many problems where the solution isn’t clear. Again, if you were a software developer, someone in the business might need you to get them all the sales from June. They don’t know how to do it, that’s why they asked you. So you need to know how to report sales in June and which of your tools will best solve the business person’s problem.

Interleaving Vs Block Learning

Block learning teaches you how.

Interleaving teaches how and what.

Block learning and interleaving give you the tools to solve problems. Only interleaving teaches you when to use which tool. This is why when studying for an exam, it can be better to study past papers. The different topics are all mixed up. You have to recognise the question and which tool will give you the answer.

Block learning can be useful to drill one topic, then you put it back in to the mix once you’re more comfortable with it.

Use Analogies to Understand

An analogy is finding a similarity between two things that aren’t obviously similar. For example in your science class at school, your teacher might have compared the heart to a pump. Your heart is an organ, a pump is a tool, but each one pushes liquids around.

Epstein mentions a study that tells us that the most effective labs have scientists from the wide-ranging fields. The scientists tend to be multidisciplinary. Having knowledge across 2 or more fields helps them find solutions not obvious in either one field. Specialists have extremely deep knowledge in one narrow field, so they can’t make these cross-boundary discoveries.

What Makes a Good Analogy?

A good analogy will be different on the surface but similar at a deeper level. Where a ‘good’ analogy is one that helps you understand something new.

Social distancing that everyone is talking about these days can be pretty confusing. It’s not a term we used before the COVID-19 pandemic. Why are we doing it? Does it help if I say that normal social conventions include mass gatherings and contact with multitudes of people on a daily rate, that can cause an exponential growth of the disease by multiplying infection rate?

Or does the below video that compares infections to ping pong balls make the concept clearer?

On the surface infections and ping pong balls have nothing in common, but at the deeper level, this analogy explains how social distancing helps using an analogy we can understand more easily.

Using Analogies to Learn

Making good analogies is hard. To deepen your learning, interrogate your analogies, where do they fit? Where do they fall down?

How are ping pong balls hitting mousetraps not the same as a population of people who may or may not have COVID-19?

Learn about abstraction, Kind and Wicked environments and more in part 1