The Importance of Not Specialising
You have a career. You went to university for it. Chances are, you were streamed into your field from the age of 12 or so. You are highly knowledgeable in your specific field. You hate it.
After spending over a decade of your life, and endless energy and resources, specializing in a field, it seems unthinkable to change. You are not a quitter. After all, look at all your role models: you have worked hard to become like them – at the top of the food chain, at the managerial position you dreamt of. What would people think of you if you quit now to start from the beginning?
David Epstein, track runner, political science student, scientist wannabe, journalist, writer, tells us that quitting is a necessary step to finding where we belong. Grit is good but insufficient, while long-term planning might actually be counterproductive, locking us into the wrong career and closing off interesting opportunities.
Knowing when to quit and doing it as often as necessary has led to career triumphs for some of the biggest names out there: Roger Federer, Michael Crichton, Haruki Murakami, Vincent Van Gogh, Phil Knight (Nike co-founder). But quitting is not enough. It needs to be followed by something that is a better match for one’s skills. Here again, Epstein is not advocating for three strikes and you’re out. That would be far too simplified for dealing with what he calls ‘wicked environments’, where no amount of training and experience is sufficient. Largely successful people have been known to change fields from a couple to dozens of times. What sets them apart is the ability to think laterally and use analogies when problem-solving.
Analogical thinking allows the problem-solver to find deep structural commonalities between the problem and other, previously solved problems instead of using superficially similar situations from the same knowledge domain that may not provide a useful solution at all. Epstein gives the example of Karl Duncker’s famous hypothetical problem of the 1930s: A patient has an inoperable malignant stomach tumour. A special ray can kill the tumour, but used at the correct strength it will also kill the healthy tissue around it. Made weaker, the ray will not affect the healthy tissue, but it will also not affect the tumour. What to do?
Medical thinking and techniques could not hit upon a solution, but analogical thinking did. Before you get the answer, compare the above to the following situation: a house is burning. The river is some distance away. People are running to it, filling buckets with water and throwing it on the blaze as fast as they can. It’s making no impact on the fire whatsoever. An observer stops everyone, makes them fill their buckets, and then has them throw all the water onto the fire at the same time. The fire begins sputtering and dying out. A couple of repetitions, and tragedy has been averted.
Putting the two problems together can lead to a clear-cut solution – bombarding the tumour with weak rays from multiple sides will protect the healthy tissue, while hitting the tumour with enough radiation to destroy it.
The above is just one example of applied analogical thinking. So what are the key features of being a triumphant generalist, according to Epstein’s research?
Be curious about everything.
Try out new things that attract you.
Do not specialise too early.
Quit when something is not a good fit.
Think analogically/laterally – evaluate the deep structural elements of a situation before looking for a strategy.
Make only short-term plans.
Change your mind fast and often in the face of new information. Do not get attached to your decisions just because you made them.
Create open chains of communication even in a rigid chain of hierarchy.
Allow learning to frustrate. There is a level of desirable difficulty that is necessary to learn well.
Interleave topics and space repetitions out, instead of learning in blocks.
Learn to drop your tools when they are wrong for the job.
Be a deliberate amateur: experiment and tinker.
At this point, you may be convinced that you need to change job, but it is a frightening prospect, right? However, a 2021 Aviva poll indicated that 60% of UK workers plan to make changes to their career, so this is nothing new. Other research showed that an average career transition takes three years, and, supporting Epstein’s ideas above, it is more successful when people base their decision on new experiences, rather than vague thought experiments. On the other hand, looking for a failsafe strategy to transition leads to giving up or failure. Instead, you can try out some online courses in the new domain, put in some voluntary hours, and consider the emotional pay-off for the planned change. The corona pandemic made it easier to consider such radical changes to our carefully planned lives, so this is a good time to take a step towards the career that attracts you.
Epstein, D. (2019). Range. Riverhead Books.
Dale, S. (2021, September). Can You Change Careers in Your 30s? Science Focus, pp. 72-73.