Around Christmas, I read Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein, which is a book which really speaks to me, since I have had a somewhat uneven path to my current career. Something which I think is a strength – which Epstein’s book definitely backs me up on.
The first part of the book, takes on both the idea of focused children becoming child prodigies and the 10,000 hour rule, which says that it takes 10,000 hours of intense training to become a world expert on something. Regarding child prodigies, Epstein points out that training children to become focused on one area, and thus become child prodigies in those areas only works on areas with well defined problem areas, e.g. chess, golf and to some degree classical music, while in areas which are more chaotic (most other sports, and other things interacting with other people), it doesn’t work. This is because the later areas are so-called wicked problems. Here a broadness of experience and range is a plus.
This means that world leaders in areas which can be considered wicked problems, usually haven’t just focused on those areas. Rather they have touched a number of different areas, before starting to focus on that particular area. One example Epstein mentions is that most Olympic competitors have usually dabbled in a number of sports before choosing their discipline.
From speaking of world experts in different areas, and their path to become so, Epstein broadens the subject to discuss career paths in general. He takes on the idea that people should choose their path from a young age, and that changing career paths later in life is somehow bad. He, rightfully, points out that the earlier you make your choices, the less options are you aware of – heck, the less options might exist.
This rings true to me. The job I do now, working as a business analyst in software projects, didn’t really exist when I had to choose my path after high school. I instead started studying business management and later switched to economics, before becoming aware that computer programming was something I found interesting. Now, I have again moved away from doing actual programming, and instead work with the business, ensuring that the end system will be useful. One of the reasons I am effective at this job, is my technical background, but it is certainly also helped by my early years studying business management and economics.
One other factor Epsteins mentions, when it comes to choosing a career path early, is the fact that peoples’ brains keep developing, and that you are different person when you are older than when you were younger. This should make you pause – think of all the decisions you made back then, which you have since changed as you have lived more years, experienced more things – why should your career path be any different?
If you change career path in your later life, you have both the advantage of having a wider range of experience to base the decision on, and you will still have your toolbox from your old career to use in the new career. This means that you might be able to solve problems which other people in the field can’t, since they simply lack the required tools.
Much the same can be said about focusing on diversity in teams. It has been shown again and again that the more diverse a team, the better they are at problem solving. Again, because they bring a more diverse set of tools to solve the problems, and not just the same tools that they have all learned in school.
I have simplified the arguments a bit, but I hope you get the general gist. Epstein also provides a lot of concrete examples of cases where range and diversity has helped over narrow expertise.
All in all, I highly recommend the book, and I hope the message of the book is taken to heart.