Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion of the “10,000 hours rule” in his very readable book Outliers. It goes roughly like this: practice a specific skill deliberately for about 10,000 hours, and you’ll get to world-class level in that thing. The takeaway from that seems to be: pick what you want to do early, and stick with it.
David Epstein respectfully disagrees, and he lays out his arguments and copious supporting data in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. You can find discussions between the two on this topic on YouTube - and in one from February 2020, Gladwell says that Epstein has convinced him.
A great introduction to the big idea is Epstein’s TEDx talk on this topic:
Kind and Wicked Domains
Epstein, borrowing terminology from other authors, makes a distinction between “kind” and “wicked” learning environments.
Kind environments have clear & fixed rules, short feedback cycles, and repeating patterns. Examples include chess, golf, and firefighting (within a single environment). In Kind environments, depth and specialization tend to rule - think of Tiger Woods playing golf before his second birthday.
But most of the world isn’t kind - it’s wicked. In wicked domains the rules are ambiguous, patterns are tricky to find, and feedback cycles are long and confusing. Think of, say, finding a cure for cancer, or running a company.
Breadth and Depth
In wicked domains, the top performers often have a broad background from many different fields, and leverage it to integrate diverse knowledge into new ideas. Epstein goes through many examples in his book from art, science, business, engineering, and sports.
Sports is perhaps the most surprising domain - one might be inclined to believe in the supremacy of the 10,000 hours rule, and perhaps point to the Tiger Woods example. But Epstein says that more elite athletes actually play a range of sports when they are young and only specialize later, and that this gives them an advantage over their early-specializing peers. Examples Epstein gives include Roger Federer, Steve Nash, and the 2014 German World Cup-winning soccer team.
One great example from engineering is Claude Shannon, known as the “father of information theory”. Shannon had learned about George Boole’s method of working with logic problems like math equations (e.g. assigning 1 to true statements and 0 to false ones) in a philosophy course taken to satisfy a breadth requirement. Boolean algebra had no practical value for the first 90 years of its existence - until Shannon realized that he could implement it with electrical circuits and thus launched the information age. Shannon said, “It just happened that no one else was familiar with both those fields at the same time.”
Depth in a single field can blind us to novel ideas. The habits that make us succeed in a specific field can also blind us to innovations that would be truly groundbreaking for it. Here’s a great example from the book: Andrew Ouderkirk from 3M had an idea of how to create a new film that could reflect and refract light in a valuable way. He approached a number of optics specialists who assured him that it could not be done - which is exactly what he wanted to hear: “If they say, ‘It’s a great idea, go for it, makes sense,’ what is the chance you’re the first person to come up with it? Precisely zero.”
It did work, and has become very valuable.
This reminded me of the excellent Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen.
The suggestions for learning do not seem so surprising. Spacing and interleaving (study one topic, then another, then back to the first one…), testing, and using making-connections questions.
The “generation effect”: struggling to create an answer on your own enhances subsequent learning, even if the original answer is wrong.
Making mistakes also enhances learning, and the worse the mistake the better the lesson sticks (“duh”, says Krystof, thinking of all the hard-won, unforgettable lessons in his head).
The interesting and surprising thing is this: the things that enhance long-term learning actually slow progress in the short-term. Conversely, fast short-term progress may actually indicate poor long-term performance.
This, I think, is something that schools and universities have not internalized. It’s an area where I’d like to improve personally, too.
Getting Breadth and Quitting
Getting breadth means sampling different fields, being curious, following whims without a clear agenda, changing directions and goals… and quitting. Generally speaking, that is not what most businesses tend to look for in their employees.
Esptein quotes Seth Godin about the idea of quitting. Quitting is frowned upon - “quitters never win”. Godin argues that winners actually quit fast and often whenever a plan of action isn’t working - we move on to a new hypothesis and call it a “pivot”. Godin suggests that before starting a new risky endavour, we should enumerate the conditions under which we should quit. This helps us fight the all-too-human sunken costs fallacy.
Another thing to keep in mind is that your preferences and desires today will not be your preferences in the future, even if most of us don’t seem to think along those lines. Psychologist Dan Gilbert called this the “end of history illusion”: everyone, from teenagers to retirees agrees that their desires and motivations have changed significantly in the past, but believes that they will not change much in the future. That’s not true, of course - Gilbert says “we are works in progress claiming to be finished”.
Steve Jobs talked about that brilliantly in his 2005 Stanford commencement address. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to watch it now - it’s 15 minutes well spent:
You can only connect the dots looking backward. So looking forward, collect the dots that interest you, even if it’s not clear here and now how they might fit into a bigger cohesive picture.
If you spend time collecting some dots that never quite end up linking up with the rest of them… who cares? If you’ve enjoyed the time spent collecting them because you were learning something you were genuinely curious about, it sounds like a good use of time.
Here’s the list of characteristics that University of Utah professor Abbie Griffin has identified as important among modern serial innovators:
- high tolerance for ambiguity
- systems thinkers
- additional technical knowledge from peripheral domains
- repurposing what is already available
- adept at using analogous domains for finding inputs to the invention process
- ability to connect disparate pieces of information in new ways
- synthesizing information from many different sources
- they appear to flit among ideas
- broad range of interests
- they read more (and more broadly) than other technologists and have a wider range of outside interests
- need to learn significantly across multiple domains
- communicate with various individuals with technical expertise outside of their own domain
The Big Takeaways
You can only connect the dots looking backward - so looking forward, just start collecting some dots. Be curious and experiment.
Be prolific, too - for those who don’t create any failures don’t usually create anything meaningful, either. Edison had thousands of patents, most of them useless. Shakespeare wrote some forgettable rubbish, sandwiched right between his masterpieces.
Do what you want and what you enjoy - whether that’s going for breadth or for depth. Both are valuable. Courage, as always, is the key.
5/5 - Great writing, great stories, includes copies data with citations and references.