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Generalists actually triumph? News to me.

Being, as I am, a dyed-in-the-wool, intransigent generalist, who hadn’t necessarily triumphed except in her own mind, I grabbed this book off the shelf. Although I have left in my trail many concrete proofs to the contrary, I’ve been haunted throughout my life by the term dilettante. I tried calling myself a renaissance man but, damnit, I’m a woman! And really, a renaissance woman is not a thing. For years I have been existing guiltily within the highs and lows of my own generalism.

Reasons why you might want to read it:

1) Because the Triumph of Generalists may be news to you as well, and you too may need a pat on the back.

2) Because you’re thinking of bearing progeny, or have young ones, and you most certainly do not want to fuck up your budding little generalists.

3) You’re part of a company that’s stuck in a rut.

4) You’re a specialist trapped in a cul-de-sac and yearning for another life. Herein is some serious motivation.

Epstein ranges through multiple disciplines, from chess and tennis to playing an instrument, from chemistry and rocket technology to drawing comics. In all cases the same principle applies: the broader one’s experience of different genres of human endeavor, the greater one’s potential to succeed in any given one. What Epstein finds is that specialists, who are vital to human progress, yet often wind up in their personal silos without a way to tackle previously unforeseen problems or conceive innovative ideas. It’s the generalists who solve things because their default mode is thinking outside the box. And it’s the generalists whose multivalent backgrounds lead to cross-pollination which yields brainstorms.

“Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer…the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.”

Take for instance children learning music. The most exceptional “turn out to be those children who distributed their effort more evenly across three instruments.” Likewise, older students pressured into making career decisions too early often find themselves at odds with their choices and therefore less effective, whereas those allowed to freely explore options find their true path, contingent success and greater happiness.

Epstein concludes that  “…learning stuff was less important than learning about oneself.  Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education: it is a central benefit.”

Exploration can also mean ditching previously held positions, disrupting your status quo. This is a “know when to quit and when to persevere” methodology often employed by generalists. Epstein cites a fascinating experiment on switching careers run by Steven Levitt, the economist who co-authored Freakonomics. Entrants wanting to change professions tossed a coin. Heads meant you actually changed. Could one really trust a momentous decision to the flip of a coin? “The answer was, only if they wanted to be happier. Six months later, those who flipped heads (to change jobs), and then switched, were substantially happier than the stayers.”

Epstein quotes Abbie Griffith, a researcher of ‘serial innovators’, who discovered the following qualities to be true of all of them: “ability to connect disparate pieces of information in new ways”, “they appear to flit between ideas”, “broad range of interests”, and my favorite: “high tolerance for ambiguity.”

For me, a creative pursuit is essentially a foray into the world of the ambiguous, and my joy derives from launching into the unknown with little else but a generalist’s toolkit, an adaptable set of coordinates that can be applied, modified, and mapped onto new situations. Really, it would seem that what range provides is the groundwork for imagination. And so, here is my adaptation of a line from Heraclitus:

“If we do not imagine, we will not find the unimagined, for there is no trail leading to it but the one we blaze ourselves.”

The upshot here? That we all need to liberate ourselves from the antiquated notions about how humans truly thrive, including our obsolete notions of self and success. 2020? Innovation, vision, and flexibility are critical. Reading Epstein, it would appear time to let go of the 19th century ideal of maximal output and endless growth, whose reigning formula is acute specialization. As the awareness dawns that sustainability is now imperative, we should shift our focus to a 21st century ideal – a culture of generalists, forged by exploration, engagement, and joy. Bonus: we can call ourselves Rangers!

Thank you Mr. Epstein.

If you’re a generalist like me, or even if you’re not, you will probably find my book of essays provocative, mischievous and maybe even inspiring! ON AMAZON NOW!

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