There was no answer at once and no particular expression on his face. He leaned back against the two‑by‑four that helped support the porch roof. “Lady,” he said slowly, “there’s some men that some things mean more to them than money.” The old woman rocked without comment and the daughter watched the trigger that moved up and down in his neck. He told the old woman then that all most people were interested in was money, but he asked what a man was made for. He asked her if a man was made for money, or what. He asked her what she thought she was made for but she didn’t answer, she only sat rocking and wondered if a one‑armed man could put a new roof on her garden house. He asked a lot of questions that she didn’t answer. He told her that he was twenty‑eight years old and had lived a varied life. He had been a gospel singer, a foreman on the railroad, an assistant in an undertaking parlor, and he had come over the radio for three months with Uncle Roy and his Red Creek Wranglers. He said he had fought and bled in the Arm Service of his country and visited every foreign land and that everywhere he had seen people that didn’t care if they did a thing one way or another. He said he hadn’t been raised thataway.
— Source: “The Life You Save May be Your Own”, Flannery O’Conner
I have The Onion to thank for inspiration for today’s email’s title.
I’ve gotten lots of emails from y’all, and there are two big spikes on the histogram of topics in those emails.
First, the “help with my man boobs email” I sent a long time ago. Sorry, the archives on my site don’t contain that one (it was written and sent before I started archiving emails to my site’s blog). 100 or so people emailed me about that one.
The second histogram spike is around folks asking what I think about the new-ish book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”. Let’s explore this.
I wrote the title for this email before I read Range. It originally read “You people made me read a bad business book”. I then softened bad to lame. And then I read the book and revised the title to what you see now. That depicts my journey from a cynical view of the book to a more measured one.
Here were my biases before I started reading Range:
- Most business books suck, and over-use not-very-relevant stories
- The claims of Malcolm Gladwell-style books are to be given an extra dose of the squint-eye
- Most business books are about 10,000 words of useful content deliately squeezed into 80,000 words of space. Reading them with this filter in place will increase my ROI.
Remember those code systems that involved a cardboard shield with cutouts in it that you’d lay over the coded text to reveal the actual message? As I read modern business books, I skim a few chapters to identify where to place my “cutouts” in my “code reader”, then I use that to read the rest of the book and pay attention to whatever claims or insights might be there.
In the case of Range, I read it this way: look for section breaks (a figure of 3 dots, in the Kindle version I read), see if the following text is a story or historical reference, and if so skip it. Otherwise, read that section. Summarize that section into a sentence or two in my notes. Read the whole intro and conclusion because it’s likely to be a summary of the whole book’s argument.
I added this refinement as I went: read the last page of the last section of each chapter first to get a map of the chapter’s argument.
I made notes for you as I read. I made every effort to be fair to the book’s argument.
- Tiger Woods symbolizes the idea that the earlier an future pro athlete starts deliberate, focused practice, the better.
- Roger Federer symbolizes a different path to athletic dominance, one where there was not this insistence on deliberate, focused practice from an early age.
- Unnamed researchers have found that elite athletes tend to specialize late, and have an early generalist period. Those that nearly miss elite status are characterized by early, intense, deliberate practice.
- Core premise of the book seems to be: the “Tiger Woods path” is a dangerous one, and it needs to be balanced with a different path.
- Narrow expertise leads to an availability heuristic wherein the expert selects for options or tactics that have worked before or that most closely match their prior expertise. This causes problems in domains of higher uncertainty or following sea changes in the domain.
- High-performing scientists tend to have hobbies and interests that are far outside their domain of specialized expertise.
- Re-usable concepts or tools (like Fermi decomposition) are useful across multiple domains.
- The most effective learning approaches are inefficient in the short term, but produce better results in the medium to long term.
- Pattern matching benefits from assembling a broad “toolchest” of patterns. This helps us avoid mistakes that come from the availability heuristic.
- A late start can be a critical part of future success.
- Lots of successes and high achievers lack conventionally-defined “grit”.
- As we age, we learn more about ourselves, and our goals and plans for our work and achievement should remain flexible, which hyper-specialization discourages.
- The output of specialists can be woven into the work of generalists who, due to their wider focus, can see opportunities to get value from the specialists work that the specialist themselves might not see. This is one way non-specialists can create value.
- Innovation is a “wicked” domain where generalists outperform specialists because specialists are too siloed.
- Experts run the danger of ignoring relevant new information and not updating their priors.
- Complex systems can overwhelm the capabilities of narrow experts, or can cause those experts to make suboptimal decisions.
- Innovation is inherently inefficient. Hyper specialization is a drive towards efficiency, which stands in tension with innovation.
Is this book’s argument correct or not?
One reasonable question to ask is this: is the book’s argument correct or not? Is it at least persuasive?
I think it comes down to this sentence from the book’s conclusion: “The question I set out to explore was how to capture and cultivate the power of breadth, diverse experience, and interdisciplinary exploration, within systems that increasingly demand hyperspecialization, and would have you decide what you should be before first figuring out who you are.”
If we take that sentence as a reasonable summary of the book’s goal, then here’s my response: I don’t recognize “systems that increasingly demand hyperspecialization”. I’ve never experienced one. I trust that this context exists, but I’ve never experienced it.
I suspect the context of “systems that increasingly demand hyperspecialization” describes the source of many of the book’s stories and examples: high-touch parenting, professional sports, academia, and very large businesses. I’ve spent almost no time in that context, so it’s no wonder that context seems foreign to me.
The context I’ve experienced firsthand is: low-touch parenting, undergraduate academia, FTE work at small businesses, and self-employment.
My work promoting specialization is specifically and only in two sub-contexts of self-employment:
- You’re starting out as basically a freelancer, and you need any advantage you can lay hold of to get your business growing.
- You want to change how your business creates value. You want to move away from building stuff and towards advisory work.
In those contexts, specialization — as much of it as the market wants — is valuable.
And in those contexts, specialization isn’t the kind of hyperspecialization that Range seems to be arguing against.
In the context of self-employment, specialization is the metal needle on the end of a syringe. It give you access to deeper, more complex, more impactful problems. Those problems first inspire and later benefit from you cultivating a “complete solution”, which is a serum that’s a mixture of several ingredients. This serum lives in the body of the syringe, and it’s where your specialization starts to broaden a bit. You start to recruit complementary forms of expertise to make your solution more effective.
And that’s where Range and I start to agree on what valuable expertise looks like. It’s intellectually agile, not rigid. It looks at systems and components of those systems. It borrows from other disciplines any time that would help increase impact.
But we don’t get to build that kind of expertise without one of two things:
- Institutional support. Parachuting out of a big consulting company job, for example. With this kind of head start, we might get to do interesting, impactful consulting work.
- The “specialization needle” that helps us get past the superficial layer of a client’s need for outside help. This “needle” gets us access to more complex, impactful problems we can cultivate self-made expertise to solve.
I really wanted to have all sorts of criticism for Range. But in the end, the book is critiquing a form of hyperspecialization that I have to trust exists somewhere. I’m just unsure the book’s “systems that increasingly demand hyperspecialization” exist in our world of self-employed and self-made expertise.
Coda: Boring dude with no kids
I don’t have kids. Decided not to a long time ago. So this is a genuine question here.
Isn’t the path that closely resembles the Tiger Woods path a self-limiting one? I mean really, how many parents can actually pull off that bonkers level of unwavering, intense management of their kids’ life for a long period of time? All our parents manage to do something we have to get over or come to terms with later in life, and I’d bet most of us are terrified of the idea of being born to parents like Tiger Woods’, but I wonder if this all creates a distorted view of things. How many people are actually going to get pushed into a Tiger-style and Tiger-level childhood experience? Is this a real danger we as a society need to guard against?
What’s your take on that?
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