How many times have I quoted my former demigod Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outlier? His claim was: in order to become master at something, one needed to practice it at least that given amount of hours. “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness”, Gladwell wrote in 2009.
Young Bill Gates had nightly access to a university computer, Amadeus Mozart played and practiced like a maniac since he was able to walk and Tiger Woods got his first golf putter in cradle. Thus, they became something. That’s how you become successful. Really? Well, sometimes, yes. Especially, if your field of excellence is relatively narrow. And you are not expected to somehow change, develop or revoltionise your field of expertise. Only to be really, really, really good at repeating things, that the others have done previously. Mozart actually is a bit more complex case. He played several instruments as a child.
As a former local publisher of Gladwell, it is painful to turn against your former beliefs. But, as a generalist myself, this particular change of mind was a bit easier.

We all have heard “jack-of-all-trades, master of none”. Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that wisdom.

In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World David Epstein, a former investigative and science reporter, busts a few myths about people with a diverse career. That is why this book is particularly important for any business leader or HR decision-maker. Open your minds. Take calculated risks and trust your gut feelings on the applicant. By recruiting people who are not one-track-minded race horses on a narrow career path you may end up with people with much broader range of experiences and thus much more flexible and innovative. What ever the playing field. Minds with – Range.
Even such highly specialized fields as finance need generalists. According to Epstein, the financial collapse of 2008 may have been avoided. Instead, ”legions of specialized groups optimizing risk for their own tiny pieces of the big picture created a catastrophic whole.”

Game Boy, Van Gogh and Federer

How did the super simple 8-bit handheld game console Game Boy, a dull green dot-matrix screen with simple graphics became such a mega hit, while other, way more advanced game devices from Sega and Atari didn’t? First released in Japan in 1989, Game Boy eventually sold more than 118 devices. The man behind this innovation is Gunpei Yokoi, a graduate student and hobbyist, who joined Nintendo in 1965 as a maintenance employee. He wasn’t a brilliant inventor of new technology. Instead, he new the old electronics and could combine old innovations with a new, winning formula. With his influence, Nintendo developed more durable devices with long battery life, both crucial elements in competition that time. Instead of trying all the new technology, Nintendo stayed with safe solutions, combined in a new way.

As an example of pioneering geniuses, Epstein presents the painter Vincent Van Gogh, who innovativeness was found only after his death. Van Gogh studied and tried his wings at several fields of life after finally ending up as a painter. Rarely have new innovations come from one-track-mind, from the 10,000-Hour people. As an example, to become a brilliant violinist, it really takes that ten thousand hours of practice, practice, practice. Then what? You can play 100 or 200 years old music just as the must have played it back then? Where is the creativity? Where is the new? Instead, some of the most legendary and revolutionary jazz musicians didn’t even read notes. Yet they took music to a completely new level. The applies to business life, Epstein suggests.

Then there are the two sport giants, the American golf legend Tiger Woods and the Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer. “Even as a kid his [Woods’]  goal was to break the record for winning the most majors. I was just dreaming of just once meeting Boris Becker or being able to play at Wimbledon some time.” Tiger Woods was practising his swing at 11 months old. Really. There’s a picture of it. Federer’s parents let him experiment with several different sports, and then he finally chose to play tennis. And Federer’s reign at the top lasted for much much longer than Woods’ reign.

Range offer reassurance for us, who have had some setbacks during our careers, too. Failure is good, “desirable difficulties” do make our learning more difficult, slower and more frustrating in the short term. But as we struggle to generate an answer of your own, sometimes even a wrong one, that does enhance subsequent learning. According to Epstein, Socrates was on to something when he forced students to generate answers rather than bestowing them. It’s much better to suffer now and benefit later.

In 1997, the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov lost to IBM’s supercomputer. Nowadays, AI can solve rapidly growing amounts of tasks. It can calculate repeat tests and learn rules much faster. What AI cannot yet do, is to use earlier experience in completely fields of life and combine these insights into something productive, maybe even revolutionary brilliant.
According to Epstein, future business and sport elites usually have a “sampling period” in which they try other careers or sports, gain general skills and learn about their interests and abilities before focusing on their later field of specialsing.

But can we resist the lure of hyper-specialisation? Do employers understand the potential of generalists? Do business leaders, HR people or even entrepreneurs really understand the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking and delayed concentration in your career? Usually they don’t.

Epstein dismantles the “cult of the headstart”, that Gladwell’s book celebrated.

Over-specialised people – or “islands of genius”, Epstein calls them – do not adjust to a fast-changing environment. They can only do one thing, even if really well.

The future does belong to Generalists, if Epstein’s reasoning is to be believed. In a World of ever-increasing competition and rising power of AI, can we afford not take risk of not believing? Even Gladwell is willing to re-think his 10,000-Hour Rule.

In the end, his comment on Range makes me respect him even more: “(It) makes me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong. I loved Range.”

RANGEWhy Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein (Riverhead Books, 2019)
Review by Jan Erola