David Epstein


Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

by David Epstein, 354 pages

Finished on 18th of November, 2023
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Epstein shows us how people with a wide range of interests and curiosity who find a profession matching their skillsets perfectly will produce better results and move humankind forward by citing many studies and telling entertaining anecdotes.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. The global trend towards occupational specialization has the potential to bring innovation to a halt, because adaptation to new challenges and solving of unexpected problems isn’t rewarded as much.
  2. Education of school kids has made leaps in this regard, people become 3 IQ points smarter per decade on average, but the search for perfect career matches for individual skillsets and interests isn’t encouraged as much as it should be for maximum output in terms of breakthroughs for humankind.
  3. Curiosity is the cure, curious people with a wide range of interests are better at predicting outcomes even in the specialist fields where the experts are wrong.

🎨 Impressions

This book had a high influence on me and I can understand why it’s become a #1 New York Times Bestseller. I’ve picked it up because it’s been recommended on three separate podcasts I listen to, The Tim Ferriss Show, the Rich Roll Podcast, and Ali Abdaal’s Deep Dive.

The main premise is that highly specialized experts tend to lose their overview and don’t improve at overcoming obstacles and reacting to unexpected issues, which also limits the possibilities for big breakthroughs to come from specialists. This is something which has resonated a lot with me because I could never muster the energy to just follow through with one single topic professionally, but constantly want to explore new interests and expand my skills in many areas. This is a personality trait my teachers and educators, as well as parents, didn’t like. They were still caught up in the mindset that a person should learn one thing very well and keep doing that one thing until the end.

This book disproves them all, which is satisfying to read. Of course, nearing the age of 40 now, I thought my options now are limited (“Had I only read this book at 20!”), but this isn’t the case. Epstein provides many studies and anecdotes which tell us it’s never too late to search for maximum match quality, as he calls it, of a profession to one’s skillset and interests.

One of the people he puts forward to underline this is Vincent van Gogh, who found his calling as a breakthrough painter aged 35 only after trying countless other professions, often failing at them, but taking something with him towards future goals.

Another great chapter is the intro which characterized Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, two absolute champions in their respective fields of golf and tennis. Tiger was put on his path as a young child and improved his golf skills intensely while growing up, while Roger played a huge variety of sports before settling on tennis as a young adult. Despite such different origin stories, both succeeded tremendously because of the type of sport they chose. Golf requires repetitively getting better at that single shot, but tennis requires quick thinking, reacting, and problem solving depending on the opponent’s style of play. Federer, the generalist, triumphs here because of his diverse background.

In general, the book offers a wide variety of partly mind-blowing, partly useful and interesting new information, presented in an entertaining way.

Little side learning from a long chapter about education: if you want to learn something and keep the knowledge, the more you struggle while learning it, the better you remember it. Getting tips and hints from others to help you solve it quickly and easily will make you forget it fast.

Near the end of the book there’s a space-related story which I found especially eye-opening. It revolves around the Challenger space shuttle accident which killed seven people when it exploded 73 seconds after lift-off in 1986. A lot of research has been done in the aftermath to find out what went wrong and the underlying reason has been clearly defined. The team thought they were given all the data before making the decision to go through with lift-off, and it was a tough decision due to possible unfavorably cold weather, but there was more data. Had they looked for more data, they would have found it and decided correctly not to launch.

It’s a psychological problem. Assuming you know all the relevant data when there clearly is more you could just ask for.

The main takeaway would be that curiosity is key. We should never lose it. Use the outsider advantage and try something new no one even dared to try. This is how breakthroughs happen.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • First, I feel very much vindicated with my predictions I had as a youth but which were shut down by the authorities around me at the time. Exploring is good and it’s never too late to do something new and be curious. I don’t need to fall back on the stuff I know, I can just keep venturing out into new directions. It’s proven to lead to better results. Obviously this would have been even better when started at a young age, but what’s done is done.
  • From what my kids currently learn in school at their respective levels, I already suspected that the levels have gone up since my time in school, and the studies cited in the book confirm this: the average IQ of the general population increases by about 3 points per decade, so my kids are 6-9 IQ points above me, if we’re all perfectly average. I think this is very encouraging when contemplating the future of our species. It gave me new hope which had recently been on a low point because of nobody really taking climate change seriously, for example.

📔 Highlights & Notes

Introduction: Roger vs. Tiger

Reams of work on expertise development shows that elite athletes spend more time in highly technical, deliberate practice each week than those who plateau at lower levels.

I dove into work showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident—a dangerous combination.

Overspecialization can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action.

The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.

Chapter 1: The Cult of the Head Start

It was a wide-ranging review of research that rocked psychology because it showed experience simply did not create skill in a wide range of real-world scenarios, from college administrators assessing student potential to psychiatrists predicting patient performance to human resources professionals deciding who will succeed in job training.

Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise, they agreed, depended entirely on the domain in question.

A duo of amateur players with three normal computers not only destroyed Hydra, the best chess supercomputer, they also crushed teams of grandmasters using computers. Kasparov concluded that the humans on the winning team were the best at “coaching” multiple computers on what to examine, and then synthesizing that information for an overall strategy.

Chunking helps explain instances of apparently miraculous, domain-specific memory, from musicians playing long pieces by heart to quarterbacks recognizing patterns of players in a split second and making a decision to throw.

“There are so many layers of thinking,” he [Julian Togelius, an NYU professor who studies gaming AI] said. “We humans sort of suck at all of them individually, but we have some kind of very approximate idea about each of them and can combine them and be somewhat adaptive. That seems to be what the trick is.”

The subtitle of Schwartz’s paper: “How Not to Teach People to Discover Rules”—that is, by providing rewards for repetitive short-term success with a narrow range of solutions.

As Robin Hogarth put it, much of the world is “Martian tennis.” You can see the players on a court with balls and rackets, but nobody has shared the rules. It is up to you to derive them, and they are subject to change without notice.

When experienced accountants were asked in a study to use a new tax law for deductions that replaced a previous one, they did worse than novices. Erik Dane, a Rice University professor who studies organizational behavior, calls this phenomenon “cognitive entrenchment.”

Chapter 2: How the Wicked Worlds Was Made

The Flynn effect—the increase in correct IQ test answers with each new generation in the twentieth century—has now been documented in more than thirty countries. The gains are startling: three points every ten years.

A child today who scores average on similarities would be in the 94th percentile of her grandparents’ generation.

The professor later explained that these were “Fermi problems,” because Enrico Fermi—who created the first nuclear reactor beneath the University of Chicago football field—constantly made back-of-the-envelope estimates to help him approach problems.

I would have been a much better researcher in any domain, including Arctic plant physiology, had I learned broadly applicable reasoning tools rather than the finer details of Arctic plant physiology.

The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.

Chapter 3: When Less of the Same Is More

The strict deliberate practice school describes useful training as focused consciously on error correction. But the most comprehensive examination of development in improvisational forms, by Duke University professor Paul Berliner, described the childhoods of professionals as “one of osmosis,” not formal instruction.

“Children do not practice exercises to learn to talk… Children learn to read after their ability to talk has been well established.”

Chapter 4: Learning, Fast and Slow

Rather than letting students grapple with some confusion, teachers often responded to their solicitations with hint-giving that morphed a making-connections problem into a using-procedures one.

The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.

The overall experiment results went like this: the more hints that were available during training, the better the monkeys performed during early practice, and the worse they performed on test day.

It was as if the pair had suddenly unlearned every list that they practiced with hints. The study conclusion was simple: “training with hints did not produce any lasting learning.”

Struggling to retrieve information primes the brain for subsequent learning, even when the retrieval itself is unsuccessful. The struggle is real, and really useful.

For a given amount of material, learning is most efficient in the long run when it is really inefficient in the short run.

it is difficult to accept that the best learning road is slow, and that doing poorly now is essential for better performance later. It is so deeply counterintuitive that it fools the learners themselves, both about their own progress and their teachers’ skill.

Teachers who guided students to overachievement in their own course were rated highly, and undermined student performance in the long run.

Here is the bright side: over the past forty years, Americans have increasingly said in national surveys that current students are getting a worse education than they themselves did, and they have been wrong.

Here is a math question from the early 1980s basic skills test of all public school sixth graders in Massachusetts:

Carol can ride her bike 10 miles per hour. If Carol rides her bike to the store, how long will it take?

To solve this problem, you would need to know:

A) How far it is to the store.

B) What kind of bike Carol has.

C) What time Carol will leave.

D) How much Carol has to spend.

And here is a question Massachusetts sixth graders got in 2011:

Paige, Rosie, and Cheryl each spent exactly $9.00 at the same snack bar.

  • Paige bought 3 bags of peanuts.
  • Rosie bought 2 bags of peanuts and 2 pretzels.
  • Cheryl bought 1 bag of peanuts, 1 pretzel, and 1 milk shake.

A) What is the cost, in dollars, of 1 bag of peanuts? Show or explain how you got your answer.

B) What is the cost, in dollars, of 1 pretzel? Show or explain how you got your answer.

C) What is the total number of pretzels that can be bought for the cost of 1 milk shake? Show or explain how you got your answer.

For every problem like the first one, the simple formula “distance = rate × time” could be memorized and applied. The second problem requires the connection of multiple concepts that are then applied to a new situation. The teaching strategies that current teachers experienced when they were students are no longer good enough. Knowledge increasingly needs not merely to be durable, but also flexible—both sticky and capable of broad application.

Teaching kids to read a little early is not a lasting advantage. Teaching them how to hunt for and connect contextual clues to understand what they read can be.

Chapter 5: Thinking Outside Experience

The current world is not so kind; it requires thinking that cannot fall back on previous experience. Like math students, we need to be able to pick a strategy for problems we have never seen before.

In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.

The investors initially judged their own projects, where they knew all the details, completely differently from similar projects to which they were outsiders.

Bent Flyvbjerg, chair of Major Programme Management at Oxford University’s business school, has shown that around 90 percent of major infrastructure projects worldwide go over budget (by an average of 28 percent) in part because managers focus on the details of their project and become overly optimistic.

There was a group of students, however, who were particularly good at finding common deep structures: students who had taken classes in a range of domains, like those in the Integrated Science Program.

[..] successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it. Less successful problem solvers are more like most students in the Ambiguous Sorting Task: they mentally classify problems only by superficial, overtly stated features, like the domain context. For the best performers, they wrote, problem solving “begins with the typing of the problem.” As education pioneer John Dewey put it in Logic, The Theory of Inquiry, “a problem well put is half-solved.”

Chapter 6: The Trouble with Too Much Grit

In England and Wales, adults were more likely to get divorced from the careers they had invested in because they settled down too early. If we treated careers more like dating, nobody would settle down so quickly.

Six months later, those who flipped heads and switched jobs were substantially happier than the stayers.

“admonitions such as ‘winners never quit and quitters never win,’ while well-meaning, may actually be extremely poor advice.”

The expression “young and foolish,” he wrote, describes the tendency of young adults to gravitate to risky jobs, but it is not foolish at all. It is ideal. They have less experience than older workers, and so the first avenues they should try are those with high risk and reward, and that have high informational value.

A few years later, with more knowledge of their skills and preferences, choosing to pursue a different goal was no longer the gritless route; it was the smart one.

In the wider world of work, finding a goal with high match quality in the first place is the greater challenge, and persistence for the sake of persistence can get in the way.

Chapter 7: Flirting with Your Possible Selves

As Steven Naifeh said regarding Van Gogh’s life, some “undefinable process of digestion” occurred as diverse experiences accumulated. “I was unaware that I was being prepared,” she told me. “I did not intend to become a leader, I just learned by doing what was needed at the time.”

“You have to carry a big basket to bring something home.” She repeats that phrase today, to mean that a mind kept wide open will take something from every new experience.

“They never look around and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to fall behind, these people started earlier and have more than me at a younger age,’” Ogas told me. “They focused on, ‘Here’s who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, and here are the opportunities. Which of these is the best match right now? And maybe a year from now I’ll switch because I’ll find something better.’”

Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous, to use Darwin’s adjective, when examined in the light of more self-knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.

When I was a college runner, I had teammates whose drive and determination seemed almost boundless on the track, and nearly absent in the classroom, and vice versa. Instead of asking whether someone is gritty, we should ask when they are. “If you get someone into a context that suits them,” Ogas said, “they’ll more likely work hard and it will look like grit from the outside.”

Ibarra concluded that we maximize match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives. And repeat.

Rather than expecting an ironclad a priori answer to “Who do I really want to become?,” their work indicated that it is better to be a scientist of yourself, asking smaller questions that can actually be tested—“ Which among my various possible selves should I start to explore now? How can I do that?” Be a flirt with your possible selves. Rather than a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly. “ Test-and-learn,” Ibarra told me, “not plan-and-implement.”

In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

Chapter 8: The Outsider Advantage

Pegau was basically describing the Einstellung effect, a psychology term for the tendency of problem solvers to employ only familiar methods even if better ones are available.

As Karim Lakhani put it after his Inno-Centive research, a key to creative problem solving is tapping outsiders who use different approaches “so that the ‘home field’ for the problem does not end up constraining the solution.” Sometimes, the home field can be so constrained that a curious outsider is truly the only one who can see the solution.

The more information specialists create, the more opportunity exists for curious dilettantes to contribute by merging strands of widely available but disparate information—undiscovered public knowledge, as Don Swanson called it.

Chapter 9: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology

A group of optics specialists he consulted assured him it could not be done, which was 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,” he told me.

“Specialists specifically peaked about 1985,” Ouderkirk told me. “And then declined pretty dramatically, leveled off about 2007, and the most recent data show it’s declining again, which I’m trying to understand.”

Where length of experience did not differentiate creators, breadth of experience did. Broad genre experience made creators better on average and more likely to innovate.

Chapter 10: Fooled by Expertise

Humanity will need more innovation as absolute world population continues to grow, but the growth rate is declining, rapidly. The United Nations projects that by the end of the century human population will be near a peak—the growth rate approaching zero—or it could even be in decline.

There is a particular kind of thinker, one who becomes more entrenched in their single big idea about how the world works even in the face of contrary facts, whose predictions become worse, not better, as they amass information for their mental representation of the world.

Victories were total victories, and defeats were always just a touch of bad luck away from having been victories too. Experts remained undefeated while losing constantly. “There is often a curiously inverse relationship,” Tetlock concluded, “between how well forecasters thought they were doing and how well they did.”

It might seem like the complexity of predicting geopolitical and economic events would necessitate a group of narrow specialists, each bringing to the team extreme depth in one area. But it was actually the opposite.

Eastman described the core trait of the best forecasters to me as: “genuinely curious about, well, really everything.”

Narrow experts are an invaluable resource, she told me, “but you have to understand that they may have blinders on. So what I try to do is take facts from them, not opinions.”

The best forecasters view their own ideas as hypotheses in need of testing. Their aim is not to convince their teammates of their own expertise, but to encourage their teammates to help them falsify their own notions.

Researchers in Canada and the United States began a 2017 study by asking a politically diverse and well-educated group of adults to read arguments confirming their beliefs about controversial issues. When participants were then given a chance to get paid if they read contrary arguments, two-thirds decided they would rather not even look at the counterarguments, never mind seriously entertain them.

Chapter 11: Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools

Business professors around the world have been teaching Carter Racing for thirty years because it provides a stark lesson in the danger of reaching conclusions from incomplete data, and the folly of relying only on what is in front of you.

Rather than adapting to unfamiliar situations, whether airline accidents or fire tragedies, Weick saw that experienced groups became rigid under pressure and “regress to what they know best.”

Under pressure, Weick explained, experienced pros regress to what they know best. I suggested to Lesmes that maybe his PJs were just reacting emotionally, with a reflex for the familiar.

She found that the most effective leaders and organizations had range; they were, in effect, paradoxical. They could be demanding and nurturing, orderly and entrepreneurial, even hierarchical and individualistic all at once.

The experiments showed that an effective problem-solving culture was one that balanced standard practice—whatever it happened to be—with forces that pushed in the opposite direction. If managers were used to process conformity, encouraging individualism helped them to employ “ambidextrous thought,” and learn what worked in each situation. If they were used to improvising, encouraging a sense of loyalty and cohesion did the job.

He emphasized that there is a difference between the chain of command and the chain of communication, and that the difference represents a healthy cross-pressure.

Except, repeatedly, randomized clinical trials that compared stents with more conservative forms of treatment show that stents for patients with stable chest pain prevent zero heart attacks and extend the lives of patients a grand total of not at all.

the finding of a 2015 study: patients with heart failure or cardiac arrest were less likely to die if they were admitted during a national cardiology conference, when thousands of top cardiologists were away.

We know how cells work, but can’t predict the poetry that will be written by a human made up of them. The frog’s-eye view of individual parts is not enough. A healthy ecosystem needs biodiversity.

Chapter 12: Deliberate Amateurs

In 2015, Casadevall showed that biomedical research funding rose exponentially over a recent thirty-five-year period, while discovery slowed down. Life expectancy in countries at the biomedical cutting edge, like the United Kingdom and the United States, recently declined after decades of improvement. The flu annually kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide while humanity fights it with a cumbersomely produced vaccine from the 1940s.

Human creativity, he said, is basically an “import/ export business of ideas.”

To recap: work that builds bridges between disparate pieces of knowledge is less likely to be funded, less likely to appear in famous journals, more likely to be ignored upon publication, and then more likely in the long run to be a smash hit in the library of human knowledge.

And most people say, ‘Well, I don’t have time to read outside my field.’ I say, ‘No, you do have time, it’s far more important.’ Your world becomes a bigger world, and maybe there’s a moment in which you make connections.”

Conclusion: Expanding Your Range

Approach your own personal voyage and projects like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise.

[..] research in myriad areas suggests that mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power, and head starts are overrated.

“It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” (Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes)


[Discussing the saying ”jack of all trades, master of none”] I think it is culturally telling that we habitually hack off the end of the long version: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

“Here’s who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, and here are the opportunities. Which of these is the best match right now? And maybe a year from now I’ll switch because I’ll find something better.”

So perhaps it would be a good idea for sites that host résumés, and organizations that review them, to include some function that allows users the chance to share their résumé as a narrative journey in which they can explain the lessons of their zigs and zags, rather than just list them as bullet points.

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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