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Why Being a Jack of All Trades Beats Being a Master of One

Career Creativity
Why Being a Jack of All Trades Beats Being a Master of One


  • Which common surgery may be totally useless
  • What a glass of water teaches us about leadership
  • Why you shouldn’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up

David Epstein has worked as an investigative reporter for ProPublica and a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, and is the bestselling author of The Sports Gene and the Next Big Idea Club selection, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Safi Bahcall is a physicist turned biotech entrepreneur, and the bestselling author of the Next Big Idea Club selection, Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. The two recently sat down with Mirian Graddick-Weir at the Morristown Festival of Books to discuss the surprising benefits of being a generalist, and how the best leaders foster game-changing innovation.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Mirian: Let’s start with you, David. What motivated you to write Range?

David: The impetus for the book came out of my first book, where I criticized the science underlying the so-called “10,000-Hours Rule,” the idea that you should just pick something and do 10,000 hours of a very focused practice. That brought me into a debate at a sports conference with Malcolm Gladwell, who was the champion of the 10,000-Hour Rule. He’s very clever and I didn’t want to get embarrassed on stage, so I tried to anticipate what he’d argue. I knew that he had written about the importance of early specialization in young athletes, so I said, “Hey, let’s see what the research says.”

What I saw was that in fact, in almost all sports where scientists track the development of elite athletes, the athletes almost always have what’s called a “sampling period,” where they do a wide variety of activities, gain broad, general skills, and learn about their interests and abilities—and they delay specializing until later. So I used that data in our debate, and when we were coming off the stage, Malcolm said, “You got me on that one—you should write about that.”

Now we’ve had this transition away from the industrial economy to a knowledge and creativity economy. We switched from what the psychologist Robin Hogarth called “kind problems”—where next steps are clear, you get clear feedback, and work next year will look like work last year, so you can specialize and do the same thing over and over—to an area where we’re dealing with “wicked problems”—where work next year might not look like work last year, you might not get accurate feedback, and the next steps and goals may not be clear.

And it turns out that in those realms, people with a breadth of experience tend to do better. And that advantage even increases as they’re around people who become more and more narrow.

Mirian: Excellent.

Safi, Loonshots is your first book. Was there a particular event or situation that inspired you to write it?

Safi: I had started a biotech company to develop drugs for cancer treatment. And not long afterwards, my father was diagnosed with a rare type of leukemia. I figured, “Well, now I’m an insider in that field. I can do something about this! We have access to all the latest tools and technologies.” But unfortunately, nothing I did made any difference, and he died not long after.

Then over the years, as our company grew and we went public, everywhere I looked—trapped in the basements of companies big and small—were promising ideas that could have helped my father. Not that any of those people were bad people—everyone wants to make a difference. So why is it that such good teams kill great ideas? And what can we do to liberate the ideas that are trapped inside the basements of organizations? Imagine how much good we could do for the world—that was the genesis of the book.

“Why is it that such good teams kill great ideas?”

David: Safi, you just reminded me that the most important drug in sports—which was associated with the BALCO scandal—was actually found in a pharmaceutical company’s basement, and then turned into a very important drug. Not for good in that case, but interesting nonetheless.

Mirian: David, an obvious question that you probably get is the fact that there are some professions where you actually want specialists. If I’m on my way to a doctor and I have a heart problem, I want to make sure it’s a cardiologist who’s been in practice for a long time.

But you tell this really interesting story about how I should wish that all the cardiologists are away at a conference. I found it fascinating that there are some perverse effects of specialization.

David: The research finding you’re talking about, which they just replicated recently, is that if you’re checked into a teaching hospital with certain cardiac conditions, you’re less likely to die if you check in during a national cardiology convention, when the most esteemed specialists are away. Because it turns out that you’re less likely to get certain procedures that specialists have come to do over and over, even after evidence has shown that they don’t work.

We see this all over. The most common orthopedic procedure in the world is getting your meniscus repaired—and if you had an acute injury, fine. But if you had a partial arthroscopic meniscectomy—basically when you reshave the crescent part of the knee cartilage after medical imaging shows a tear—[that is likely unnecessary]. Probably half the people in this room have a tear and don’t even know it.

A group of clinics decided to test this, and they put it up against a placebo. Some of the people got sham surgery, where they’re brought in, there’s an incision made, the surgeons bang around like they’re doing something, then sew them up and send them back home. And it did as well as the real surgery.

As we’ve gotten more specialized, more and more doctors are looking at one tiny piece of the body, instead of the whole organism. One of the most popular blood pressure medications, for example, is called Atenolol. Someone’s job was to just lower that blood pressure number, and Atenolol works for that. But it turns out that people continue to die of heart attack and stroke at the same rate, just with better blood pressure numbers. Nobody zoomed out to look at the outcomes they should actually care about.

Specialized surgeons have fewer complications than non-specialized surgeons, even when you control for the number of times they’ve done the procedure, so there’s something [good about] being a specialized surgeon. But they’re also far more likely to do a procedure that doesn’t need to be done, so it’s a double-edged sword.

I just think we need that balance. By no means do I think we need to do without specialists, but I think medical education sometimes puts specialists and generalists in zero-sum competition, and I don’t think it should be that way.

“As we’ve gotten more specialized, more and more doctors are looking at one tiny piece of the body, instead of the whole organism.”

Mirian: Yeah, excellent.

Safi, you’re a scientist by training. Can you talk a little bit about the concept of phase transitions, and how teams go from embracing wild, crazy ideas to rejecting them?

Safi: Let’s take a glass of water—when I stick my finger in and swirl it around, all the molecules slosh around my finger. Except when I lower the temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, all of a sudden the behavior of those molecules completely changes—it becomes totally rigid, and I can’t put my finger in anymore.

When the temperature changes, the water freezes. But why? There’s no CEO molecule with a bullhorn saying, “Okay, it’s 31 degrees Fahrenheit, everybody line up!” No—they just know how to do it.

And what I show in the book is that that’s more than an analogy—if you actually look at the incentives and structures inside teams and companies, they will suddenly change behavior. That has nothing to do with the CEO. There are structural parameters that will shift groups from a liquid state—when they’re embracing wild, new ideas—to a solid state, where they’re just focused on reducing errors, and getting things done on time, on budget, and on spec.

Two very different states. But once you understand the transition, you can begin to manage it.

Mirian: You also talk about the artists, who are the creative types in the organizations, and then the soldiers, who have to execute, focus, and get those quarterly results. How do you get those two groups of people to work together?

Safi: Sure. So there are two phases: liquid and solid—embracing wild new ideas, and getting stuff done on time—and groups need to be able to do both.

But the problem is, a system can’t be in two phases at the same time—how can that glass of water be solid and liquid at the same time? There’s only one solution, and that’s life at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. If you bring a bathtub of water to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, two things will happen: One is it separates into blocks of ice and pools of liquid, and that’s stable—neither side overwhelms the other. But this next part is most important because it’s where almost all companies go wrong, creating little innovation labs where everything just dies. You need a constant exchange [between the phases]—little molecules in the water walk on a block of ice and freeze, and a molecule on the edge of ice starts to jiggle and goes into the liquid. They’re constantly going back and forth.

“Real leaders lead much more like a careful gardener, managing the transfer, not the technology.”

So we have the artists that are embracing wild new ideas, and the soldiers that are rigidly executing. The trick is to manage that dynamic, to focus on the transfer between them, not the technology itself. The great leaders are the ones that get away from this myth of becoming like Moses on top of a mountain, who raises his or her staff and anoints the chosen project—like the iPod, or whatever. Real leaders lead much more like a careful gardener, managing the transfer, not the technology. Innovation and coming up with ideas is easy—put ten people in a room with stacks of Post-Its, and you get a thousand ideas. The difficulty lies in the transfer between these two groups, artists and soldiers, that don’t understand each other.

So you want systems, structures, and leaders in place that have a different mindset of leadership. Our job is to be a gardener—get those ideas out, get the feedback, and manage the transfer.

David: One of the things I really enjoyed about your book was the way you use analogies. There’s one section of my book where I write about using analogies to think about things that you can’t learn through trial and error.

I spent some time at Northwestern University with a woman named Dedre Gentner, who’s arguably the world’s expert in using analogies to solve problems. Expert problem-solvers tend to spend more time figuring out the structure of a problem before they jump in and try to solve it. So Gentner came up with a test to see how good people were at diagnosing the underlying structure of a problem in different disciplines.

And what she found was that a reasonable number of students were pretty good at it in their own major. But very few were good at it across disciplines—except for these kids who were in something called the “integrated science program.” They didn’t have a major—they had sort of a minor in all these sciences, and they learned the different mental models that those disciplines used. And so they were really good at [diagnosing a problem’s underlying structure,] even outside of anything they had studied. They would take analogies for what they did know, and use it to approach problems they didn’t know.

These were the students that seemed to be doing the best, but the strange thing was that people were saying, “Well, those kids don’t have a major—they’re getting behind.” That split my brain a little bit.

In any case, I was reminded of this because Safi’s book has this deep, structural diagnosis of a problem, which I thought was extremely effective.

Mirian: I have four millennial kids, and I love your concept of experimentation: Don’t push into disciplines too soon, let them experiment, let them fail at things, until they find out what they want to be when they grow up. But when I used to talk to my kids, I would counter that with, “Don’t be a jack of all trades and master of none.” I mean, if you’re moving around so much, could experimentation become a liability? Is it important to have depth in at least one area?

“When you ask people what they want to be when they grow up, you’re asking them to choose for a person they don’t yet know, in a world they can’t even conceive.”

David: I think it’s culturally telling that the full quote is, “Jack of all trades, master of none, oftentimes better than master of one.” We’ve dropped that last part.

But that’s a great question, and I think it’s quantifiable in some areas—like in sports. It seems to be the mid-teen years when people start focusing on the one area, but that’s partly because the structure enforces certain age limits. In research on technological innovation, there were specialists who mainly dove into one or two areas of technology as defined by the Patent Office. And then there were generalists, who were spread across a lot of different technological areas, and both of those made different types of contributions.

Then there were dilettantes, who were not that broad and not that deep, who really didn’t make many contributions. And then there were the polymaths, who tended to start with an area of depth, and then sacrifice increasing depth for breadth as they went on—they made the biggest contributions. So as opposed to a specific type of timing, I think it’s more an approach to life or a habit of mind.

In a bunch of countries, there’s increasing emphasis on career-specialized education. Research across a dozen countries finds that people who first get career-specialized education will jump ahead in the income lane, but they end up so much less flexible in a changing work world that they lose in the long run. To me, that’s the substance of my book—sometimes the things you do to cause the fastest short-term improvement can actually undermine long-term development.

And most of the generalists in the book didn’t set out to be broad. What they set out to do was to maximize their “match quality,” the degree of fit between their interests and abilities and the work that they do. And they would do that throughout their life, and say, “Okay, I just did this. I learned that I like this part of it, and I don’t like that part. Here’s where I am right now, here are my skills, here are the options in front of me. I’m going to try this one, and maybe a year from now I’ll change, because I will have learned something about myself.”

I think it shifts the focus from “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to “What do you want to try right now?” Because there’s something called the “end of history illusion”—if you ask people if they’ve changed a lot based on their experiences, they say, “Yes, but I’m not going to change much in the future.” At every point in our lives, we underestimate the amount of future change, and the most rapid period of change is from 18 to about your late twenties. So when you ask people what they want to be when they grow up, you’re asking them to choose for a person they don’t yet know, in a world they can’t even conceive.

We also need to watch out for the sunk cost fallacy, which is, “Well I’ve already started, so I have to stick to this, even if it’s not a good match.” If they specialize in something, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t consider that path fixed. They should continue that search for better and better match quality throughout their lives. They just keep doing that, and en route to finding a better fit, they end up with a broad toolbox.

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