Adaptability is turning out to be a smoldering-hot skill-in-demand. And lucky for me, I just discovered that I’m part of a newly-defined category of high-functioning misfits. There are people who have a diverse range of interests and must stay in that varied space to function at their best. That special thing where I change obsessions all the time is not a flaw. Instead, I can simply join the subculture of people who cherish adaptability. Maybe you can join me?
The TED talk by Emilie Wapnick is called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have to Have One True Calling.” Her talk takes-apart of the presumption that we must find that one thing we’re passionate about and strive to be the best at that one thing. Yes, there are people who are specialists at heart. But that style doesn’t work for everyone.
For those who change interests frequently, Wapnick has coined the phrase “multipotentialite.” These people have multiple areas of potential strength into which they can grow in irregular busts of enthusiasm and learning. Multipotentialites have three super-powers, which happen to be powers that are desperately needed in the smart machine age:
- Idea Synthesis. Combining two or more fields, generating an innovation at the intersection.
- Rapid learning. As experienced newcomers they “go hard” into each new learning area.
- Adaptability. Morph into whatever is needed in every situation.
I discussed hybrid skills briefly when reviewing Josh Bersin’s forecasts for 2017. Bersin asserted that combining two unrelated skills was an emerging trend in the future of work. Job descriptions where employers demand a single skills bundle are falling out of favour. Instead, people will rock their workplace by bringing together two or more skills that aren’t normally seen together, such as coding skill and sales.
At research universities it is understood that the best research is often found at the overlap between disciplines. In a 2003 article in Science Magazine, Elisabeth Pain notes:
Multidisciplinarity has a LOT to offer to early-career scientists in terms of opportunities and excitement. The Human Genome Project, the World Wide Web, and the boundaries of the infinitely small are only a few of the fertile fields where new research is flourishing. Those scientists who have taken the plunge swear by multidisciplinarity and will even say that you won’t be able to survive in science if you don’t keep an open mind to the advantages afforded by multidisciplinary approaches.
If you have ever been on a cross-functional work team, you may have noticed some special skills are required; trusting the expertise of those in other areas of knowledge, taking for granted there is no tradition or external reference, and working towards common language with the absence of jargon. I find that common language is particularly interesting. I was on one project where almost everyone had a different professional vocabulary, a different software language, and a different mother tongue. I had to speak slowly and clearly, putting relationships first.
Emilie Wapnick, in addition to her TED talk, has a great website called “puttylike” (with a mailing list) which includes a brief overview of how she has helped people identify their hybrid expertise and turn it into a “renaissance business.” She encourages people to bundle their interests under an umbrella concept, identify how two concepts can be woven together, and name the lens through which they look at the world, with that lens being their unique offering.
Adaptability and the Growth Mindset
Adaptability is becoming an critical skill. Natalie Fratto in an article in Fast Company asserts that adaptability “…will soon become a primary predictor of success, with general intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ) both taking a back seat.” Fratto thinks the current interest in emotional intelligence has happened already making the next new thing compelling.
Fratto links adaptability to the concept of having a growth mindset, the idea “that your qualities can improve with effort and experience…” according to another article in Fast Company. By contrast, those with the old status-quo view have a fixed mindset, which presumes our qualities are stable over time and our previously-accumulated knowledge and record-of-wins is a reliable measure of future worth. People with a fixed mindset are not keen on receiving feedback, are judgmental of others (making performance stereotypes), and don’t put effort into helping people grow. In the Fast Company article, Rusty Weston quotes Carol S. Dweck when discussing her book on the topic Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.
“As you might expect, growth oriented managers are more likely than fixed mindset managers to accept feedback or embrace change. ‘The irony of a fixed mindset,’ says Dweck, ‘is you want to be so successful so badly is that it stands in the way of going where you want to go.’”
Angela Duckworth has also created a quick video that explains the two mindsets clearly.
How Fast Can You Learn?
Josh Kaufmann is the author of The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything. I tried to read it several years ago but I learned so much from the first thirty pages I put it down and moved on. If you have even less patience than that, his TED talk covers the same topic. Kaufmann offers a rebuttal to the book Outliers in which Malcom Gladwell cited research that to accomplish world-class performance you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.
There was a flaw in the way Gladwell’s writing influenced public thinking. Yes, you need 10,000 hours to become exceptional, but what if you only wanted to be “good enough” at a certain skill? Kaufmann found that in that case you only need to commit 20 hours. But you must apply these 20 hours in a particular way.
- Deconstruct the Skill: Define the skill and break it down into smaller pieces. Many skills are a package of several sub-skills, so identifying and learning sub-skills in sequence will move you quickly towards the packaged skill.
- Learn Enough to Self-Correct: Learn just enough that you can self-edit and self-correct. In keeping with permission-to-fail you must be allowed to try things out, occasionally fail, learn and reflect on the mistakes, then try something different in a continuous loop of learning.
- Remove Practice Barriers: You need a devoted time and place where nothing pulls you off-course. No internet. No kids. No work. Just you and your learning.
- Practice At Least 20 Hours: Persevere, don’t give up if you’re feeling stupid and frustrated after a few hours. Getting past that wall is a major performance barrier, so just keep going. In this case it’s just perseverance: a good IQ will not save you.
Kaufmann finishes his TED talk by performing a medley on the ukulele, after having just spent 20 hours learning that one skill for the first time. He’s not going to sell an album, but he was pretty good. Well done!
For me, changing obsessions makes work seem like a series of action films. I see a future in which teams of people with unusual talents are carefully put together, in a manner that resembles movies like Ocean’s Eleven, Seven Samurai, and the first part of Lord of the Rings. The teams develop their way-of-talking, their manners, their code that none of them truly works in isolation. They change as individuals in a manner that co-evolves with the world they are taking advantage of, the world they are shaping.
Then they’re done. And onward to the next adventure. Onward to the next obsession.