Can a generalist defuse a bomb?

Have you ever thought you could defuse a bomb in 7.3 seconds? Have you ever wondered if you could undo handcuffs with a bobby pin and break out of an isolated cell, beating down a dozen well-armed men? Those are specialized skills developed by super spies who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of espionage. And they are also fabricated in the movies.

But back in reality, we are left to wonder what variety of super skills can one person develop over a lifetime.

To explore what it takes to develop diverse skills, we start with the Wikipedia article about Jack of All Trades. There is an implied dispute about whether it’s good to be a jack of all trades, as people forget the latter part to the expression which delivers the insult, “jack of all trades, master of none.” Interestingly, in Japanese, the expression is “many talents is no talent.” In Russian, one expression is “specialist in wide range” which can be a compliment or an insult depending on the level of irony. In Dutch, the phrase is “12 trades, 13 accidents.” It’s a fun read if you like insults.

But that’s just folklore.  Maybe we should seek some actual evidence on this topic?

Elite Athletes Provide the Data About Specialization

There is a custom that the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” goes to the reigning gold-medal champion of the decathlon. Decathlon involves 10 track-and-field activities with varied measurements such as sprint-time and throwing distance. They can’t add raw scores, so decathlon has a points system that measures excellence and gives equal weight to each activity. 

Decathlon points provide an opportunity to compare the performance of decathlete generalists to the gold-medal specialists in each activity.

Usain Bolt posted the world record in the 100-metre dash – at 9.58 seconds – for which he would be assigned 1,202 decathlon points. The “decathlon best” or best performance by a decathlete is for Damian Warner who did that run in 10.15 seconds, for which he was assigned 1,059 points. Bolt’s performance is six per cent better than Damian Warner’s. But Warner also holds the decathlon best for 110m hurdles and won Olympic bronze for hurdles in 2016. Given the acceleration and deceleration required for hurdles, there is a prevailing view that Bolt could not win a medal at hurdles. 

Would you rather be the best in the world at sprinting, or the best of the generalists in multiple sports?

Under the current decathlon scoring system, a 10-person team of world-record holders of each sport could get 12,568 points combined, which is 16% stronger than the 10-person team made of decathlon bests. In elite sports, generalists function at 84% of the effectiveness of specialists. Specialists are better if exactly one skill is needed.  If you have the option of creating a team, a rag-tag band of specialist weirdos might give you that 16% bump you desperately need. The drama is in the exceptional teamwork.

Single-person efforts requiring many skills are best suited for a generalist.  Otherwise, a diverse team of specialists will tend to outperform.

But teams are not allowed in the decathlon. For single-person efforts demanding many skills you are better-off assigning a generalist like Damian Warner. Movie series like Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Jason Bourne are built around the idea that one person has all of those special skills that are needed to save the day, if not the world. But there’s something off about those movies. The hero’s sidekick is stereotyped as a less-capable younger woman who might become sexually available in the next two hours. That might not be a viable model for a respectful workplace, career navigation, and statutory compliance.

Mathematics in the Post-Soviet Era

But back to the math.  In an article in the Harvard Business Review researchers looked at changes in the research performance of mathematicians between 1980 and 2000. The Soviet Union, which had exceptional mathematicians, had a political collapse in the middle of this time period. Soviet mathematicians were set free and unleashed onto the world, disrupting mathematics globally. This change generated a natural experiment for research outcomes before and after the Soviet collapse. It was also possible to categorize mathematicians into those publishing in a single specialization (i.e. specialists) and those publishing in multiple fields (i.e. generalists).

Generalists are stronger in stable environments and specialists are stronger in environments of change

The research question was, what is the relative performance of specialists vs. generalists, in those fields that were stable relative to those that experienced disruption? In brief, they found that generalists are stronger in stable environments and specialists are stronger in environments of change. In those fields that were stable and evolving slowly, specialists under-perform generalists by 22%. The generalists were able to draw from diverse knowledge in the broader mathematics domain and accomplish more. In environments experiencing dramatic change, specialists outperform generalists by 83%. Those specialists were able to use the new knowledge that was at the frontier of their specialized field, pushing the boundaries far more.

These findings are specific to scientific creativity, not to be confused with other types of performance. We have no idea how mathematicians would lead a team of staff in a wet lab, in so far as mathematicians understand wet labs, or staff. Also, publications are elite performance. There are areas of good-enough performance where very basic knowledge is the most important thing that day, such as choosing to be rude to a potential assailant or getting someone who is suicidal to a therapist. There will always be a place in the world for some general knowledge.

How to Allocate Your 10,000 Hours

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers asserted that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a particular skill. Gladwell simplified and popularized research by a man named K. Anders Eriksson, who had devoted much of his career to identifying how people become excellent. I read some of Eriksson’s work, and he didn’t actually proclaim a 10,000-hours magic number. It was an approximation. Eriksson was also describing what is required to become world-class at something done at the performance or tournament level, such as piano or chess. 

You’re still pretty good at 5,000 hours and you can become even better by putting in 20,000 hours.  For example, “Sully” Sullenberger had logged 20,000 hours of experience as a pilot before landing US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River and saving 155 lives in the process.  (Thanks again Sully). 

In Outliers, Gladwell noted that you only have enough time and learning-juice in one life to completely master two fields, for a total of 20,000 hours of deliberate practice. Those trying for a third kind of mastery run out of time. If you need be really good at more than two things, you can’t really aim to be the world’s best. 

In my review of Emily Wapnick’s TED Talk, I summarized what you can do if you become restless in your career: Get into a new field every couple of years. Wapnick encourages those who have found their true calling to pursue that one thing. But for those who just can’t stay in one lane, there are ways to make a good life with what you have learned in multiple fields. There are unique, one-of-a-kind ways of advancing a combination of strengths.

Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist? The correct answer is to listen to yourself. You are the best at learning those things that are important to you. If the drive comes from inside, that is where you’ll find real motivation. And that motivation is the magic. If you look around, nobody is filming an action movie in which you have to establish yourself as the hero. You’re the only one who is always watching, so play to that audience.  Do your best, and do it for yourself.

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