How to repurpose leftover turkey and leftover code

Turkey
Turkey.  Photo courtesy of  Jeremy Keith.

As Christmas winds to an end, several households are struggling with a conundrum. What should you do with the leftover turkey?  There are downsides to having this carcass. It hogs fridge space, you will be eating turkey for days, and some people just hate leftovers. I know people who are tempted to throw the whole thing in the garbage. But don’t. Leftover turkey is a great opportunity to whip up some butter turkey or turkey noodle casserole.

When there’s nothing left but bones, it’s time to make turkey stock. Boiling down a turkey carcass into stock is one of the great wonders of household management. It’s so well-seasoned you don’t need to add any vegetables.  While the stock simmers, filling your home with great smells, you can accomplish something else, in a season when there’s some time to catch up with friends or wrap up loose ends.

With workforce analytics this kind of thing happens all the time.  Once you get on top of a major headcount puzzle, you will have spreadsheets and a few pages of code that are available for more than one purpose.  Like turkey leftovers, it’s worthwhile to be bold and repurpose them.

My favorite experience was when I built an entire hierarchy of jobs in order to identify when people had been promoted.  In large organizations it can be ambiguous which job movements are upward or downward.  Often, promotions are not categorized as promotions, especially if people change departments, leave and come back, or get a job temporarily prior to being made permanent.

To get past this obstacle we created a simple reference table that identified where someone was in a hierarchical career ladder, assigning a two-digit code to 1,200 job descriptions.  It was hard and tedious work that was entirely for the benefit of the back-engine of our promotions model.  But we eventually got the promotions model to work at a level of high accuracy, after which the client was able to use the information to influence high-level decisions.  That was the full turkey dinner.

Shortly after we finished this promotions model we got new demands for work which took advantage of the back-engine.  Our happiest client was the one who just needed the list of rank indicators for the 1,200 job descriptions.  They needed to send emails to a limited number of high-ranking people, so those people knew about breaking events before their subordinates and would know what to say.  With our organizational complexity and some turnover at the top, it was hard to identify who was senior.  What our client needed was a rules-based way of identifying who should get their emails.  Looking at our rank tables, they were able to choose a small number of rank categories and let the code do the work for them.  In the process they uncovered that one senior executive had been previously overlooked.  Now they were able to get the information out to the right people.

This client got the analytics equivalent of turkey soup.  They just needed the bones from inside the promotions query to be boiled down to create a new, skillfully-repurposed product that met their needs.

Do you have the opportunity to repurpose your own big wins?  That time you got on top of a major health concern, did you also develop healthy habits that improved other parts of your life?  If you overcame a difficult business relationship, did you also learn what your triggers are, and how to regulate them in future?  At the end of a big project, did you go for drinks afterward and end up with a few new friends?

Sometimes it seems like you’re just working hard to make other people happy.  But if you accomplished nothing in the last year except healthy habits, self-awareness, and more meaningful relationships, would you even recognize that this counts as success?

So put on your wool socks, turn the TV to your guilty pleasures, and curl up with that bowl of turkey soup.  It should feel good.  So take a deep breath and enjoy it.

[This is a re-post, with edits, of an article from October 10, 2017]

Stop trusting people who agree with you

Réception, dîner et dansede la présidente commandités par Fisher Scientific Education Dining Services [Musée de la civilisation]
Photo courtesy of CAUBO 2016.

Do you really need to network to get ahead? You might wish you didn’t have to. Sure, the appetizers at those networking events are tasty. But do you really need to spend more time talking with strangers you would never invite for dinner? Yes you do, but mostly you need to imagine a life where you can learn something from anyone.

An interesting debate emerged in August 2017 between two big names, and their arguments deserve a closer look. Adam Grant, who has an exceptional TED podcast called Work Life, proposed that networking wasn’t that big of a deal in achieving career success. Jeffrey Pfeffer, one of my favorite counter-intuitive business authors, respectfully disagreed.

Grant provided several examples of people who worked hard at developing an exceptional talent or creating something novel, who were only then picked up by an established social network. He noted that there are many cases of people trying and failing to use networking to advance their careers in the absence of underlying talent. Those who develop a meaningful contribution are more likely to get noticed. The subsequent networking is a consequence, not a driver.

Pfeffer did a good job of acknowledging that being excellent in more ways than one is important. However, he asserted that there is a major distinction between talented people who are not networked, and those who got networked and achieved career breakthrough afterwards.

Pfeffer and Grant agree on a core point, which is that people should aspire to become intrinsically excellent and then extend that excellence with robust networking. They are just debating what-causes-what. I think that everything causes everything else, and that it’s often ridiculous and pointless to find one thing that’s driving everything. For example, I propose that all of those successfully networked people got a great night’s sleep, and their sleep is the main driver of both the intrinsic talent and the excellent networking. That’s just a little example of how easy it is to choose a single driver of excellence. You can always take it back one step and find one thing that is even more important.

In terms of applying the research to our daily efforts, the key issue is to understand network diversity. As a sociological puzzle, it is strange and disturbing how we’re attracted to people who are just like us, how we expect our friends to like each other, and how we get sucked into tiny little cliques of like-minded people. All of these cliques are confirmation-bias echo-chambers filled with ideas and opportunities that only go in circles.

In an article at Entrepreneur magazine, networking expert Ivan Misner emphasizes the importance of diversity in networking efforts. He describes the experience of his colleague Patti Salvucci who arrived early at a networking event in Boston. She struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who was laying out coffee mugs for the meeting. She noticed his great voice and asked about it. It turns out that he used to be a commentator on CNN and had interviewed several public figures including JFK, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He had downshifted and moved to be closer to his daughter. Later at the event, there was another person who confessed that he wanted to start a radio talk show but had no idea where to start. Salvucci recommended he talk to the gentleman who was helping with the coffee, explaining the back-story. Nice connection!

That story shows new opportunities, but sometimes it’s about new opinions. When I was coming around to the realization that I was an atheist, I had a conversation with a colleague about my expectation that everything can be figured out. She had her own spiritual values, and she pressed me on whether it’s possible to have a deep admiration for the unknown. Pshaw, I said, people who lead society shouldn’t be obliging us to believe in anything that lacks evidence. That was my impulse. But her comment grew on me.

A year later I came back to her and confessed that the reason I always pursue evidence is that I am deeply passionate about the unknown. She was happy to leave-be the unknown, and to experience the joy of being surprised by the unexpected. I wanted to overcome the unknown as an obstacle, as an adventure in the pursuit of research and wisdom. We had two variants of a similar opinion. I had to fess-up that she had a great point, and that she had shaken me from a smugness.

Maintaining your cliques is what keeps you in your place. By contrast, the disruption of the established order is largely achieved by finding unusual connections with people who make you uncomfortable in some way. In order to make new connections in untapped areas, you must be brave and choose discomfort. And while maintaining discomfort during civil conversations, you must be curious about the opinions of those you at first think have it wrong. This important work is impossible to do if you lack humility. If you think you have figured everything out, you need to suspend your disbelief, and consider that others can change you for the better. Ask others where they are coming from, get sincere and uncomfortable, and play with the idea of changing your perspective. It’s hard work, but it’s usually the only way to get away from the tried-and-true.

Sincere networking isn’t one thing. It’s several things; attempting courage, enduring discomfort, developing curiosity, feeling a sense of humility, and changing perspectives. If you do all of that in one day, you’ll sleep heavily that night. And when you wake up in the morning, you might realize that you can accomplish anything.

[This is a repost of an article from May 7, 2018]

Be skeptical about predictions of the future workforce

Happy Elsie. Photo courtesy of Martin Cathrae.

How much do we need to think about future job disruption and how it will affect our careers and the lives of our children? Somewhat, but don’t worry about it. There’s a cottage industry of hype and hysteria that grabs your attention and offer foolish solutions that are unrelated to the facts.

The BBC has a great audio article debunking the myth that 65% of future jobs have not yet been invented. Like the good journalists they are, the BBC looked into this “65% of future jobs” statistic and traced it back to the source. They found two authors citing a report that does not exist, at an institute which is reported to have been disbanded, in a jurisdiction (Australia) that doesn’t even recall an institute by that name ever existed. The BBC credits this discovery to blogger Andrew Old who critiques misleading statistics in the education field.

The BBC tried to re-create the 65% figure looking backwards.  Sometimes looking backwards at hard data produces better information than speculative forward-looking estimates. They found that one-third of jobs that exist today didn’t exist a decade ago. That one-third figure includes newly-created jobs where the role had existed somewhere in the labour market but not that position in that particular workplace.

An example would be new teaching jobs created because of population growth; it’s a pre-existing type of job that you could plan your career around, but the positions didn’t exist previously. Job growth allows us to move up in the world, change jurisdictions, sell goods and services to the newly-employed, and engage new labour market entrants coming from graduation, immigration, and returning to work after a break. From this perspective, it’s a very good thing that a large fraction of current jobs didn’t exist a decade prior. I hope this continues.

What Credible Sources Say About Job Disruption

Even still, there may be potential disruptions arising from automation, globalization, and demographic shifts. In an earlier post, I reviewed a McKinsey report that noted 800 million jobs will be eliminated worldwide by technology. However, 800 million is the maximum range of their forecast, and the mid-point is 400 million jobs. The time period is 12 years, so the forecast is 33 million jobs lost per year globally – small for a planet of 7.6 billion inhabitants.

Of the 400 million jobs affected only 75 million will be eliminated altogether, and the rest will have parts of their work eliminated. For many of the roles that have parts of their work eliminated, workers might become a “bot boss” of a new technology that causes people to be more productive, more valued, and experience greater job security.

In another post I reviewed a paper from the World Economic Forum about forecast job losses relative to forecast new opportunities. There is an abundance of opportunity for people to port their skills from a lost job to a new job. On average, we’re going to be okay.

To clarify, when these reports are created they say one thing, but the headlines exaggerate the findings and sell eyeballs to advertisers. Congratulations, the product is you. But wouldn’t you rather become the protagonist in this outrageous game?

How To Take Advantage of Future Work Opportunities

How do you get one of those great new jobs where you leverage the new technology? At the Young Employers’ Council at Inc.com, a helpful article advises people on How to Prepare for a Career That Does Not Exist. In brief, they assert four takeaways:

  • Develop a broad-based skill set
  • Build a large and robust network
  • Excel at whatever you are doing
  • Stay on top of the news and trends

You need to a broad-based skill set to adapt your way into anything new. When a novel challenge presents itself, it is common that there is not an existing skill to deal with it, so newcomers bring skills from their prior profession. I experienced this myself when I entered workforce analytics, bringing in two decades of experience from the compensation and labour economics fields. In addition to tools for modelling in Excel, I knew a few things about consulting, office politics, and human rights in the workplace, all applicable to the new role. By contrast, I have colleagues who bring insights from industrial psychology, mathematics, and engineering. The mixture keeps it alive, people covering each other’s blind spots. The ability to adapt your skills while working through a series of specializations can really set you up for the future.

But you also need to leverage your core education. Broad-based skill includes creating a hybrid of book learning and applied practical smarts. In a Fast Company article referencing undergraduate internships at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, they emphasize the development of “adjacent” skills that blur the line between classroom and workplace:

“Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, says it’s more important to focus on experiential learning… ‘We cannot teach skills we don’t know exist yet,’ she says. ‘We need a different strategy and make sure they’re becoming lifelong learners,’ she says. [She cites a study finding] that experiential learning reinforces theoretical concepts and leads to superior performance.”

In some postsecondary institutions, the new goal is not to prepare students for their first job, it’s to prepare them from a series of jobs in a string of wins-and-losses, on the presumption that there will be plenty of disruption in the future. This scenario requires an agile mindset, high social intelligence, and a personal history of changing context and perspective. There is a call for employers to develop this new mindset as well, but from a top-down perspective, suggesting that employees quitting for better opportunities is a good sign of a dynamic workplace and that employers should empower themselves to keep tabs on former employees as a valued resource over the longer-term.

Back to the Inc article, I think the habit of excelling at whatever you do is vital because employers see the act of excelling as a stand-alone attribute. If there is a brand-new skill area and the employer wants their organization to become excellent at this skill, they may have no opportunity to find someone who already has the skill, let alone have excellence in it. But they can find someone who had recently become excellent at something adjacent. The spirit of excellence is a superpower that can be applied to the new and unknown.

Critical Analysis of the News is More Important Than Ever

The Inc article’s comment on staying on top of the news is the most thought-provoking. My undergraduate degree is in arts, and I find that arts majors can out-perform others shortly after a major change. We know things have changed in the past, and will do so in future, and that some fads are fleeting while human nature persists. And if you don’t have an arts degree, following the news for a few years can give you a really good proxy for this mindset.

Let’s get back to that dubious figure that 65% of future jobs don’t currently exist. The original source was Dr. Cathy Davidson, founding director of The Futures Initiative at NYC University. She says in another interview she stopped using the 65% figure in 2012. In the BBC interview, when pressed on her figures she doubles-down and says that 100% of jobs have been disrupted by technology. But in my former life in compensation, many jobs – particularly in the trades and service sectors – still have accurate job descriptions from the 1970s. 

Then Davidson asserts that the one thing that has not changed is our education system. But I follow the K-12 sector and over the last few decades have seen a number of impressive changes that are grounded in robust research. My three favourites are the boom in early interventions for special needs children, improved vigilance on preventing bullying, the sophisticated and nuanced use of technology in the classroom, and the shift to experiential learning built around the student’s intrinsic motivation.

Sorry, that was four favourites. You caught that, right? If you didn’t, you need to learn how.

Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox

I lift weights because I was quite small as a kid. In grade two, a tall athletic kid named Micah spoke down to me. When I talked-back he threatened: “Watch yourself or there’s going to be trouble.” Things escalated and word got around. We ended up in on the gravel soccer field surrounded by older kids who stood shoulder-to-shoulder so the noon-hour supervisors couldn’t see. One kid showed me how to hold my fist, moving my thumb to the outside, then told me to aim for the nose. In the next two minutes, my opponent hurled verbal threats at me while I got him onto his back and bloodied his nose. The older kids pulled us apart, and said “great fight.”

There used to be a great divide between jocks and nerds. But it’s now obvious there is no meaningful line between a strong brain and a healthy body. You have to have your wholeact together in order to walk into meetings with calm and confidence.

The Effects of Fitness on Workplace Productivity

There is ample evidence that the benefits of physical health translate into intellectual and emotional health. For employers, that means improved bottom lines, as outlined in a 2003 Journal of Exercise Physiology article entitled, “The Relationship Between Fitness Levels and Employee’s Perceived Productivity, Job Satisfaction, and Absenteeism”. The authors are Matthew G. Wattles and Chad Harris.

The study looked at three indicators of workplace effectiveness and four indicators of physical wellbeing. Notably, not all fitness measures were associated with all workplace effectiveness indicators.

  • Muscular strength influenced productivity
  • Cardiovascular endurance influenced job satisfaction
  • Flexibility influenced absenteeism

Amongst those who had increased their activity levels, there was more than an 80% favourable response to questions about exercise affecting their quality of performance, ability to relax, think clearly, and concentrate. Experiencing less fatigue was a big deal because:

“Employees who have more muscular strength would not be as physically taxed as employees with lower strength levels. This may make the employees physical work feel less demanding and may have contributed to their feelings of increased productivity.”

In their literature review, the study cited one paper that found that “the average reported impact of fitness programs on absenteeism is between 0.5 and 2.0 days improvement in attendance/year and it is estimated that the improvement would translate to a dollar savings of 0.35 to 1.4% of payroll costs.”

It’s another case where doing the right thing and making more moneylead to similar conclusions.

Cardiovascular endurance, by contrast, creates a sense that everything is chill. Those with better cardio have less anxiety, more self-esteem, concentrate better, and are more satisfied. Interpretations beyond the evidence were that fitness increased work capacity, reduced minor illness, and provided “…relief from boredom, anxiety or pent-up aggression”.

I wonder if we could reduce aggression in the workplace – and in schools for that matter – if we just got more cardio into people’s lives. A lot of workplace issues relate to struggles between those with different levels of power. Yes, we can cultivate more meaningful conversations between those in the midst of a power imbalance. But people need to be physically calm in the first place.

Related to power imbalance is that results vary between men and women. Fitness improved sick-day absences for women by 32% whereas for men there was no change. This makes sense because fitness improvement is often about bringing women up to a level that already exists for men.

This Girl Can

The “This Girl Can” campaign out of the UK is a best-case scenario for inspiring people to get active. Sports England, a government agency, was concerned about the under-representation of women in sporting activities. In addition to an inspiring video-driven campaign homepage I also found an article in Campaign magazine which provides great drill-down.

The campaign started with a research base that identified that “by every measure, fewer women than men play sport regularly… despite the fact that 75% say they want to be more active.” Digging deeper, they found:

  • Women’s fear of judgment by others is the primary barrier to exercise. In particular, women fear being judged about their ability.
  • 44% of mothers feel guilty if they spend time on themselves instead of their family, in contrast to the fact that men having “hobbies” is encouraged.
  • 48% of women say that getting sweaty is not feminine so being seen sweating causes concerns about their appearance.

If you watch This Girl Can videos and read the write-ups you hear from women who are recovering from a major surgery, getting going after a breakup, or becoming active after having kids. These women had been put in certain place by their circumstances and the way they were born, and have decided to change their lives physically. The campaign created a manifesto:

“Women come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of ability. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bit rubbish or an expert. The point is you’re a woman and you’re doing something.”

Since the campaign, the number of women playing sport is up by 245,200 people over a 12-month period to the end of September 2015.

About the Self-Image of Muslim Women Kickboxers

Regarding all shapes and sizes, Asian Muslim women in Britain have a lot of extra work in overcoming the judgment of others. There’s a great article in Vice about a woman organizing a kickboxing studio geared entirely towards Muslim women. Khadijah Safari is a 5’4” Muay Thai boxing instructor who teaches classes in Milton Keynes, outside of London. In the past 10 years her community experienced a doubling in the size of the visible minority population, up to 26%, of whom 4.8% were Muslim.

The rising ethnic diversity and the occasional act of Islamist terrorism is now wrapped up in a toxic blowback about “British values” at the heart of the Brexit fiasco and open racism in the streets. Women wearing religious headdress feel particularly threatened, telling stories of being spat on and name-called. Instead of “going home” this vulnerable population can instead attend self-defence classes. In these women-only classes, the women remove their hijabs and cover the windows, while they build their muscles, skills, and emotional resilience.

One participant is a 33-year old woman named Afshah who has been in the UK for eight years:

“…I have three kids at home, and I want something for myself,” she says. “…before I came here, I lived in Worcestershire and people would shout ‘Muslim!’ at me in the street. I felt so insecure. I didn’t want to go out. This class has given me a little bit more confidence.”

These women have a great icon to look up to. Ruqsana Begum – known as the Warrior Princess – was the British female boxing champion in 2016 and at the time the only Muslim woman at the top of her sport in the UK. She’s petite, has used her sport to overcome depression, and has gone on to build a business designing and selling sports hijabs. She has a great interview in highsnobiety.com where she sums it up: “I guess for me, no matter what you’re doing it’s all about being the best version of yourself and what you tell yourself is what becomes reality. It starts in your mind and then you make it happen. It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you can pick yourself up.”

Fold the towels first

Towels, by Michael Coghlan
Towels.  Photo courtesy of Michael Coghlan.

This is a quick productivity tip for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the over-abundance of information and obligations.  Fold the towels first.  I first developed this metaphor when I figured out how to “get around to” folding the laundry for my family of four.  There was a big intimidating pile of laundry that I didn’t want to start working on.  So, I just walked up to the pile and pulled out all of the towels, folded them all, and put them away in about five minutes.  I came back to the pile two hours later, and it was about half as big as the last time I looked at it.  There, not so intimidating. Let’s finish the rest of this work.

Similarly, I was able to apply this metaphor to large volumes of errors in spreadsheets full of workforce data.  You see, there is a high likelihood that if you look at all of the problems you need to solve, there is typically one big problem that can be solved really quickly. Think of this as a strike-attack against the intimidation factor.  Just wrap up one big problem then step away from your desk for an hour or for the day.  Come back to your list of woes, and the remaining work should seem far easier.  It works with laundry. It works with big data. And, it could work for you.

Unsubscribe to your biggest spam provider, request a deadline extension on your most unreasonable task, ask for help with that thing that is beyond your ability, or send a courtesy note to that one person you’re worried that you might have offended. It doesn’t always work out this way, but when it does work, it’s incredibly empowering.

[Repost from October 7, 2017]

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.