Today’s awkward is tomorrow’s cool


Prom 1983. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kitzmiller.

In this disruptive era, it’s as if all of the adults became anxious and depressed teenagers at a high-school dance, after we just got 51% on a big exam, and our crush sent mixed signals just before they moved away. It seems that the adults are just as susceptible to adolescent anxiety as the teenagers are.

Every job in every sector is under intense change, and at the very least we’ll each have to pick up some new tools and apply them to our current job just to break even. But it’s far more likely that your job is the subject of a double-or-nothing bet.

Can people change? Yes, but they have to work at it. There is an interesting article from the British Psychological Society about malleable personalities. The idea of a malleable personality is that we can change who we are based on the circumstances, or in a chosen direction of who we want to be. This idea is newer than most people think.

There has been a shift in psychiatry away from the decades-long theory that our brains are fixed after a certain age. Instead, our brains are subject to neuroplasticity, in which we are always growing and adapting. I was first exposed to the concept a decade ago by Dr. Norman Doidge in his 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself.

Doidge was one of the earliest researchers in the psychiatry of neuroplasticity. He had a really hard time convincing fixed-mindset people in his own field that people can change. Major shifts in scientific thinking can take decades within the academic discipline. Then the researchers need to convince the general public, which takes even longer.

So, let’s see how quickly we can pick up a new concept and apply it to our lives, starting now.

The newer research about malleable personalities was about helping teenagers cope with anxiety and depression. The researchers created a 30-minute video for teens to watch, explaining some new concepts:

“They heard from older youths saying they believe people can change, and from others saying how they’d used belief in our capacity for change (a “growth mindset”) to cope with problems like embarrassment or rejection. The teenagers learned strategies for applying these principles…” (Emphasis added)

The study showed noticeable improvements, relative to a control group, in depression and anxiety over a nine-month period. The study looked at both the self-reporting by the teens and the opinions of those teens’ parents. The researchers were particularly enthusiastic that this brief video is scale-able, can be offered to all teens universally, and can set up kids for a more successful intervention later in their lives.

Adopting a Growth Mindset in a Changing Workplace and Changing World

Although the study is limited to teens in a clinical sample, the findings may be relevant to the general population’s adaptability to change. Workplaces are in upheaval because of technology and globalization. Every region is gripped by either unemployment or unaffordable housing. Inequality and social media are making people increasingly anxious they haven’t made it. Democracies are vulnerable to demagogues who offer temptations to turn back the clock.

In the workplace, what should we do?

Adopt a growth mindset, change our personalities as we see fit, and give ourselves permission to become two or more different types of people. Scheme to have a backup plan or a side-hustle. Put down the smartphone and start reading. Regard societal upheaval as a topic of exceptional cocktail banter.

Then talk about your feelings, eat a sandwich, and have a nap.

You’ll need the rest. Because tomorrow is another person.

[The above is a modified repost of an article from December 27, 2017]

Waking up is not a competition

Shadows. By Stuart Murray
Photo by author.

Do you have a strange pang of guilt about your wake-up time?  You shouldn’t. People have varied natural wake-up times, and the “best” time to wake up appears to be extremely personal.

One of the more important workplace numbers – and one that is rarely discussed – is the normal hours of work and the degree to which hours are flexible. Work hours are a big deal because people need to make a lot of trade-offs between family size, housing, commuting distance, and family care obligations. In an office environment, while it’s good to have a general sense of when we want people around for meetings, it also makes sense to ensure peoples’ work and home lives to be compatible.

Wake Time is Mostly Genetic

One item that complicates normal work hours is peoples’ sleep times.  While a lot of people have a typical sleep pattern of 11pm-7am, plenty of people tend to be early risers or night owls. The variety of sleep times are linked to something called chronotype. There are many news articles implying that waking early is virtuous, but there is little discussion of whether we can choose to change our sleep patterns. My reading of the research shows mixed results amongst those attempting to change their wake time.

There are several genetic variables that affect chronotype. The Wikipedia entry on the topic notes that “there are 22 genetic variants associated with chronotype.” The sleep cycle is related to our levels of melatonin and our variations in body temperature. Age has a major impact on sleep patterns. Children and those aged 40-60 are more likely to be early risers, while teens and young adults are more likely to be night owls.

In an HBR article from 2010, biology professor Christoph Randler was interviewed about an article he published on sleep cycles. He cited one study that found that “…about half of school pupils were able to shift their daily sleep-wake schedules by one hour. But significant change can be a challenge. About 50% of a person’s chronotype is due to genetics.”

Looking into people’s personal experiences in attempting to wake up earlier, they will often emphasize discipline and routine in waking up properly. Other articles identify wake-up technologies that oblige you get out of bed promptly. The best overview that I could find comes from lifehacker.org, which has a great infographic on why and how to become an early riser.

Dr. Randler notes that evening people tend to be smarter, more creative, have a better sense of humor, and be more outgoing. By contrast, morning people “hold the important cards” as they get better grades and the opportunities that arise from them. Morning people anticipate problems and minimize them, and are more proactive. “A number of studies have linked this trait, proactivity, with better job performance, greater career success, and higher wages.”

Team Productivity and Genetic Diversity

What is notable is that early risers have the traits that are most beneficial for their personal effectiveness and their personal career success.  This is troublesome. You see, if early risers are more likely to get into positions of power and status they are also more likely to end up with a captive audience through which they can imply that others should be more like them. This may be a factor in the early-rising hype.

I would assert that an employer must always look beyond individual performance and pay close attention to teamwork. It is common for some behaviours to cause one person get ahead to the detriment of the team, and part of good management is to nip this in the bud and put the team first. If there is a solid talent pool of night owls who bring smarts and creativity which is historically less recognized in grades or career advancement, their contribution might be strong and also under-appreciated. We must consider what is best for the entire workplace, and cultivate the best contributions from all sleep types.

If the purpose of our diversity and employment-equity efforts is to get the best out of all people regardless of how they were born, perhaps we should be open-minded about sleep patterns. The correct moral standard should be inclusiveness and team effectiveness.

Dr. Randler, who is from Germany, is quick to acknowledge that our bias towards early-rising is more circumstantial than fact-based:

“Positive attitudes toward morningness are deeply ingrained. In Germany, for example, Prussian and Calvinist beliefs about the value of rising early are still pervasive. Throughout the world, people who sleep late are too often assumed to be lazy. The result is that the vast majority of school and work schedules are tailored to morning types. Few people are even aware that morningness and eveningness have a powerful biological component.”

We can’t choose to be a morning type any more than we can choose to be tall, male, white, a baby boomer, or someone with executive-face. And for that matter, we can’t choose to be Prussian. Under what circumstances would we oblige everyone to fit a single standard of excellence that elevates one genetic type to be superior to the rest? Didn’t we sort this out already?

[The above is a repost of an article from January 2, 2018]

Is Lean In really gaslighting?

Photo Courtesy of Drew Altizer.

Can you pull yourself up by your bootstraps to overcome an injustice you have faced? It really does depend. There’s a thriving debate about whether women should act as individuals or as part of a collective when fighting for equality. Quartz recently ran an insightful article about the impact of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and her related TED talk. While Lean In has received a great deal of critique from all corners, the article in Quartz argues that Sandberg negated systematic discrimination and told women they can personally overcome discrimination by taking individual action.

The Quartz article is titled All Career Advice for Women is a Form of Gaslighting. Gaslighting is when an abuser contradicts your understanding of reality, perhaps telling you the opposite of what you know is true, in a persistent manner that causes you to question your sanity. The key moment is when the abuser says you’re making things up in your head, or that you’re going crazy. If you’re in good shape, you identify that the problem is the abuser and take action. Otherwise, you could endure mistreatment for years. This definition doesn’t really match Sheryl Sandberg’s critique. Sandberg rightfully describes structural issues about how women’s careers are held back by the system, and then proceeds to offer tips to get ahead. It’s individuals engaging with society, and her advice is fair game.

What the Research Says

The Quartz article and a similar overview in Harvard Business Review summarize fresh research from December 2018. (For the full study, see Kim, J. Y., Fitzsimons, G. M., & Kay, A. C. (2018). Lean In messages increase attributions of women’s responsibility for gender inequality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 974-1001.)

The paper covers six large-sample studies that look at how people judge women’s inequality based on messages they are fed. The main variable is a polarized portrayal of Sheryl Sandberg’s critique. In one sample, researchers only quoted Sandberg’s analysis of systemic discrimination, and people who saw this message came away with the impression that sexism was society’s responsibility and that we need to band together to change the system. In the other sample, they only quoted Sandberg’s advice on what individual women can do to improve their lot in life and get past everyday sexism. In that case people perceived that it was women’s individual responsibility to overcome sexism, and that women themselves are the cause of the sexism.

This notion that women cause sexism is victim-blaming. The researchers attribute this thinking to a kind of mental gymnastics that people indulge in to get past the discomfort that there is injustice in the world. But logically, victim-blaming is malfunctioning thinking. If you take reality seriously you must perceive injustice as it occurs and contribute voice and effort to remedy it.

The academic article is most concerned that people can’t disentangle causation and solution in their own minds:

“Responsibility for the problem, in this model, describes responsibility for the origin of the problem, or causal responsibility. Responsibility for the solution, in contrast, describes responsibility for finding a solution, or control over outcomes. …the two forms of responsibility are conceptually distinct, but will often be correlated.” [Emphasis added]

And indeed the research did find that the two were mixed up together in peoples’ head such that people became individualists or collectivists based on what messages they were fed.

How the Story Evolved Beyond the Research

Then it gets sticky. There are individual reasons why some people thrive and others fail, much as there are systemic factors that change a person’s odds of doing well. Therefore, there is a combination of collective and individual strategies to pursue women’s equality. If a woman is born petite, she can take up kickboxing and stare down physical intimidation. Conversely, if a woman had chosen a career which streamed her into a lower-wage workplace, she could still sign a union card and participate in a group effort that improves her life chances.

Even if people agreed that inequality was societal, that does not prove that all solutions must be collective. Social justice advocates are quick to acknowledge that you need a diversity of tactics to achieve your goals. It is not authoritatively true that individualism and collectivism fall on some great divide, with one being good and the other being bad.   

We all need to aspire to a nuanced view, but that’s not where critics took things. The authors of the Quartz article and the study itself seize on the one-half of the research sample that deliberately skews Sandberg’s message as individualist, asserting that do-it-yourself (DIY) feminism is bad news.

These people are like those tourists that went around Europe taking snapshots of themselves at the locations of the fictional events in The Da Vinci Code. Although there are real individualists out there, in this study Sandberg’s self-loathing misogynistic individualism was an abstraction fabricated for research purposes only. Now, social critics are weighing-in that if choosing between two polar opposites – a fabricated individualism or a fabricated collectivism – women must favour collectivism as “correct.” But the problem is not that causation and solution are actually twinned and people must choose between individualism and collectivism. It’s that if we revert to polarized thinking, individualists tend to win.

How To Actually Become an Executive

There are better sources to turn to if you are trying to get promoted. Elsewhere in the TED Talks, Susan Colantuono delivers a talk entitled The Career Advice You Probably Didn’t Get. Women are already well-represented in middle-management, the question is why do they not get beyond that. Colantuono found that a good executive must be good at three things:

  1. Use the greatness in you (individual effectiveness)
  2. Engage the greatness in others (leadership)
  3. Achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes (business, strategic, and financial acumen)

The first two items are important for getting into middle management. When women are given career advice it is disproportionately in areas in the first two categories: self-promote, get a mentor, network, and speak up. Corporate talent and performance management systems are highly devoted to engaging the greatness in others, the second of the two competencies. That’s not going to make a difference for this problem.

That is because when assessing executive potential, the third item is valued twice as heavily as each of the other two. Women have truly been kept in the dark that they need to know more about finance and strategy in order to get an executive job. To clarify, society has withheld this information from women (i.e. the causation is collective). However, because each person’s best learning hinges on individual interest and personal goals, women need to determine that this advice is accurate and change their own course as individuals. That is, if becoming an executive is important to them.

The majority of executives (63%) perceive they do not have strategic alignment with everyone rowing in the same direction. Colantuono proposes that one of reasons why there is not strategic alignment is that those women who are half of middle management have not received clear messaging that they need to be “…focused on the business, where it’s headed, and their role in taking it there…” The culprit is not clever-and-efficient sexism, it’s incompetence but with a gendered filter. It’s squarely within the responsibility of men in power to remedy this issue, if they plan on being any good at their day jobs. Boards, CEOs, HR Executives, and individual managers must all change their mindsets in order to turn this around.

In this context it doesn’t seem at all like women have to choose between a collective or individual orientation. Women aspiring to executive roles need to have a clear sense of the collective vision of the organization and figure out how they’re going to lead their team towards that collective purpose. If anything is gaslighting, it is the deliberate misquoting of Sandberg’s work. In her TED talk, Sandberg spends a fair amount of time describing appropriate trade-offs between women’s household collective orientation and their workplace collective orientation. Indeed in May of 2016, a year after her husband died, Sandberg acknowledged that “Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right…” She acknowledged this two years before the research that polarized her comments.

Women with busy careers make frequent trade-offs about when they will take care of themselves and when they will take care of the group. It will ever be circumstantial which decisions are the right ones, and which tactics will actually work. Nobody knows this better than the very social justice leaders who foster individual agency when they encourage vulnerable populations to pick up a picket sign and protest.

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]

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.”

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.