When someone steps forward in a manner that sets themselves apart from the crowd, are they a natural leader? Natural leader, maybe. Better leader, perhaps not. Quiet people can be better at leadership.
A gentleman named BG Allen has pulled together a compendium of resources on the topic of introverted leaders. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Susan Cain’s blockbuster TED Talk on the Power of Introverts and related book, introverts are reluctantly being put into the spotlight as potentially great contributors to society. Introverts are being overlooked and misunderstood because they are in the minority and the nature of their difference reduces the likelihood their views will be heard.
Allen has found multiple sources that get into the unique contribution of introverts as leaders. I tried to find if Allen had written a book about this. He hasn’t, but an Amazon search on “introverted leader” reveals a dozen books on the topic. There are great articles in Allen’s compendium, from Fast Company, Forbes, and Psychology Today. The Psychology Today article cites studies showing that introverted leaders that are not just adequate, they can also be superior leaders.
Although I am an extravert, I have personally benefitted
from strong introverted leaders over the years.
You might have experienced the same thing. When we are at our very best, we come from a
strong sense of internal strength, knowing our values and thoughts with a clear
sense of introspection. I look up to the
strong introverts in my life who seem to be the masters of this internal
journey. It would be a good thing if we
could cultivate this virtue in teams and in society by putting introverts in
roles where they can lead by example and help others develop this strength.
As I aspire to be a better leader, I find that I’m a little
bit stronger when I hang back a little and let others talk. I’m more clear-headed if I wonder why I think
the things I think. And I can cause
others to be stronger by taking care to understand what’s going on inside their own head and heart, independent of
what sprang into my own mind seconds ago.
I think this emerging evidence of introverted leaders is best understood when you think of who are the very worst leaders. The very worst leaders are those with poor emotional intelligence, bullies, narcissists, people who value their own excellence first and negate the contribution of juniors, and most importantly those who get ahead by smooth-talking their way into the next promotion. These personality vices are often the mark of the extravert. In order for an extravert to become increasingly excellent at leadership they must avoid these pitfalls, seek solitude, and look inside themselves just a little more often than comes naturally to them. Just pretend to be a little bit shy, and you might achieve greatness. And if you’re already like that to begin with, be proud about it. And tell somebody.
[This is an edited re-post of “Then The Introvert Spoke, And
It Was Good” from November 16, 2017.]
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
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
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
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
You’ll need the rest. Because tomorrow is another person.
[The above is a modified repost of an article from December
Is it just me, or have there been an awful lot of career-advice articles in social media about “X is more important than IQ for career success”? The articles are usually about a specific attribute that truly moves people forward to accomplish life goals. But on closer examination, general intelligence can be brought to bear on all of these “more important” attributes such that IQ is the true cornerstone.
Leadernomics.com has a great infographic about eight things that are more important than IQ for career success. Those items are:
Self-Regulation. Take time to think before you act, and manage your emotions prior to reacting to negative situations.
Growth Mindset. Carol S. Dweck makes the case (which I summarize here) that excellence is not a set point but rather an act of becoming. Welcome challenges and setbacks as learning experiences and opportunities to improve and grow.
Resilience. When you fail, don’t let it get to you — persevere, try something different, and keep trying. This is the “grit” made famous by Angela Duckworth in her TED Talk and book.
Passion. Hidden in the research about the 10,000-hour rule to becoming exceptional is a graveyard of broken hearts. Many people lost the passion for their true calling after a few hundred hours of experience. A mean coach, strict parents, performance-contingent rewards, and a long list of deal-breakers can suck the life out of anyone’s potential. It’s the passion that nets the hours, and the hours cause the talent. Guard your passions like a precious gem.
Empathy. The ability to feel the feelings of your clients and colleagues allows you to work with them on things that are important to them. Empathy develops that closeness and warmth at the root of great relationships. Empathy is a key ingredient in Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability and shame. It’s critical to feel the feelings of others in order to help them with those things that bother them the most.
Conscientiousness. These people are disciplined, compliant, and plan ahead. Salt-of-the-earth people get things done, allowing others to rely on them, building trust and teamwork. In my experience, you can be conscientious but not be recognized, so you may need some other behavior to turn this quality into gold, such as boasting or billing.
Openness to Experience. More to the point, curiosity. Curious people are four times as likely to succeed in class. Curiosity is a mixture of several other attributes above, but does deserve its own word. It’s easiest to understand why curiosity is important when you look at it in reverse and imagine those who are uncurious. Admit it, you want them to fail.
Social Skills. This is a sincere other-orientation where you can, according to the leadernomics.com article, “network, function in a team and bring people together…” At this point we’re getting into a magic-jelly attribute that’s really just dozens of mini-skills pulled together by experience.
You may recognize self-regulation, empathy, and social skills as the key elements of emotional intelligence, as described by Dan Goleman in his book by the same name. Goleman makes the case that our wellbeing and social advancement is strongly influenced by an emotionally-awakened ability to pull together meaningful relationships and interactions. The evidence is strong that mutual understanding at an emotional level is critical to having a good life. Relationships are important, and you cannot finesse relationships with logic alone.
The evidence is strong that mutual understanding at an emotional level is critical to having a good life. Relationships are important, and you cannot finesse relationships with logic alone.
Can Low IQ Undermine Other Types of Intelligence?
But sometimes IQ is still critical to success. A few years ago, I watched an event at the Special Olympics which my workplace was hosting. I was doing Olympic lifts as part of my fitness routine, and I was curious to see what the activity looked like for those with an intellectual disability. Lifting can be a brain game. Any lack of focus and concentration can cause failure. You need to calculate the correct weight, approach the bar as if it’s the only thing in your world, and put all of your focus into one thing: lift this weight. If your thoughts under-perform,they can cause the body to under-perform.
One contestant at the Special Olympics was a large fellow who was the previous year’s champion. He made two really impressive lifts at a high weight, the last of which was obviously near his maximum (the beet-red face is the give-away). He only needed to make one last lift that was equal to his previous one, and he would become champion once again. But instead, he asked to have an additional twenty pounds put onto the bar. He pulled and pulled but the bar wouldn’t budge. He didn’t place because he had not made three successful lifts.
I thought to myself, did his intellectual disability affect his athletic performance? Was it entirely up to him to choose to add twenty pounds? What was his emotional state when he made this decision? Was he over-confident? Did he perceive that today was going to be his best day ever? I also wonder if he learned from this experience, and whether he would persevere and came back with a vengeance next year.
Are There MultipleTypes of Intelligence?
Watching this athlete attempt his third lift was intriguing to me because of the disparities in his talents. There’s a debate about whether there is more than one type of intelligence. Howard Gardner is the author of several articles and a book on the topic. Gardner proposes the theory that there are in eight different intellectual ‘modalities.’ The first three items – visual-spatial, linguistic-verbal, and logical mathematical – resemble those abilities tested in IQ tests. Two others – interpersonal and intrapersonal – once again match the emotional intelligence indicators described by Goleman. Then there are the two modalities where it’s possible to become a world-famous star in sport or music – bodily-kinesthetic and musical-rhythmic.
But Gardner’s theory starts to falls apart when he gets to naturalistic intelligence because he names a specific subject-area, which is biology. Why biology but not other disciplines? This puzzle brings into question whether a specific interest in nature or music or math are just the canvas onto which intelligence is applied. Indeed, Gardner starts with seven intelligences, but then adds existential, moral, and naturalistic intelligences. At this point, we’re on a slippery slope to the full list in the Clifton strengths assessment, which itself has stronger empirical basis and a broad public appeal.
One Intelligence toRule Them All
Can someone with a really strong IQ just become good at the non-logic intelligences? There is some evidence that this is the case, when we look into something called the “g factor.” The g factor is the notion that there is a core type of general intelligence (g = general). According to the evidence, this intelligence passes-through into the sub-variants of other types of intelligence. When studies extract this g factor from several batteries of tests, the varied g-factor measurements are extremely similar regardless of the type of test. And, there’s always a positive relationship between someone’s g factor and their measures of other intelligence types, ranging from 10-90% with an average “g load” of 60%.
But there’s heated debate about whether there is an underlying single type of intelligence, probably because of a touchy social critique. The g factor implies that people have a fate and are destined for a set path in life, like Oedipus or Macbeth. This is disturbing, it feels unfair, and if it were true, a lot of people would wish it weren’t so. By contrast, the multiple intelligences theory brings to mind the legend of stone soup in which a visitor comes to town and places a stone in a giant pot. He asks for help, and everyone in the village throws in their own special ingredient, a metaphor for diversity in talents. The village boils up the soup, it’s delicious, and everyone gets to eat. Society rocks!
I love the stone soup story, but to clarify, it’s about exceptional sociology. A clever visitor manages to get a great meal for free. The visitor is a leader, has a collective orientation, and he is strong on Gardner’s interpersonal intelligence. However, we could also interpret that the visitor also has a strong g-score. On one hand, we don’t want geniuses to hoard all the money and power, but on the other hand, we want to harness genius such that it contributes to collective wellbeing. I think the research about intelligence and the way we discuss it in the public sphere is strongly influenced by these kinds of social and political forces. Notwithstanding the evidence, we’re entitled to influence these social forces as citizens.
We don’t need to reject the notion that brain power drives positive results. We need the context, the wisdom, and the agency to organize ourselves such that society moves forward, together. And we’re going to need that big guy to get the rock into the pot.
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 bookLean 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
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
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 anabstraction 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:
Use the greatness in you (individual
Engage the greatness in others (leadership)
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
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.
Does work give meaning to your life? I sure hope not.
Careers, on close examination, are an extremely
useless vehicle for delivering a holistic life purpose. If you’re extremely
busy you may not have had time to consider this. But it’s healthy to take the
idea for a test drive.
Your Career Does Not
This summer I was at the staff BBQ, to which everyone’s family
were invited. The husband of one of the senior leaders, whom I had not yet met,
was free for conversation. Here’s the hard part. In my late twenties, I read
Miss Manners to learn those mainstream social skills not instilled in me by my
hippie parents. One obscure item of tact is that it’s not always proper to ask
what someone does for a living. People can choose to divulge, but it’s
sometimes rude to demand that a first impression is built around one’s current
career success. There is more to a person than their career, and demanding
their career identity is limiting and possibly demeaning.
So, I asked this man how long he had known his wife. They
met in their late teens in the same small town they had both grown up in, and
they had been together ever since. Being who I am, I regurgitated the statistic
that couples who meet before age 23 have a much higher divorce rate than
everyone else. They tend to evolve into
their true selves as they mature, usually in contradictory ways. Why were
they doing so well?
“We each grew, but together. We made decisions as a couple
about how we wanted to change, and we followed that path together, as a team.”
What would it mean if we could simply decide who to become?
There are a lot of constraints put upon us by society, telling us that we must
be this or that. What if instead of imposing constraints on each other we
supported one another’s individual hopes and dreams? If this behaviour were
normal, I can’t decide if I would think more about myself or what I could do
for others. Is true success mostly about our conversations with friends and
family and where we are going as a team?
What is Careerism?
Careers, by contrast, might not be all they’re chalked up to be. According to an article in Quartz by Andrew Taggart from July 2018 entitled The Case Against Careers:
“A career is a first-person work-centric story of progress about an individual’s life course, a story that confers a sense of purpose and unity upon specific work experiences (internships, jobs, gigs…) as well as a staid identity (journalist, firefighter, accountant…) …The aim of the career, and therefore of the careerist’s life, is work success.” [Emphasis added]
This is a great definition of career because it spells out some presumptions that are worthy of dispute. For example, if you had a good self-definition would it be work-centric? If your whole life is your spouse and your spouse dies, you lose your identity. If your whole life is fitness and you become disabled, you lose your identity. And if your whole life is your career and it gets derailed, you can’t look to your healthy body and your robust personal relationship to carry you through hard times.
In order to be resilient in a world of constant change, you need several identities in place before adverse events occur. That way you can be four-fifths “complete” when hit by hard times. And real people are weird; they have sincere internal contradictions that make them uncomfortable at times. There are mumsy types sneaking off to roller-derby, health enthusiasts who love their chips, and happily married people who put a little too much effort into looking good at the office. But being weird also turns out to be universal, so it’s fine to get used to this kind of thing. More than anything, we need to value complex thought as the rest of the world becomes contradictory in its own right.
Developing a clear identity gives you resilience that is a
solid base from which to be brave, take risks, and shrug off threats from toxic
people and a world gone mad. By contrast, a singular focus on the careerist
mindset is a path to personal ruin that exposes you to extremely reliable
Your career tells your first-person
story. But increasingly our workplace effectiveness is determined by how
well we dovetail with our superiors, subordinates, and our peers, both inside
and outside the organization. Do we help each other, have each other’s back,
and speak to one another with a respectful and considerate voice? Your
surrounding network is so influential, your existence at work cannot truthfully be a first-person story.
There’s a great TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan who cites research by a scientist named William Muir. Muir ran an experiment that attempted to breed chickens that were top performing in producing eggs. The surprise outcome was that after several generations these “super-chickens” had almost pecked each other to death. Super-chickens as individual performers become excellent by hoarding the best resources and belittling others.
Coops built around super-chickens under-performed the
control group of chickens made of equals. Heffernan makes the case that real workplace productivity is increasingly
about teams working together with a sense of helping and collaboration. By
contrast, the egos and demands of star-performers can cause teams to fail. Back
to the definition of career, the first-person story is less important than the story of the team. Careerism is sounding,
increasingly, like it’s not so clever.
Why Do Careers Fail
to Deliver Ultimate Fulfillment?
Taggart asserts that before the ascent of careerism,
humanity was built around higher visions advanced by organized religion. When
humanity mostly abandoned religion, this sense of purpose was thrown out as
well. Taggart asserts that there is a “vital existential anxiety” in the human
experience that cannot be remedied or brought to peace through our career
In order to achieve life meaning, we must seek transcendent experiences, Taggart suggests. The main feature of spirituality (an individual experience) and religion (a group experience) is that they offer transcendence, taking us beyond the day-to-day. But, by its very nature, work is fundamentally mundane. As meager compensation for abandoning transcendent spiritual quests we are given tasks that give us a sense of meaningless work.
In the typical workplace, purpose is undefined and often kept a secret. If purpose gives us our place in the cosmos, organized religion, at least, puts in a good effort. However, work imposes upon us a secret cult of stuffy clothing, buzzwords, and parlour games where we mimic the views of the highest-paid person who has a relative absence of baby-face. If you were not religious, and you had a good plan to replace God, surely you would turn to something lofty and impressive such as science or art or philosophy. To turn up at your workplace on a Sunday when the air is turned off and your friends and family are absent has got to be the Worst. Religion. Ever.
Don’t Scare the
Taggart is most bothered that we always ask children what
they want to do for a job when they grow up:
“Instead, we should ask our children how, in a fundamental sense, they wish to live; what and for whom they wish to care; … what, or for whom, they’d be willing to die; in what ways they can be open to what life brings them; and how they can, as they lay dying, be so sated with life that they close their eyes free of regrets and resentments and at peace with all that is. …To kill the career—call it the Death of the Career–is to begin to wake up to life.”
It’s been a good thought exercise, but I’ll have to draw the line right there. I won’t be starting any death-talk with children at the staff BBQ. You don’t need to read Miss Manners to know it’s a bad idea to make children cry. And there, but for the grace of God, go I.
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
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.
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.
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.