In his bestseller “Long Live the Generalist!” David J. Epstein analyzes personalities from the present and history and shows why generalists are more successful in a specialized world of change.
The debate about the advantages and disadvantages of professional specialization is old:
- Some say that specialization is the key to success. In order to master skills, instruments or topics, you have to start early and practice for a long time.
- Others say that only a broad, universal ideal of education will produce the best results.
David J. Epstein takes the second position in his rich and passionately arguing book. He pleads – entertaining and up-to-date – for a more agile concept of education. He cites historical examples as well as scientific studies. Among other things, in his bestseller he analyzes outstanding personalities from business and science, but also exceptional artists such as Vincent van Gogh or professional athletes such as tennis player Roger Federer and professional golf player Tiger Woods. His conclusion: generalists may start later, but are usually more creative, more agile and have a broader perspective.
Success in times of change
Epstein believes that generalists are better equipped than specialists for our changing times of change. What is right or wrong can often not be said with certainty.
Technical experts would often develop tunnel vision and tend to overestimate themselves. The isolated observation of tiny sections of an overall picture is not enough, however, to cope with the greatest challenges of mankind, no matter how high-resolution the picture of this section is. Often it is outsiders who use unorthodox approaches to solve problems that specialists are struggling with.
When generalists are confronted with new situations, they can fall back on a wide range of experiences and react flexibly. They are better able to cope with the complexity and uncertainty that prevail today.
A broad horizon of experience and knowledge helps to cope with poorly defined challenges and without reliable rules in a learning-unfriendly world. A high degree of flexibility to adapt to new situations is the key to success.
Modern work requires knowledge transfer
Modern work demands knowledge transfer. This requires the ability to transfer knowledge acquired in one area to other areas and problems. The more diverse the experiences that someone has, the better this transfer succeeds. Exactly this is a plus point for generalists and distinguishes them from specialists.
The same applies to a zigzag course in learning. It leads to more sustainable and flexibly applicable results than a straight path. Today’s education systems – according to Epstein’s criticism – ignore the importance of broad, diverse knowledge that can be transferred from one area to another. The aim of education should be to give space to try things out.
Far more effective than stupid memorization is so-called nested learning. With this method, the acquired skills are tested on tasks and examples from a wide variety of areas instead of always on the same questions. In the long run, it will produce more sustainable results. In addition, knowledge acquired in this way can be better applied to unknown situations.
About the Author David J. Epstein
David J. Epstein has worked as a journalist for ProPublica and Sports Illustrated and is the author of several books. In the following video you can see him giving a TED talk about successful careers:
Long live the generalist! as a book or summary
The book has 352 pages. You can get it from Amazon:
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