The one sentence summary
People with experience of many fields are often more fulfilled and successful at solving tricky challenges than experts.
WHAT THE BOOK SAYS
- Most of what you have read about how to succeed in life is wrong. From the 10,000 hours rule to tiger parenting, we have been taught that success in any field requires early specialization and many hours of deliberate practice, and that if you dabble or delay you’ll never catch up with those who got a head start. It’s not true, so don’t feel behind.
- In fact, the way to succeed is to sample widely, gain a breadth of experiences, take detours, and juggle many interests – in other words, develop range. In most fields, it is generalists, not specialists, who are primed to excel. Failing a test is often the best way to learn, and frequent quitters usually end up with the most fulfilling careers.
- The cult of the head start is wrong. Less of the same can often equal more.
- Too much grit means people stick at things for too long, even when they aren’t enjoying it or necessarily achieving much.
- Flirting with your possible selves is the way to find out what you are really good at, or really want to do. Switchers are winners.
- Outsiders can have an advantage looking in on something experts have been trying to solve, because they have wider perspective. Experts are, of course, no better at forecasting than non-experts*. Experts in silos are often outthought by people who can bring in thinking from outside a particular domain. So being a deliberate amateur has advantages.
- In a kind learning environment (golf, chess) the student improves simply by observation and repeated practice (narrow critical competence). This is not true in wicked environments, where the rules are often unclear or incomplete. Chess is 99% tactics (many small patterns), but that isn’t the same as strategy – the whole picture.
- Specialism here leads to chunking – recognising shapes specifically. We take the inside view based on narrow details, and succumb to functional fixedness. But the world is more like Martian tennis – you can see people on court with rackets and a ball, but no one has shared the rules.
- Those with broad interests travel down an eight-lane highway rather than a single-lane one-way street, avoiding the same old patterns, taking knowledge from one area and applying it to another. They dance across disciplines. You need a mental Swiss army knife, because no tool is omnicompetent. Thinking by analogy is best – analogical thinking.
- People with range have a high tolerance for ambiguity, knowledge from peripheral domains, an ability to repurpose what is already available, and can connect disparate pieces of information in new ways.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
- Match quality describes the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are – their abilities and proclivities.
- You need a constantly open mind: “You have to carry a big basket to bring something home.” Polymaths are always aware of the adjacent stuff.
- Context is essential. It’s not who or what you are, it’s when you are. We learn who we are in practice, not theory – first act, then think.
- Overall, the best combination on a team is birds and frogs – high level broad vision combined with on the ground detail. Generalists work out a narrative and what questions to ask – then the specialists can answer them It’s mosaic building.
WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH
- The book is highly detailed, so it depends on how much the reader wants to become immersed in the stories that explain the theme.
*See Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock.