"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Productivity
September 16, 2021

You Can Be Good At Several Things

The common advice for finding success is to specialize. But you can choose a different way. You can be good at several things over the course of your life.

“You have to choose one thing and stick to it.” We were in a church hall. Bright fluorescent lights in the low ceiling gave everyone’s faces a harsh, pale glow. An older man was giving me a lecture. He was wealthy, white, born on the rich side of town. I’m an immigrant kid from a working-class neighbourhood. The week before, I’d given the sermon. This week, I’d just finished playing guitar in the church service. I’d already had a brief career as a professional musician and was now on the way to becoming an academic. He seemed to find this combination of skills problematic. “You don’t want people to think of you as a dilettante,” he advised.

We’ll come back to that word, dilettante, later.

For now, I want to consider his main argument. You have to focus on one thing. You have to specialize.

It feels like smart advice.

So much so that you probably felt obliged to specialize early on, maybe while you were still in your mid-teens.

Specialization is hard-wired into our culture. But is this a good thing? Is it the answer for everyone and the only path to “success”?

Embracing Our Range

This excessive focus on specialization is called into question in David Epstein’s book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World. Epstein suggests when the rules of a game are clear and the challenges predictable, then specialists shine. This is particularly true in sports, for example.

But life, for most of us, isn’t like that. The rules are unclear, they change over time, and the problems we face are unlike the ones we learn to solve in school.

Time and again, Epstein highlights where specialists, when faced with challenging and novel problems, rely on their established expertise and struggle to find answers.

It’s not that experts are naïve. They just find it hard to think outside their specialization.

Epstein cites research by James Flynn, a researcher and academic who lectured in political studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand, studied the ability of students to apply insights from a range of specialties to real-world problems. His results were eye-opening. Flynn found no correlation between students’ grades and their ability to solve such problems. Most students couldn’t think outside their discipline, evaluate truth claims, or distinguish value judgements from scientific conclusions. Business majors did poorly on everything. Biology, chemistry, and English majors struggled with everything outside their specialization.

Economics majors did best, perhaps because economics is now interdisciplinary, drawing on insights from behavioural studies, neuroscience and statistics to understand people’s decisions.

Real-world problems require that kind of complex and diverse thinking. Even within a speciality like medicine, understanding something as mundane as how we respond to a paper cut requires thinking about a range of bodily processes that are all simultaneously at work.

Find Me In A Coffeeshop

“Live long enough and you can get good at a few things.” That’s me speaking, probably in some hip cafe somewhere, trying to answer a question about how I do all the things I’m known for doing.

It’s not great advice. But I’m not sure how else to put it. Typically, I’m being asked by someone younger than me who is trying to make room in their life for some serious creative pursuit. They can already feel mid-life closing in around them.

There’s a natural impatience in people who find themselves in this situation. They want to try their hand at something and not feel like it was a waste of time.

We overestimate what we can achieve in the short term. We think that if we practise something for an hour a day, be it guitar or photography, we’ll be noticeably better in a month. We think a quick, heroic effort will pay off. It seldom does.

But we underestimate how much we can change over time. Practise well for 20 minutes a day, every day for a few years, and excellence will follow. Modest amounts of effort daily are better than sporadic, intense attempts.

Creativity And Repetition

Another fascinating study Epstein quotes looked at creativity in the comic book industry. Alva Taylor and Henrich Greve wanted to look at the factors that made comic book creators commercially successful.

Taylor and Greve hypothesized that repetition would improve a creator’s output. They also guessed that the creator’s years of experience and the resources available to their publishers would have a positive impact.

They were wrong on all counts.

What made individual comic creators successful was the range of genres they’d worked in. Breadth of experience mattered. Broadly experienced creators were more innovative than teams of creators, better able to integrate diverse ideas and experiences into their stories than teams were.

Years of experience or the resources available to their publisher made no difference. And repetition – doing the same work over and over – usually made them less successful.

Kind And Wicked Problems

The benefits of specialization versus generalism depend on the challenges involved in the work. Epstein describes these as kind and wicked problems.

Kind problems are predictable. They follow clear rules and familiar patterns. Wicked problems are full of surprises, and solutions require fresh, innovative thinking.

Learning to play golf might be hard, but in this context it’s a kind problem. You can copy someone else’s approach to the game, turn up every day to practise the same skills, and become very good.

But being a parent is wicked. There’s no easy template to follow. Every child is different. And growing up in one culture, or moment in history, doesn’t prepare you fully for understanding childhood in another situation.

Kind problems lend themselves to specialization. Being excellent at kind problems involves sticking to a predefined process. The margins are tight, so every gain through efficiency helps. You’ll use the same tools over and over again. High performance through repetition keeps us alive in airplanes and hospitals.

To get better at wicked problems, you’ll need to embrace detours, experiments, and risks to broaden the resources you bring to those challenges. Using the same tools could limit you. Following familiar patterns can lead to disastrous misunderstandings. Efficiency alone won’t give you the better results.

When it comes to wicked problems, your breadth and range will help you succeed.

Specialization And Obsolescence

If you’re GenX like me, then you finished high school sometime in the ʼ80s or ʼ90s. Many of the jobs you were told were “safe options” might not look so safe now. Many of them will have been replaced by algorithms and robots before you finish your working life.

This is one risk of specialization: your skills can become obsolete. My father worked his whole life in electronics, from tubes to transistors to silicon chips. That’s a lot of adaptation in one career. The rate of change is even faster now.

Adaptability is possible by having a broader perspective. Understanding how technology is developing and how the industry is changing means looking beyond any particular specialization.

The problems we face and the insights we need require thinking on a systems level. This is the kind of creativity Steve Jobs famously prized when he sought engineers who also understood arts and humanities. In other words, engineers who could design for people who weren’t also engineers.

One point James Nestor makes in Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art is that medical experts may be so focussed on their specialization that they struggle to question assumptions about respiration, like the role of CO2 in the breathing process, because they aren’t used to thinking of breath as a complete system. Instead, they live inside their focus, be it some part of the anatomy or a particular illness.

Skills And Mastery Still Matter

“I’ve chosen not to be successful.” Another badly lit flat roof. Another monologue.

This time it was the comfortable couches of a digital agency for a meetup of creative types. The speaker was talking about his music-making exploits. He could be more successful if he wanted to be, but he’d chosen instead, for the sake of his artistic purity, to keep his work “under the radar”.

Listening to him describe his process and work ethic, I wasn’t convinced his lack of success was a choice. He worked when he felt “inspired”. He didn’t seem interested in getting better. And he had no external accountability, or benchmark, to measure his progress against.

Maybe it’s this kind of attitude my elder was lamenting in that church hall all those years ago? Was this the dilettantism he feared I might be indulging in?

What made this musician sound deluded was the way he spoke about success, as if it were some independent variable unrelated to effort and excellence and all the things that go into making music in a creative ecosystem. He felt like success was a simple choice, like whether to put on socks.

If he’d said he made music as a hobby, that it didn’t matter to him how good he was because it was fun, then I wouldn’t be telling you the story.

What was frustrating was that most other people in the room were serious about their craft. They did want to get better. They were trying to find some kind of success. And they were hoping to disprove the belief that mastery is possible only through relentless specialization.

Thankfully, history also gives us plenty of examples that show that to be untrue.

Famous Dilettantes

We don’t have to look far for examples of people who didn’t follow the stick-to-one-thing-for-the-rest-of-your-life advice.

Alice Cooper, at 73, plays golf off a handicap of 4, has a relationship with golf club company Calloway, and has even written a book for beginners. Mark Twain was friends with inventors Nikolai Tesla and Thomas Edison and patented three inventions of his own.

Victor Hugo made over 4,000 drawings in his life. Artists like Van Gogh and Delacroix were impressed with his work, and he kept his art private only for fear it would overshadow his writing. E.E. Cummings always thought of himself as a poet and painter, having produced over 1,600 pieces, including work that now hangs at the Whitney Museum.

Jack White recently created a site featuring his varied work in art and design, including architecture and furniture along with industrial and interior design. Award-winning director Alejandro Innaritu started his working life as an architect and attributes his meticulous approach to film making to that experience.

Brian May was an accomplished student when he joined the band Queen as their guitarist. During a lull in the band’s journey, he went back to academia to finish a PhD in astrophysics. Giorgio Armani began his career as a doctor, then later got into fashion through a job as a window dresser. The Guardian recently ran an article on people who thrived through mid-career transitions.

And, as Epstein points out, even in kind domains like sports, many elite stars specialized late and tried a wide range of activities in their youth.

Process Beats Goals

Two recent articles here, 2031 and Your Ideal Day, set out exercises for setting some life goals. The suggestion isn’t to set lots and lots of goals, with multi-stage plans to get you there. In fact, you probably shouldn’t do that.

Instead, you should aim to have a clear picture of where you’d like your life to head, then commit to habits and mindsets that can lead you.

Set a few big goals, then lean into the method and process of living well.

Embrace Range And Mastery

Wanting to be good at something isn’t a great goal, but it’s an important first step. Especially if you’re questioning the specialization mindset. You need more detail.

Say you want to get good at guitar. What does that mean for you? Do you want to play on stage? Because you don’t need to be a virtuoso to play on stage. In fact, a rudimentary knowledge of guitar and lots of conviction might be enough.

That’s where the detail matters. You need to elaborate what mastery, what being good, will look like for you.

And, in a minor concession to the fans of specialization, you might have to accept one thing. You might have to focus on growing in one area at a time.

What my church critic didn’t see was that the two skills I demonstrated were the result of intense focus over many years. Range doesn’t just happen. It takes work. And over the course of a lifetime, and with a lot of work, the range can get pretty vast.

He thought aiming for range might mean “people” don’t take you seriously.

But I’m not sure who those “people” are. Maybe because I don’t live in an either/or world. Or perhaps because I’m surrounded by people whose career is a “slash” between multiple professional identities.

Above All Else Enjoy Your Life

One thing I loved about living in Japan was almost everyone I met had a hobby. And they took their hobbies very seriously. This might include lessons, coaching, workshops, attending concerts, putting on exhibitions, and even travelling extensively. People managed to build a life around work, hobbies, and family.

There’s no reason to believe that you can’t be excellent at something just because you haven’t dedicated your whole life to it. Excellence isn’t the sole domain of specialists.

This is particularly true in all sorts of creative domains from art to woodworking.

Over the next few months, there’ll be more articles specifically on the issue of mastery, on how we can add excellence and quality to the things we do.

But, for now, I’d like you to go back and read the piece on Your Ideal Day. Imagine yourself doing the things you love in a way that’s deeply satisfying to you, and paint a picture in your mind of the life you’d like to create for yourself.

Rachel Biel 3 years ago

Hi, Fernando! I found your site by accident a couple of weeks ago and signed up for your posts. This is the first one I got and I really like your way of thinking. I work with artists and most of us have several interests that we pursue and “master” over time.

What I find especially frustrating here in the United States is the public’s general lack of awareness of how long it does take to become good at something, especially in the arts. They are so far removed from the making/growing/inventing process that they really don’t understand what they are seeing or hearing. And, they are bombarded with cheap products, flimsy imitations and false advertising and live in a disposable society where nothing has much worth after the moment has passed. It’s a constant educational process.

Thank you for your talent and for sharing it with us!

If you want to have a look at some of my ideas, my site is http://www.rayela.com.

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