Pursue What Matters
Episode 60: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Please excuse any typos, transcripts are generated by an automated service
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Do you worry that you don’t have your life figured out? that it might be too late for you? That you’ve ranged through different careers? And you know, you never just got really excited about major in school? Well, don’t worry. You might be okay. Join me today you need this podcast.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:24
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Welcome to the pursue what matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work? Well, you know, it seems like kids have to start specializing in school and career in preschool, right? Like we live in such a specialized world, there’s so much pressure in sports, kids have to specialize, start specializing and narrowing their focus, like an elementary school. It’s so crazy, it makes me so crazy. And yet it happens all the time. And the same thing with school, right? Like, if you don’t know what you want to be, when you grow up, it feels like you’re in trouble and you’ve missed the boat. But is that really true? Well, the research is in. And the fact is, that’s not true. So of course, every week, the podcast is focused on helping you pursue what matters. And, you know, I definitely want to help you develop the confidence to lead. And with that, I really want to focus on three areas, helping you lead with clarity, helping you lead with curiosity, and helping you lead with community. And today, the podcast is really focused on helping you lead with curiosity. And curiosity is all about helping you cultivate self awareness. So helping you learn to understand your own experience. So you can build a secure foundation to help you lead with confidence. And so our book today, the book review we’re going to talk about today is all about helping you develop that curiosity. And so the book that we are reviewing is called range, why generalists triumph in a specialized world. And it’s by David Epstein. It is a really great book. So let’s just talk a little bit about this concept before we jump into the book a little bit. So when I did my undergraduate education, so I was always a good student. Yeah, that’s what perfectionism does to you. It was always a very anxious and high achieving student, but I never really knew what I wanted to do. And so I was one of those students that I had for I think I had four different majors, before I finally settled on a major and I like, I remember feeling so anxious about it, because I was like, oh, like, what if I don’t like this. And so I felt really anxious about that decision and fearful about making the wrong decision. And I felt like I got a lot of messages from my University’s administrators about like, you need to know you need to know you need to know. And there’s something wrong with you, if you don’t know. Now, I think they were well intentioned. But I also like, I firmly believe they also just wanted me out of there in four years. I do think that’s true of most university administrators, because college students cost more, the longer they’re at school. So anyway, there’s that that’s, that’s one of my beliefs about that. So So here’s the thing. So I settled on human development, as that was the major that I, I, I ended up graduating and it was a great major, and I loved it, and it was awesome. And it It gave me a solid foundation. And so then, I continued my, you know, my education and did a master’s degree in counseling, which was awesome. And then did a PhD in psychology, which was awesome. Love that. And then I went back. And this was, as a
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:50
graduate student, I think, like as a doctoral student, probably think about this. Yes. I think as a doctoral student, I had the opportunity to actually teach undergraduate students at my same university where I did my undergraduate training. When i, where i did my undergraduate degree, I had an opportunity to teach like incoming freshmen about career development. So here was like a full circle moment for me. And this was a class on student development, and how do you choose major. And so I had all of these mostly freshmen, some sophomores, who were kind of basically the same student. I was, you know, although, you know, years removed, and they were anxious, and they were saying, like, I don’t know, like, I like a lot of things. But I don’t like it’s hard to choose, it’s hard to know what major to choose. And I’m gonna pause that for just a minute. Because I was also so I was married. And when I did my undergrad, education, I was, I was married at that time as well, I was I was, I was a youngin, when I got married, and did all of my education with my husband. And he always knew he was he always knew he wanted to be a physician. So he was one that like, from a very young age, knew he wanted to be a physician. He was my comparison set. So I had, I had him next to me, like medicine, medicine, medicine, medicine, medicine, and then me over here like flailing, that’s how I felt anyway, like, I have no clue what I want to do. Like, I know, I can do well in school, but I don’t know what I want to do. And I felt like something was wrong with me. Because like, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And here, he really knew what he wanted to do. And I didn’t feel like there was something wrong with me because of him. It was, it was because of me, because I had this belief that I should have it figured out, I did get that message from my university. I never got that for my husband, but just having him knowing so confidently that what he wanted to do, kind of contributed to that feeling. So now, back off of pause, going back to this full circle moment when I am a doctoral student teaching this, these freshmen and sophomores about career development. Okay, so now I have an education in human development, I am just about ready to graduate with a pretty close, you know, within like, probably a year and a half, ready to graduate with a degree in psychology, doctoral degree in psychology have a master’s degree in counseling. So I got a lot of training in human development, and psychology. And I have all these freshmen and sophomores that felt exactly the same way that I felt. And they said, I just have I have so much interest in so many things, I don’t know what to do. And this is what I told them. And I probably told them this about every week of that semester, I said, It’s okay, it’s okay that you don’t know what you want to do. Because you know what the purpose of an undergraduate education is, and I’m sure the university if they knew I was a nurse, they probably wouldn’t ever want me to teach again. So the purpose of an undergraduate education is to figure out what you want to do. Right? Like, the message that you get from administrators is you need to know what you want to do, the minute you come in, and you need to stay on a set track. And then, you know, don’t deviate from that track and graduate and graduate in the most efficient time, because that will cost us the least amount of money. So we can get you in and get you out. And yet, that is not how human development works. Right? For most emerging adults, which is where college students are, that is not how our development works. And so I basically spent that whole semester telling them, don’t worry about it, you’re just fine. Let’s explore let’s take you know, like give yourself permission to take classes that interest you. And I’m sure their parents were like, Oh my gosh, like why is happening like, why are you taking these classes? Why are you taking these classes? But I, I felt really strongly I still do that, you know, these, these students needed permission
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:48
to to explore and to figure out what they were interested in. Okay, so really long story there. A promise that has a point because The world teaches us that we need to have everything figured out the world teaches us that we need to specialize. And that we need to specialize early. And this is the really important part that if we don’t specialize, that we are going to be left behind, that we will not be successful, that we will never be able to catch up on earning potential. And that, you know, ultimately, the message is that we’re going to be a failure. And this is what’s so compelling about the book range that we’re going to be talking about today is that those messages around specialization, are dead wrong. The research actually shows the exact opposite. The research shows that giving yourself permission to be a generalist, so to arrange to Rome to explore actually prepares you for more success. It actually diversifies your skill set your range of skills, it increases your earning capacity, your earning potential, right. And so we’ve kind of been sold a bad bill of goods when it comes to the messaging around specialization. And yet it is a very pervasive message. We have it in children’s sports, right, really pervasive there. We have it in our educational system, we have it in career. And it’s just it’s, it undermines us, right. And so that is the message of range. And it’s based on some really great research. And so I’m really
Unknown Speaker 11:52
excited to talk about it.
Dr. Melissa Smith 11:54
So let’s, let’s see what others are saying about this book. So from Malcolm Gladwell, very simply, I loved range, which is really interesting, because in the book, Epstein actually challenges some of Gladwell, his conclusions from some of Gladwell books. And so I thought that was really interesting. And I think I may link to it. If not, I will try and do that. There’s actually a really interesting interview between Epstein and Gladwell, where they kind of talk about that. So for, in particular, the Gladwell, his discussion of the 10,000 10,000 hour rule, when we think about becoming an expert, which there’s been plenty of controversy around that concept anyway. But they have an interview about that. And so I do think it’s compelling that Malcolm Gladwell is a pretty big fan of this book. And in fact, his quote, is on the cover of range. And so, you know, Epstein did challenge some of Blackwell’s conclusions pretty strongly. And so it sounds like he’s made a persuasive argument to Gladwell. This book was shortlisted for the Financial Times Kinsey business Book of the Year award. So it’s definitely getting some great attention. In the business world, it came out in 2019. So it is very new. And Forbes has called it the most important business and parenting book of the year. And that’s one of the things that I really like about it. It’s really applicable, wherever you lead. So in parenting, in business, any aspect of leadership because he actually comes at this, initially, from his experience as a sports writer, but man, it’s got so many applications, but it really is geared towards business as well. Daniel Pink, right. You know, I like him, urgent and important and essential read for bosses, parents, coaches, and anyone who cares about improving performance. Let’s do what works rather than doing what we what we’ve always done. And so range really is focusing on that. Plus doing what works, which is what Epstein is really focusing on is way more sustainable and more enjoyable, way more enjoyable. And, and so from the Wall Street Journal, and this is a quote from Wall Street Journal, as David Epstein shows us cultivating range prepares us for the wickedly on anticipated, well supported and smoothly written case on behalf of breath and late starts. So let’s talk about some of the main points of the book. So there are a lot of experts that argue anyone who wants to develop a skill or play an instrument or lead in their field, that the argument is that you really need to start early. You that You need to focus intensely, and that you need to rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. Now, if you’re familiar with deliberate practice, that is specific type of practice, there’s some research around that. But this idea that if you dabble or delay or roam, You’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start. And you can see that this argument, right has led to anxious high achieving perfectionistic parents really pushing kids. And I would say high achieving people pushing themselves in very rigid ways. But a closer look at the research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule. So I thought that was really interesting. So So David Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters, and scientists. So what he discovered is that in most fields, especially the fields that are complex and unpredictable, generally, generalists not specialists are primed to excel.
Dr. Melissa Smith 16:18
So what what he found about generalist is that they often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. So the other thing that he found about generalists is they tend to be more creative, more agile, and able to make connections that their more specialized peers can see, I think one way to think about this is that they’re less siloed. Right, because they bring more perspective to their work. And, you know, I think it’s important to recognize that it’s, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have any specialization, but they specialize later. And so that’s one thing that we’ll we’ll talk about a little bit more. So it’s not that they’re just roaming all over the place all the time. But they give themselves permission to roam. And then they go deep later. And so once they do specialize, when they once they specialize, they bring a lot of agility, they bring a lot of perspective to that specialization, that the early specialized users do not have the benefit of bringing. And so the late specialized users just have such a huge advantage. And so that’s, that’s part of what the research bears out. And so what range makes a compelling case for is, and this one Oh, it’s very intriguing. This is a provocative argument. It makes a compelling case for actively cultivating inefficiency. How’s that some of you will really like that. Other people, it’ll like make your heart, it’ll, it’ll make you die a little bit inside. So let’s think about what he might mean by actively cultivating inefficiency. failing a test is the best way to learn. I think we all kind of know that. And we all kind of hate that. It’s so true, though. Frequent, quitters end up with the most fulfilling careers. Isn’t that interesting? The most impactful inventors cross domains rather than deepening their knowledge in a single area. And I think, you know, the point around that is because they they bring they they bring perspective, right? So they bring cross knowledge, right cross domain knowledge, which is particularly helpful when you’re thinking about inventive or creative tasks. Because you got to be, you know, like you’re thinking outside of one domain. And he’s got some nice examples of that in in the book. Okay, so let’s think about how this book can strengthen your lap and work right. So how can it strengthen your leadership? So the first recommendation is to be a late special Iser, right, so I’ve just given you permission to be a late bloomer to Rome. Of course, conventional wisdom tells us that we must specialize early if we want to excel, right? And think about that, like it’s so much pressure, but it’s dead wrong. I’ve already talked about that. What the research shows is that early specialization actually typically leads to burnout. And right this is just my little add on, although it is true. The research shows this as well, is that you know, in the case of sports, at least overuse injuries. You know, if you think about especially like kiddos and early specialization, you get overuse injuries and kiddos like that is that That’s really problematic, we should not be seeing overuse injuries and kiddos. So obviously we want to avoid that. Late specialization is where it’s at. So the idea here is sample before you specialize, that specialize late specialization is the norm for those with lucrative, fulfilling and impactful careers. So not only will you make more money, you’ll have,
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:27
you’ll have more fulfillment. So right, like more connection to purpose, and more impactful career, so you’ll make a bigger difference. So more money, more connection to purpose, and more meaningful difference in the lives of others. So he talks about this study, and it was known as the Dark Horse study. And they described the study participants as oddities, outsiders and long shots, because these were individuals that did not really know what they wanted to do. And their route was very circuitous, right. So like, they just they wronged, they really wronged in terms of like career. And they told researchers when they were, you know, having the research conducted, most people don’t do it this way. So each of them thought that they were a dark horse, each of them thought that they were odd. But they were wrong. Right, like, so it was a, it was a study totally composed of dark horses, which meant, none of them were dark horses. They all thought that they were unique, but they really weren’t. And so what, you know, what was going on with these dark horses. So they sampled many roles, many careers, and they worked with many different people. So they didn’t necessarily have a five to 10 year goal. But they had 90 day goals, right. So their, their horizon was much shorter than other people. And the mindset of the Dark Horse study participants was this, here’s who I am, at this moment, here are my motivations. Here’s what I found, I like to do. And here’s what I’d like to learn. And here are the opportunities. So they kind of they understood what they like to do. And then they kind of match that with the opportunities, until really looked at what opportunity is the Met as the best match right now. And so if you think about that, like it really is a present focus. But they didn’t, like they didn’t get too worked up about that, like, they didn’t get too anxious about that. And so, you know, if you, if you get caught in future tripping or getting really anxious about like, I’ve got to, I’ve got to be super successful, or I’ve got something to prove, then this kind of approach, like, you wouldn’t be able to tolerate it, that these individuals were like, hey, like, they could kind of trust that they were going to be okay. And they had this, you know, this interest and the skills, and they could see, hey, this is a great opportunity. And so they can kind of go with that opportunity, and make the most of it. So I think what’s important to point out here as well, is that this is a little different from grit. So not too long ago, I did a book review on grit. And if you remember, one of the things that stands out with grit, is it’s this perseverance and passion to a long term goal. So right, if we think about the five to 10 year goals, that would be gripped. Now, these folks with range like that grit doesn’t really apply to them. And it’s not that they don’t have grit in their lives. But this would be a situation where, like grit doesn’t really play much of a part for them, because they’re really looking at, okay, what are my interests? What are my skills? And what are the opportunities? And so it’s not a question of like, Is that good or bad? It’s just like, grit isn’t necessarily a characteristic or a skill that was really useful or necessary for these folks, because their time horizon was very different than, you know, like this long, five, five to 10 year goal. So when we look at the fastest growing tech startups, they are by founders who are 45 years old. So you know, when we think about like, oh, in order to be successful, like I need to be a baby to launch tech start startups. So Mark Zuckerberg, like he has some ridiculous quote about like, yeah, like, I think you need to be really young. If you’re going to be successful. I mean, like, of course, he has every reason in the world to make that statement, but it’s actually just dead wrong. The most successful tech startup founders are those who are a little bit older. 45 being a little bit older, I will not make any other comment on that statement. Read into what you mean. But anyway. And basically, it’s those who had a little more experience had a little more range, right? Like they, it wasn’t their first rodeo. And so the range actually makes a really big difference.
Dr. Melissa Smith 25:24
Okay, so then let’s think about, you know, we’re talking about, again, late specialization is where it’s at. And so with that our work preferences and life preferences do not stay the same as we, as we age, right. So the what, what we found from the research, and what he documents in the book is the greatest shift in preferences, right, like life preferences happened between 18 and the late 20s. So basically, that decade, and this is the time that we expect ourselves to lock in some of our big career options, right. So that’s a lot of pressure. So that’s actually a good time to try out a lot of different careers and figure out what you might like. So tote, so try different jobs, checkout preferences. And the recommendation from Epstein is that the best way to do this is by doing not reflecting, so don’t just think about different jobs actually do different jobs. So don’t be afraid to take a new job. After you know, a year at one place, if another opportunity comes up. Like when you’re younger, in your in your career development, take the job like that’s, that’s going to be the best way for you to figure out your preferences. So more experiences equals more analogies. And that generates ideas and problem solving, which gives you more analogies, and then over time, that becomes a superpower for you to really help you to figure out your strengths. So the other thing that we want to do is really resist that push to specialize or early right. So again, try lots of different options. So work with new people in new settings, it’s going to feel messy, it’s going to feel a bit inefficient. But all of this will be working toward your good, because you’re building new skills that you can apply to new problems. You’re also you’re also developing those emotional intelligence skills, you’re learning how to work with people, you’re building your social connection, you’re building your professional networks, right now, if you’re slog at every single job you go to, that’s not going to help you so right, like you need to be competent. But this range that we’re talking about, it’s just like learning, the most effective learning feels very messy, very ineffective, and very inefficient. And it feels like it’s not working, it feels like you’re not connecting, and like you’re not learning, but you just have to stick with it. Because it’s in those stretch moments, that your brain is actually making the connections and so you’ve got to stick with it. And then once you have a good sense of your skills, that’s when you go deep. So like I said at the outset, it’s not that you never go deep, but you range you roam. So you go for breath, before depth. And then once you go for depth you bring you bring so much perspective, to the conversation and to your work. And because you’re not siloed and so that there’s a ton of value in that. And I would say that’s one thing that I have found for myself in my leadership work and in my, in my business work. So, you know, I’ve been a psychologist for
Unknown Speaker 29:07
Dr. Melissa Smith 29:08
while now, since 2006. And then went back and did an MBA degree a few years ago. And what I found both during the MBA program, and then afterwards, is that the perspective that I had, as a psychologist really added a lot of value to the, to the business skills, right. And so like it brought a ton of perspective to my work in leadership development and consulting and that sort of thing. And so that was that was something that has been really valuable to me. And and I would say also vice versa, right that like the business skills have also added a ton of perspective and value To even my role as a psychologist, I mean, obviously, it’s added a ton to my role as a business owner, right as a business owner of a psychology clinic. But it’s also added a lot of value to my role as a psychologist, I feel less siloed I am less siloed I think about things differently. I approach problems differently. And so there’s been, and that’s been that’s been two way that’s been both ways, right, like a leadership development work, but also in the clinical work. So it’s very cool to see how that works. This is a really great book, I think it challenges a lot of our, our conceptions, about sports and about school and about career. And, like, for good reason. Right. Like, it’s time, I think we do need a challenge to those conceptions. And it’s very well researched. It’s very well written, it’s engaging, and really helpful. And I think, especially as parents, it’s really good, really, really good to read, but certainly in leadership as well. So I hope that you will check out the book, and head to my website to check out the show notes with all of the great resources for this episode, you can find that at www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-60, one more time, that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-60. And of course, I will have a link to the book range why generalists triumph in a specialized world. And then I also have a link to a couple of YouTube videos. I think one is where David Epstein kind of talks a little bit about some of the concepts in the book. And then I think the other link I have is for an interview between Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell. So definitely check that out is worth your time. And I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
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