The Cult of the Head Start
The bigger the picture, the more unique the potential human contribution. Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.
When we know the rules and answers, and they don’t change over time — chess, golf, playing classical music — an argument can be made for savant-like hyperspecialized practice from day one. But those are poor models of most things humans want to learn.
If the amount of early, specialized practice in a narrow area were the key to innovative performance, savants would dominate every domain they touched, and child prodigies would always go on to adult eminence.
How the Wicked World Was Made
One good tool is rarely enough in a complex, interconnected, rapidly changing world.
Wicked world demands — conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts.
The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.
The ability to apply knowledge broadly comes from broad training.
When Less of the Same Is More
The sampling period is not incidental to the development of great performers — something to be excised in the interest of a head start — it is integral.
Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.
Learning, Fast and Slow
Struggling to retrieve information primes the brain for subsequent learning, even when the retrieval itself is unsuccessful. The struggle is real, and really useful.
Space between practice sessions creates the hardness that enhances learning.
For a given amount of material, learning is most efficient in the long run when it is really inefficient in the short run. If you are doing too well when you test yourself, the simple antidote is to wait longer before practicing the same material again, so that the test will be more difficult when you do. Frustration is not a sign you are not learning, but ease is.
Above all, the most basic message is that teachers and students must avoid interpreting current performance as learning. Good performance on a test during the learning process can indicate mastery, but learners and teachers need to be aware that such performance will often index, instead, fast but fleeting progress.
for knowledge to be flexible, it should be learned under varied conditions, an approach called varied or mixed practice, or, to researchers, interleaving.
The most successful problem solvers spend mental energy figuring out what type of problem they are facing before matching a strategy to it, rather than jumping in with memorized procedures. In that way, they are just about the precise opposite of experts who develop in kind learning environments, like chess masters, who rely heavily on intuition. Kind learning environment experts choose a strategy and then evaluate; experts in less repetitive environments evaluate and then choose.
Thinking Outside Experience
In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.
Psychologists have shown repeatedly that the more internal details an individual can be made to consider, the more extreme their judgment becomes.
Successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it.
When all the members of the laboratory have the same knowledge at their disposal, then when a problem arises, a group of similar minded individuals will not provide more information to make analogies than a single individual.
The Trouble with Too Much Grit
It would be easy enough to cherry-pick stories of exceptional late developers overcoming the odds. But they aren’t exceptions by virtue of their late starts, and those late starts did not stack the odds against them. Their late starts were integral to their eventual success.
Persevering through difficulty is a competitive advantage for any traveler of a long road, but he suggested that knowing when to quit is such a big strategic advantage that every single person, before undertaking an endeavor, should enumerate conditions under which they should quit. The important trick, he said, is staying attuned to whether switching is simply a failure of perseverance, or astute recognition that better matches are available.
Having invested time or money in something, we are loath to leave it, because that would mean we had wasted our time or money, even though it is already gone.
No one in their right mind would argue that passion and perseverance are unimportant, or that a bad day is a cue to quit. But the idea that a change of interest, or a recalibration of focus, is an imperfection and competitive disadvantage leads to a simple, one-size-fits-all Tiger story: pick and stick, as soon as possible. Responding to lived experience with a change of direction, like Van Gogh did habitually, like West Point graduates have been doing since the dawn of the knowledge economy, is less tidy but no less important. It involves a particular behavior that improves your chances of finding the best match, but that at first blush sounds like a terrible life strategy: short-term planning.
Flirting with Your Possible Selves
Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.
At a given point in life, an individual’s nature influences how they respond to a particular situation, but their nature can appear surprisingly different in some other situation.
Because personality changes more than we expect with time, experience, and different contexts, we are ill-equipped to make ironclad long-term goals when our past consists of little time, few experiences, and a narrow range of contexts.
It might seem that nothing would be easier than deciding what you like, but it turns out to be hard, partly because it’s hard to get an accurate picture of most jobs… . Most of the work I’ve done in the last ten years didn’t exist when I was in high school… . In such a world it’s not a good idea to have fixed plans.
A person don’t know what he can do unless he tryes. Trying things is the answer to find your talent.
The Outsider Advantage
Big innovation most often happens when an outsider who may be far away from the surface of the problem reframes the problem in a way that unlocks the solution.
Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do some things, but it also makes you blind to other things that you could do.
A key to creative problem solving is tapping outsiders who use different approaches so that the ‘home field’ for the problem does not end up constraining the solution. Sometimes, the home field can be so constrained that a curious outsider is truly the only one who can see the solution.
The more information specialists create, the more opportunity exists for curious dilettantes to contribute by merging strands of widely available but disparate information — undiscovered public knowledge, as Don Swanson called it. The larger and more easily accessible the library of human knowledge, the more chances for inquisitive patrons to make connections at the cutting edge.
It isn’t just the increase in new knowledge that generates opportunities for nonspecialists, though. In a race to the forefront, a lot of useful knowledge is simply left behind to molder. That presents another kind of opportunity for those who want to create and invent but who cannot or simply do not want to work at the cutting edge. They can push forward by looking back; they can excavate old knowledge but wield it in a new way.
Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology
When information became more widely disseminated,” Ouderkirk told me, it became a lot easier to be broader than a specialist, to start combining things in new ways.
If you’re working on well-defined and well-understood problems, specialists work very, very well,” he told me. As ambiguity and uncertainty increases, which is the norm with systems problems, breadth becomes increasingly important.
Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable. Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.
Fooled by Expertise
Here is a particular kind of thinker, one who becomes more entrenched in their single big idea about how the world works even in the face of contrary facts, whose predictions become worse, not better, as they amass information for their mental representation of the world. They are on television and in the news every day, making worse and worse predictions while claiming victory, and they have been rigorously studied.
The best forecasters view their own ideas as hypotheses in need of testing. Their aim is not to convince their teammates of their own expertise, but to encourage their teammates to help them falsify their own notions. In the sweep of humanity, that is not normal.
More scientifically literate adults are actually more likely to become dogmatic about politically polarizing topics in science. Kahan thinks it could be because they are better at finding evidence to confirm their feelings: the more time they spend on the topic, the more hedgehog-like they become.
Skillful forecasters depart from the problem at hand to consider completely unrelated events with structural commonalities rather than relying on intuition based on personal experience or a single area of expertise.
Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools
Rather than adapting to unfamiliar situations, whether airline accidents or fire tragedies, Weick saw that experienced groups became rigid under pressure and regress to what they know best. They behaved like a collective hedgehog, bending an unfamiliar situation to a familiar comfort zone, as if trying to will it to become something they actually had experienced before.
Dropping familiar tools is particularly difficult for experienced professionals who rely on what Weick called overlearned behavior. That is, they have done the same thing in response to the same challenges over and over until the behavior has become so automatic that they no longer even recognize it as a situation-specific tool. Research on aviation accidents, for example, found that a common pattern was the crew’s decision to continue with their original plan even when conditions changed dramatically.
Even now, even in endeavors that engender specialization unprecedented in history, there are beacons of breadth. Individuals who live by historian Arnold Toynbee’s words that no tool is omnicompetent. There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors. Rather than wielding a single tool, they have managed to collect and protect an entire toolshed, and they show the power of range in a hyperspecialized world.
A paradox of innovation and mastery is that breakthroughs often occur when you start down a road, but wander off for a ways and pretend as if you have just begun.
In professional networks that acted as fertile soil for successful groups, individuals moved easily among teams, crossing organizational and disciplinary boundaries and finding new collaborators. Networks that spawned unsuccessful teams, conversely, were broken into small, isolated clusters in which the same people collaborated over and over. Efficient and comfortable, perhaps, but apparently not a creative engine.
New collaborations allow creators to take ideas that are conventions in one area and bring them into a new area, where they’re suddenly seen as invention, said sociologist Brian Uzzi, Amaral’s collaborator. Human creativity, he said, is basically an import/export business of ideas.
At its core, all hyperspecialization is a well-meaning drive for efficiency — the most efficient way to develop a sports skill, assemble a product, learn to play an instrument, or work on a new technology. But inefficiency needs cultivating too. The wisdom of a Polgar-like method of laser-focused, efficient development is limited to narrowly constructed, kind learning environments.
Expanding Your Range
Going where no one has is a wicked problem. There is no well-defined formula or perfect system of feedback to follow. It’s like the stock market that way; if you want the sky highs, you have to tolerate a lot of lows. As InnoCentive founder Alph Bingham told me, breakthrough and fallacy look a lot alike initially.
Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help. Instead, as Herminia Ibarra suggested for the proactive pursuit of match quality, start planning experiments. Your personal version of Friday night or Saturday morning experiments, perhaps.
Approach your own personal voyage and projects like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise. Research on creators in domains from technological innovation to comic books shows that a diverse group of specialists cannot fully replace the contributions of broad individuals. Even when you move on from an area of work or an entire domain, that experience is not wasted.