On being a generalist

On a day in the UK where many young people are getting A-level results which determine which university will admit them, I’m still grateful for the early feedback of “failing” 2 out of 4 exams at the end of my first year, when studying Law and French, giving me the impetus to switch to French, German and Linguistics, which was a much closer fit for my skills and interest. Although it doesn’t seem an obvious path from languages to IT, it’s more common than you might think.

I’m reading “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World” by David Epstein and it is the book I’ve found myself quoting, recommending, and gifting the most in the last year.

It’s so very quotable, but what I took away from it is:

  • long-standing problems in an industry are unlikely to be solved by people in that industry. Someone from outside, with some understanding of the field, is more likely to be able to bring a different view.

  • He counters the “10,000 hours of deliberate practice” first popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”. Interestingly, on Gladwell’s recent Masterclass (which is great for any aspiring writers), he was much more nuanced on that topic.

  • countering the the cult of the “head start”, particularly around early specialisation. Parents concerned that their children hadn’t committed to an instrument (usually piano or violin) by the age of 4 or 5. He then quotes research of students entering music college at 18/19, and the common factor in those rated as “gifted” was playing at least 3 instruments.