Economics Employment Faith

We need to listen to the generalists

Great news for generalists: specialists aren’t the only ones who bring value to society.

David Epstein’s book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” was one of my favorite books in 2020 and one that stood out the most. I remember being a bit surprised when I first saw the title.

I had previously assumed that highly specialized people really run the world and make things happen. I had this mentality that most of us are generalists doing our little part in the world but broadly benefitting from the specialists’ lasting impact on society.

People like Albert Einstein, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, the Apostle Paul — these are all highly specialized people who made a difference. 

But the world benefits from generalists also. 

This book was especially eye-opening in a year in which we continued to hear: “Just listen to the experts. Don’t listen to someone who just reads an article and thinks he or she has it figured out.”

The year 2020 was one in which our societies and institution had to make some tough choices due to Covid-19. But while some were focused solely on the role that epidemiologists were doing, the reality was that we needed to consider many sciences. We had to weigh economics, epidemiology, history, law, psychology, logic, and so much more. 

Ironically, the people who made decisions in society and government were not specialists. They were generalists. Our elected leaders — our governors, congressional representatives, senators, presidents, and prime ministers — are generalists. Sure, they were relying on the opinions of certain specialists. But they had to weight many different factors.

Those of us in republics and democracies are broadly speaking generalists when we vote.

We made decisions in a bumpy way this year. Our societies battled it out on social media, we protested, we counter protested, we witnessed lawsuits by businesses, lawsuits by churches, and even had at least one lawsuit from a lieutenant governor directed to the governor.

And in its own messy way, it worked.

But all of this discussion of 2020 and Covid-19 is a side note.
One of the most remarkable parts of the book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” was when the author discussed confirmation bias.

Some of the people who are most likely to fall into the trap of confirmation bias are the most educated and specialized people. We tend to think of people with cognitive bias as people such as the high school drop out living out in the country. Or maybe the outlandish friend or relative who keeps posting conspiracy theories on social media.

But they aren’t the only ones who hold onto their self-made axioms. It’s actually most dangerous when the most educated, specialized people do that. 

David Epstein, the author of “Range,” writes: “You look at people who develop good judgment about the world, and people who were really specialized and had a narrow focus actually got worse as they accumulated information because they were better able to fit any story or whatever their views were. One of the main traits of people who had better judgment and were able to avoid falling into their own cognitive biases all the time was a trait called ‘science curiosity.’”

Epstein makes an interesting observation when contrasting “science curiosity” with “science knowledge.” 

He writes: “The people who bucked the trend were the ones who were highest in science curiosity. Not science knowledge, but science curiosity measured by the fact that when they were faced with information that didn’t agree with their preconceived information, would they follow up and research broadly or would they put that aside and ignore it and leave it there?”

Epstein is not anti-specialization. For example, he writes from the beginning about three girls who became masters of chess at a young age after devoting significant time to their craft.

But he quickly notes that becoming good at chess is not like many other fields.

In some fields, mastery is not achieved by repetition or practice, but by asking the right questions and challenging preconceived notions.

In other words, sometimes you need to be able to ask questions before finding the answers. And that is where “science curiosity” as opposed to “science knowledge” is important.

And sometimes a generalist or an outsider can bring a fresh perspective when a specialist is locked into the same methods.

Some may think that Epstein’s book runs counter to Malcolm Gladwell’s concept in “Outliers” that you need a minimum of 10,000 hours to master anything. But I don’t believe Epstein’s perspective invalidates (or even attempts to contradict) the 10,000-hour concept.

He just brings a different perspective, and he shows how generalists add value also.

It reminds me of I Corinthians 12:21-23a: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor ….”

(This passage is speaking specifically about the body of Christ, but the concept is true in other areas of life.)

It also reminds me of Psalm 139:4 when the Psalmist praises God, saying: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”

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