I enjoyed the book. It is packed with an understanding of, and tools for generalists. The topic, the research, the details felt like they’d been written for me. Read it for an understanding of the other view, opposing the early and hyper specialisation that rules the current social and business structures. Yet, it was a slow, sluggish read. Shorter by a third, and it’d have been a crisp 5* book.
The cult of the head start
Machines and humans frequently have opposite strengths and weaknesses.
Anything we can do, and we know how to do it, machines will do it better.
If we can codify it, and pass it to computers, they will do it better.
“Chess is 99 percent tactics.”
Tactics are short combinations of moves that players use to get an immediate advantage on the board.
Bigger picture planning in chess—how to manage the little battles to win the war—is called strategy.
You can get a lot further by being very good in tactics, and have only a basic understanding of strategy.
Rather than struggling to remember the location of every individual pawn, bishop, and rook, the brains of elite players grouped pieces into a smaller number of meaningful chunks based on familiar patterns. Those patterns allow expert players to immediately assess the situation based on experience…
How the wicked world was made
Premodern people miss the forest for the trees, modern people miss the trees for the forest.
Rather than relying on our own direct experiences, we make sense of reality through classification schemes, using layers of abstract concepts to understand how pieces of information relate to one another.
When less of the same is more
Parents increasingly come to me and want their kids doing what the Olympians are doing right now, not what the Olympians were doing when they were twelve or thirteen, which included a wider variety of activities that developed their general athleticism and allowed them to prove their talents and interests before they focused narrowly on technical skills.
— Ian Yates, a British sports scientist and coach who helped develop future professional athletes in a range of sports
“There was no connection between me and music, until I started fiddling with it myself. As far as anyone teaching me, there was too many rules and regulations.… As long as I could sit down and figure it out for myself, then that was all right.”
Improv masters learn like babies: dive in and imitate and improvise first, earn the formal rules later.
“At the beginning, your mom didn’t give you a book and say, ‘This is a noun, this is a pronoun, this is a dangling participle. You acquired the sound first. And then you acquire the grammar later.’”
“It’s an old joke among jazz musicians. You ask, ‘Can you read music?’ And the guy says, ‘Not enough to hurt my playing.’”
Learning fast and slow
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.
Learning strategies that have a truly scientific backing: spacing, testing and using making-connections questions.
Knowledge increasingly needs not merely to be durable, but also flexible—both sticky and capable of broad applications.
“Blocked” practice: practicing the same thing repeatedly, each problem employing the same procedure. It leads to excellent immediate performance, but not flexible application.
Varied or mixed practice
When presented with different examples mixed together, students learn to create abstract generalisations that allow them to apply what they learned to material they have never encountered before.
“When your attention says block, you should probably interleave”
Desirable difficulties like testing and spacing make knowledge stick. It becomes durable.
Desirable difficulties like making connections and interleaving make knowledge flexible, useful for problems that never appeared in training. All slow down learning and make performance suffer, in the short term.
Thinking outside experience
…successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it.
For the best performers, problem solving “begins with they typing of the problem.”
John Dewey, in Logic: “A problem well put is half-solved.”
The trouble with too much grit
… is a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are—their abilities and proclivities.
“The benefits to increased match quality … outweigh the greater loss in skills.”
Learning stuff was less important than learning about oneself. Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.
Winston Churchill’s “never give in, never, never, never, never” is an oft quoted trope.
The end of the sentence is always left out: “except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
“We fail tasks we don’t have the guts to quit.“—Seth Godin (“quitters never win”)
“winners” quit fast and often when they detect that a plan is not the best fit, and do not feel bad about it.
…knowing when to quit is such a big strategic advantage that … before undertaking an endeavour, should enumerate conditions under which they should quit.
The important trick is staying attuned to whether switching is simple a failure of perseverance, or astute recognition that better matches are available.
… when you have a limited menu of options to choose from, pursuing them with passion and resilience is the main challenge.
One of the compelling aspects of sports goals is how straightforward and easily measurable they are.
“Olympic athletes need to understand that the rules for life are different from the rules for sports. Yes, striving to accomplish a single overarching goal every day means you have grit, determination and resilience. But the ability to pull yourself together mentally and physically in competition is different from the new challenges that await you. So after you retire, travel, write a poem, try to start your own business, stay out a little too late, devote time to something that doesn’t have a clear end goal.“—Sasha Coehn, 2006 Winter Olympics medalist
In the wider world of work, finding a goal with high match quality in the first place is the greater challenge, and persistence for the sake of persistence can get in the way.
Flirting with your possible selves
Adults tend to become more agreeable, more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and less neurotic with age, but less open to experience. In middle age, adults grow more consistent and cautious and less curious, open-minded, and inventive.
—Brent W. Roberts, Psychologist at Uni of Illinois
The most momentous personality changes occur between age eighteen and one’s late twenties, so specialising early is a task of predicting match quality for a person who does not yet exist.
The context principle
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.
‘The if-then signatures’
“If you get someone into a context that suits them, they’ll more likely work hard and it will look like grit from the outside.”
—Ogi Ogas, computational neuroscientist
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
— Alice to Gryphon, in ‘Alice in Wonderland’
… we maximise match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives. And repeat.
—Herminia Ibarra, professor of organisational behaviour at LBS
Instead, “first act and then think”
“We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.”
We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.
“test and learn” model vs “plan and implement” model
“I know who I am when I see what I do.”
The outsider advantage
“I noticed that the most clever solution always came from a piece of knowledge that was not a part of the normal curriculum.”
“If there’s not a carbon in it, I’m technically not qualified, okay?”
—Alph Bigham, about his PhD in organic chemistry
“When a problem NASA worked on for thirty years gets solved, I’m definitely still surprised.”
…found that those specialist teams often got mired in working out small details at the expense of practical solutions.
A psychology term for the tendency of problem solvers to employ only familiar methods even if better ones are available.
The more information specialist 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.
This 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
Lateral thinking is a term coined in the 1960s for the reimagining of information in new contexts, including the drawing together of seemingly disparate concepts or domains that can give old ideas new uses.
By “withered technology”, Yokoi meant tech that was old enough to be extremely well understood and easily available, so it didn’t require a specialist’s knowledge.
“thing making”, tinkering
“I don’t have any particular specialist skills. I have a sort of vague knowledge of everything.”
He advised young employees not just to play with technology for its own sake, but to play with ideas.
Do not be an engineer, be a producer.
“The producer knows that there’s such a thing as a semiconductor, but doesn’t need to know its inner workings.… That can be left to the experts.”
—Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo
The adjacent stuff
… “It was written by a real subject matter expert. He’s writing a whole book on this topic, so he knew his stuff. The problem is, he didn’t know the adjacent stuff.”
—Andy Ouderkirk, inventor at 3M
Profile of inventors who made the greatest contributions at 3M
…found that very specialised inventors who focused on a single technology, and generalist inventors who were not leading experts in anything, but had worked across numerous domains.
Specialists tended to have their patents in a narrow range of classes.
Generalists’ patents were spread across many classes.
Polymaths had depth in a core area—so they had numerous patents in that area—but they were not as deep as the specialists. They also had breadth, even more than the generalists. Repeatedly, they took expertise accrued in one domain and applied it in a completely new one, which meant they were constantly learning new technologies—”the adjacent stuff”.
Broad knowledge but with at least one area of depth.
“If you are working on well-defined and well-understood problems, specialists work very, very well.
As Ambiguity and uncertainty increases, which is the norm with systems problems, breadth becomes increasingly important.”
In kind environments where the goal is to re-create prior performance with as little deviation as possible, teams of specialists work superbly.
They’ve been there many times, and now have to recreate a well-understood process that they have executed successfully before.
When the path is unclear, those same routines no longer suffice.
“In product development, specialisation can be costly”
—Taylor & Greve
Diverse experience was impactful when created by platoon in teams, and even more impactful when contained within an individual.
“When seeking innovation in knowledge-based industries, it is best to find one ‘super’ individual. If no individual with the necessary combination of diverse knowledge is available, one should form a ‘fantastic’ team”
—Taylor & Greve in Superman or the Fantastic Four
“A mechanistic approach to hiring, while yielding highly reproducible results, in fact reduces the numbers of high potential [for innovation] candidates.” —Abbie Griffin, author of Serial Innovators
…serial innovators repeatedly claimed that they would be screened out under their company’s current hiring practices.
“We think a lot of them (potential innovators) might be frustrated by school, because by nature they are very broad.”
Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience can be remarkably efficient. Facing kind problems, narrow specialisation 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.
Fooled by expertise
Narrow experts are an invaluable resource, but you have to understand that they may have blinders on. So what I try to do is take facts from them, not opinions. —Ellen Cousins
The best forecasters view their own ideas as hypothesis 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.
Hedgehogs and foxes
Hedgehogs know one big thing
Foxes know many little things
Beneath complexity, hedgehogs tend to see simple, deterministic rules of cause and effect framed by their area of expertise, like repeating patterns on a chessboard
Foxes see complexity in what other mistake for simple cause and effect. They understand that most cause-and-effect relationships are probabalistic, not deterministic.
There are unknowns, and luck, and even when history apparently repeats, it does not do so precisely. They recognise that they are operating in the very definition of a wicked learning environment, where it can be very hard to learn, from either wins or losses.
Learning to drop your familiar tools
Dropping familiar tools is particularly difficult for experienced professionals who rely on what Weick called overlearned behaviour. That is, they have done the same thing in response to the same challenges over and over until the behaviour has become so automatic that they no longer even recognise it as a situation-specific tool.
Sense-making vs decision-making
hunches held lightly
“If I make a decision, it is a possession, I take pride in it, I tend to defend it and not listen to those who question it.
If I make sense, then this is more dynamic and I listen and I can change it.”
—Paul Gleason, one of the best wild-land firefighters in the world
Gleason gave decisive directions to his crew, but with transparent rationale and the addendum that the plan was ripe for revision as the team collectively made sense of a fire.
Data and reason
“In god we trust, all others bring data”—NASA plaque
“Between the lines it suggested that, ‘We’re no interested in your opinion on things. If you have data, we’ll listen, but your opinion is not requested here.’”
—NASA’s chief of safety and mission assurance
“When you don’t have data, you have to reason”
—Richard Feynmann, during Challenger investigation commission
A trio of psychology and management professors who analysed a century of Himalayan mountain climbers—5,104 expedition groups in all—found that teams from countries that strongly valued hierarchical culture got more climbers to the summit, but also had more climbers die along the way.
…heirarchical teams benefitted from a clear chain of command, but suffered from a one-way chain of communication that obscured problems.
Teams need elements of both heirarchy and individualism to both excel and survive.
Congruence is a social science term for cultural ‘fit’ among institution’s components—values, goals, vision, self-concepts, and leadership styles.
An effective culture is both consistent and strong. When all signals point clearly in the same direction, it promotes self-reinforcing consistency, and people like consistency.
Incongruence helps people discover useful cues, and to drop traditional tools when it makes sense.
The word “amateur”, she pointed out, did not originate as an insult, but comes from the Latin word for a person who adores a particular endeavour.
—Andre Geim, physicist at Uni of Manchester
“A paradox of innovation and master 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.”
“I do not dig deep—I graze shallow.”
The further basic science moves from meandering exploration toward efficiency, the less chance it will have of solving humanity’s greatest challenges.
Casadevall’s overarching point is that the innovation ecosystem should intentionally preserve range and efficiency.
Don’t feel behind
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 are you going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.
Start planning experiments —Herminia Ibarra (proactive pursuit of match quality)
Like Michelangelo—willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise.
“It’s a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired, you quit when the gorilla’s tired.”