The rationale to pick up this book was very simple. I have been trying my hands at a lot things, writing, reading philosophy and history, podcasting, building software and seriously training for running long distances. Every-time I start going deep into any one of it, I have to forcefully stop myself and evaluate, if I keep doing this, is it going to help me with the job that I have ? Is it going to help me advance my career or personal life. Is it aligned with the larger vision of my life and so on … Questions are many, but the answer is the same
How do I know unless I have spent enough time with an activity or on a competency that it will help me in the future or it matches my interest ?
It might come easily to many of you but someone who has spent his childhood around the posters of FIITJEE claiming
START EARLY BEAT THE COMPETITION
my brain is sort of hard wired to think that unless you are spending enough time to beat the 0.5% of the people in the activities I am undertaking, nothing very good would come out of it. David Epstein’s book hits hard and crushes this point.
Trying to summarise the book in 3 points
- Triumph in life can be achieved not by specialising in a vertical but by being very lateral. As the complexity of problems at hand increases, people who have experienced a range of domains find it easier to find a solution.
- It’s very easy to determine what you want to do in life, when you haven’t lived a lot of it. As you keep experiencing different situations and set ups in life, you keep on figuring out who you are. Once you know who you are, it becomes very easy to find out what you want.
- Quitting is usually associated with weakness. Grit is usually associated with Glory. Knowing when to quit takes more courage because we always want to recover “SUNK COST”. Grit is not just relentless pursuit but is a combination of Passion and Perseverance. Persevering without passion, is futile.
Themes to explore
It won’t really help summarising chapters of this book, as Epstein has conveyed a lot of his points via stories. Stories make sense only when read fully, so will recommend picking up the book and going through interesting life stories of some really great people. In this document, however I would like to list out themes in the book which I connected with and which you can explore further.
Specialisation and Variety
Epstein writes about two kinds of environments : KIND and WICKED.
Kind environments are tightly governed by rules and their outcomes are limited to the boundaries in which they function. Wicked environments on the other hand are like life. Everyone has set their own rules and hence the outcomes aren’t really deterministic. The variables are many and they don’t always act the same.
- Specialisation is good for disciplines and activities which are very KIND. For example: Chess, golf, glass assembly lines etc. In these disciplines, instinctive pattern recognition bears fruits for the participants. Feedback in these worlds is very fast and readily available. Participants learn quickly to iterate on their mistakes and when a similar pattern comes in the future, they can easily manoeuvre around it.
- Variety is good for WICKED environments. Since the outcomes vary, there are not many recognisable patterns for the participants to learn from. Feedback in these environments if often delayed, inaccurate or might not be present at all. Participants need to use judgement of how to best avoid failures. And this judgement, comes from experiencing range.
Our greatest strength opposite of specialisation, it is to integrate broadly.
Tennis great, Roger Federer, played a bunch of sports before he picked tennis as the one to pursue professionally. As I read the book, I thought of the cricketer AB de villiers. He has played multiple sports at the top level, only to pick up cricket and be the best at it for several more years than the rest of his peers. A lot of professional athletes, don’t spend time in deliberate practice early on in their lives.
BIG-C Creativity and Education
BIG-C creativity involves the ability “to generate new ideas, generate some kind of product that’s going to have some kind of impression on other people.
- Epstein says that a very less percentage of highly specialised people have actually had BIG-C impact in the world. Highly credentialed experts can oftentimes become so narrow minded that they actually get worse with experience, but highly confident with it. – DEADLY COMBINATION.
If all you have is hammer, then everything looks like a needle.
- As the economy has progressed from being industrial to more knowledge driven, it is imperative that we train ourselves with: Diverse Experience ; Interdisciplinary thinking ; Delayed specialisation in a world that demands hyperspecialisation.
- In a knowledge economy, work doesn’t demand remembering things. But the ability to apply concepts and knowledge to wide ranging scenarios and situations.
Read more : FERMI PROBLEMS
- Constrained and repetitive problems, are more likely to get automated. However, huge rewards lie for those who can learn in one domain and apply these concepts in the other.
- A sampling period is good to get a sense of what works for you. Specialised focus and deliberate practice can come later once you have figured out the passion. Without passion perseverance is futile.
- More the number of contexts in which something is learned, the more abstracts mental models become. The abstractions help with application in any field.
- The more any learner knows the answer/solution they have reached to is wrong, the more likely a concept which explains how to reach to the correct solution sticks. Having a tolerance to mistakes can help in long lasting knowledge.
Read More : HYPER-CONNECTION EFFECT, DESIRABLE DIFFICULTY
Anecdote : Makes sense now, how we are taught multiple subjects in our schools. How bureaucrats hop-on to various departments solving problems with ease rather than being hyper specialised to attend to one kind of problem all their life.
- Admonitions like “Winners never quit; Quitters never win” are well meaning but inherently poor advice.
- People match themselves with surroundings, professions and people too quickly without understanding who they are and what is it that helps them in their life. Poor matching but a lot of perseverance can take you to heights but will always make you fall short of the highest goal you’ve set for yourself.
- It is at this point that you need to realise and say okay, maybe this isn’t for me and match yourself better with something new.
- Attempting to match yourself with multiple domains, is unlikely to succeed but highly rewarding as it makes you explore yourself.
Choosing to pursue something new after getting to know yourself is not grit-less. It’s intelligent.
A lot of us get stuck at the SUNK-COST Fallacy, where in the time and money we spend doing something stops us from leaving. A lot of feedback has been fed to us that a change of interest or recalibration of focus is imperfect and competitively disadvantageous. It’s very difficult for our work preference and our life preference to stay the same as we do not stay the same. Sometimes decisions taken, when evaluated in the light of more self knowledge can seem ludicrous and is okay to accept as it is.
Instead of working backward from goals work forward from promising situations.
Mention of Generalists
I would like to call out some of the very interesting life stories that have been mentioned in the book. You might want to read and refer to these individual stories to understand how being a generalist helped them in life.
- Roger federer
- Van Gogh
- Haruki Murakami
- Patrick Rothfuss
- Frances Hesselbein
- Alph Bingham
- Gunpei Yokoi
It’s a good book to read and provides a lot of comfort in the fact that I have not yet figured out what to do in life. Hence I love this book 🙋🏼 ❤️
A graduate from BITS Pilani, class of 2019, I am currently working as a Product Manager at Flipkart. I like to write about things that get stuck in my head. By writing I make sure everyone knows what absurd thoughts I have :P Thanks for visiting.