The cultural dogma that to thrive in this competitive world, you have to ultra specialize is, in my perspective, overrated. If you want to succeed in a single domain, most likely, you would need to be within the top 1%. Only those who had the background and resources to get the mentorship and an optimal growing environment from an early age get to perform at a world-class level. However, you don’t have to be in the top 1% to have a fulfilling career. Indeed, there is another option to highlight yourself across the crowd.
Those who develop talents in uncorrelated areas increase the likelihood to bring fresh insight that others in the field wouldn’t give. Skills such as public speaking, writing, negotiating, investing, and speaking secondary languages tend to multiply your value as a coder, artist, researcher, lawyer, entrepreneur, etc.
Even if there seem to be no cohesion points, having a methodology for practicing and studying in a non-contiguous manner can be very productive. This approach is known as interleaving. As your brain requires time to digest information and create stronger neuro-pathways, there is a threshold on how much you can assimilate on the same day. In this manner, it is much more productive to focus on a second discipline or alternative project rather than cramming more information than what you already have.
In the last decade, authors such as David Epstein, Tim Harford, Waqas Ahmed, and Scott Adams have researched the benefits of exploring human versatility. This blog post will explore three benefits, given by researcher David Epstein, for diversifying your palette of skills and knowledge.
First, generalists gain more antifragility. Lebanese-American essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularized the term after researching the category of entities that not only gain from chaos but need it to survive and flourish. To obtain mastery, it is required to build enough resilience to keep up the consistency in the long term.
The people who get easily demotivated when facing an obstacle or realizing their level of incompetence will indeed not have enough fuel to develop mastery. Polymaths have to go through feeling incompetent every time they commit to a new discipline, thus strengthening the muscle of antifragility. (By the way, you can read a personal anecdote about how I got this same realization here!)
Second, the danger of specializing too soon in the wrong discipline. In his book Range, Epstein tells Roger Federer’s story, who, contrary to professional golfer Tiger Woods, didn’t specialize early in his development. Before focusing on tennis, he did various sports to explore which one accommodated his natural strengths and taste better. The self-awareness required to identify the best profession doesn’t come built-in in kids. Thus, choosing the right discipline requires plenty of exploration and exposure before committing blindly to a particular craft.
Third, engaging in problem-solving, analytical thinking, and creative work in different contexts broadens the overall learning process toolkit. Epstein displayed a case study of Cirque du Soleil’s acrobats, who decreased their injury rates by learning skills from their fellow acrobats. Additionally, he presents a research paper where a group of ophthalmologists improved their diagnosis skills compared to the control group after being trained in art observation. By solving more puzzles in the learning process, you improve your overall problem-solving abilities.
Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the professional field is continuously changing with new technologies. It is impossible to predict which careers will be needed the most in 20 years. Therefore, as mentioned by historian Yuval Noah Harari, the best alternative for thriving is cultivating the ability to reinvent and adapt yourself to a fast-changing environment. The capacity to adjust doesn’t come from developing one single expertise in-depth, but by engaging consistently in activities and knowledge areas outside of one’s comfort.
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