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The case for being a generalist

As many of you know, I am huge of Malcolm Gladwell. And one of the things that he has popularized through his writing is this idea that we all need to spend at least 10,000 hours specializing on someting in order to become truly exceptional at it. The Beatles did this because of all the time they spent playing music. Bill Gates did this because he was fortunate enough to have access to a computer at an early age. And Tiger Woods did this because his father gave him clubs as a toddler and got him to start practicing the game of golf. But is this truly the rule or the exception?

In this recent TEDx Talk by David Epstein (embedded above), he argues that we’re actually ignoring one of the less intuitive but more common journeys. For every Tiger Woods, there are many Roger Federers. For every success story that hyperspecialized at an early age, there are countless examples of dilettantes who dabbled — and perhaps struggled — across different fields, only to find their true passion later in life. And so while it may seem like they’re not making progress, or even falling behind in the short term, this may not be the case in the long term.

All of this reminded me of a post I wrote early last year about finding meaning in life and business. In it, I cited an article from New York Times Magazine recounting the outcomes of Harvard Business School graduates — some of which went on to be happy and wildly successful, and some of which ended up miserable after school. The takeaway here was that non-linear paths, experimentation, and a bit of struggle along the way, is nothing to be ashamed about. In fact, it may be exactly what is needed in order to prepare for today’s increasingly complex and wicked world.

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