The main idea of this book is to convince reader that narrow and early specialization is not necessarily lead to success in all areas, but rather only in very specific, human designed fields, which are subject to formal rules such as chess or some sports. The wider and more complex problems could be better resolved by people with wider experience in multiple areas of activities with approach based on wide range of ideas and knowledge. This diversity of experience, ideas, and attitudes could help looking at the problem out of box and find non-trivial solution.
INTRODUCTION: Roger vs. Tiger
Author starts with comparison between two sportsmen: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, one intentionally trained from early childhood and another one coming to the sport in which he achieved the top level relatively late. Author analyses how it happened and unexpectedly finds that the near elite who eventually failed practiced more than those who succeeded in becoming elite.
Another finding was:” an enormous and too often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.”
The key inference from these and other findings was that success comes from diverse experience and relatively late specialization that better support new approaches leading to high achievement.
CHAPTER 1: The Cult of the Head Start
This chapter tells another story of very successful early training for high achievement – Laszlo Polgar’s daughters and chess. Then comes discussion of Kahneman and Klein work demonstrating that:” Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise, they agreed, depended entirely on the domain in question. Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform. … In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.”
Then author provides multiple examples from chess and other formalized domains, which he counters with example of Steve Jobs and his class in calligraphy that eventually led to multiple fonts for Mac computers and Claude Shannon who generated theory of information from Boolean logic and experience with communication networks.
CHAPTER 2: How the Wicked World Was Made The next came look at Flynn effect in IQ testing. The improvement came from increase in experience with abstract thinking typical for literate people in city environment, but not very usable in agricultural villages. Author illustrates this idea by results of research conducted back in 1930s in Uzbekistan. Here is nice illustration when illusion works for educated people, but not for illiterates:
Author then discusses difference between narrow and broad thinking and its higher usability and value in the constantly changing world that requires quick and effective adjustment rather that deep drilling into narrow field, if one wants to succeed.
CHAPTER 3: When Less of the Same Is More
This chapter narrates the story of Vivaldi’s figlie del coros, Jack Cecchini, and their non-trivial, but outstanding musical careers.
CHAPTER 4: Learning, Fast and Slow
Here author moves to the process of learning and how it often comes down to getting the right answer to the test without really understanding underlying logic. It is done with algorithmically defined process – “blocked” practice and author rejects it as ineffective and presents ideas of “mixed” practice when student generate solution based on previous experience, free search, and some directional hints from teacher – the process much more difficult and time consuming, but also much more effective in developing problem resolution skills.
CHAPTER 5: Thinking Outside Experience
This chapter begins with the story of thinking outside the box in astronomy: Kepler and Copernicus and then discusses some typical non-trivial problems and solutions. After that author proceeds to review experiments by Kahneman and Lovallo demonstrating that familiarity with details of subsystem causes people to make logical mistakes of missing complexity of total. Author then discusses use and misuse of analogical thinking and concludes that wide range knowledge, even if not very deep, helps to solve problems by finding applicable analogies. Experiments demonstrate that this method produces better results than approach based on deep and very precise knowledge that often limits search of solution to very narrow range of possibilities.
CHAPTER 6: The Trouble with Too Much Grit
In this chapter author brings the story of Van Gogh to discuss “match quality” – degree of fit between individual and work he/she does by using research of Ofer Malamud related to early vs. late specialization of students that demonstrated superiority of later choice. Author links it to ideas of “Grit” as explanation of success and pretty much rejects it by stating that match is more important and good match could be achieved only via experience. Therefore one should be ready to give up on something that is not working and move on to something that has better chance of working.
CHAPTER 7: Flirting with Your Possible Selves
The next story is about Frances Hesselbein who found her true call as CEO of Girl scouts at rather late age and mostly serendipitously. Author also discusses works of David Gilbert on “Predictors” and “Reflectors”, Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow test”, Herminia Ibarra’s “plan-and-implement” vs. “test-and-learn” models, and a few typical stories concluding once again that flexibility is better fit to generate success than dogged rigidity of pursuit of preset objective.
CHAPTER 8: The Outsider Advantage
This is a set of other examples of specialists not able to resolve problems and helped by amateurs with wider scope of knowledge. These examples are for website inviting everybody participate that generate solutions, Exxon Valdez sill handling, Swanson ideas about “Undiscovered public knowledge, and so on. Here is author’s general conclusion for this chapter: “The more information specialists 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. The larger and more easily accessible the library of human knowledge, the more chances for inquisitive patrons to make connections at the cutting edge. An operation like InnoCentive, which at first blush seems totally counterintuitive, should become even more fruitful as specialization accelerates. It isn’t just the increase in new knowledge that generates opportunities for nonspecialists, though. In a race to the forefront, a lot of useful knowledge is simply left behind to molder. That 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.”
CHAPTER 9: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology
This chapter starts with the stories of non-trivial approach to various “wicked” problems such as computer games that produced Nintendo, 3M that produced stickers, and others concluding:” Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable. Facing kind problems, narrow specialization 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. The results can be disastrous.”
CHAPTER 10: Fooled by Expertise
In this chapter author moves from non-specialists who solve problems to experts who create problems. He uses wonderful example of Paul Ehrlich and his prophecies and then moves to discuss Tetlock’s research and results, both original and recent, about more effective methods of predictions of the future.
CHAPTER 11: Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools
This is about use and misuse of statistical analysis for which author uses business case of car race decision making and real case of causes of Challenger incident, which also was converted into business case. From this author moves to firefighters who were not able to change their typical MO in non-typical situation resulting in their death. Author presents here the problem of overspecialization that narrows scope of search for solution resulting in failure and suggest different approach:” Even now, even in endeavors that engender specialization unprecedented in history, there are beacons of breadth. Individuals who live by historian Arnold Toynbee’s words that “no tool is omnicompetent. There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors.” Rather than wielding a single tool, they have managed to collect and protect an entire toolshed, and they show the power of range in a hyperspecialized world.”
CHAPTER 12: Deliberate Amateurs
The final chapter is about successful amateurs who actually solve problems because they do not know that these problems are not solvable. Author uses here example of Oliver Smithies who worked in various areas getting Nobel level results and then discusses work of Casadevall who analyzed current situation in science and research and concluded that its stress on deep specialization and publishing rather than application of results to technology is not really that productive.
CONCLUSION: Expanding Your Range
In conclusion author pretty much comes up with recommendation to expand one’s range, not to be afraid that it is too late, and try to use this range to pursue whatever objective is desired.
MY TAKE ON IT:
It is nice book that provides lots of examples for such views at various problems’ solution and approach to learning that I believed for a very long time, ever since I was deciding what to do after the school. Back then I choose less specialization and wider approach to education and training and this choice served me well. I did a lot of various staff: computer hardware, software, management, business consulting, and a few others in two very different countries and cultures, so I can confirm based on my experience that it did helped with complex problems to use analogies and tools from unrelated fields. So, ideas of this books are not new, but narrative is quite entertaining.