Why the Generalist Has a Bright Future in an Increasingly Automated World

The age of the specialist is giving way to the age of the Renaissance person.

by James Dennin
Wikimedia / RanZag

It was only a matter of time before a precocious set of tweens came along and broke the damn spelling bee. And lo, after a 14-hour contest, the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee was forced crown eight co-winners after running out of hard words.

“We’ll soon run out of words that will challenge you,” Jacques Bailly told the contestants, according to the New York Times account. “We’re throwing the dictionary at you. And so far, you are showing this dictionary who is boss.”

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The New York Times has described the kids as “superhuman.” But this type of victory should also have been expected. For more than a century, I.Q.s have risen steadily from one generation to the next. The tools contestants use to prepare are also, getting much better, from searchable online dictionaries to social media platforms that help contestants learn to conduct themselves more naturally in front of an audience.

Did we really think the dictionary was going be able to keep stumping ever-smarter, ever more-polished, ever-more tech savvy generations of little geniuses?

It probably won’t be the last time we’ll see tweens come along who are capable of outsmarting the dictionary.

As technology and artificial intelligence continue getting better, getting good at stuff is going to get easier, particularly tasks that require lots of repetition and practice (like, say, memorizing words and their derivations). This is scary, not just for the spellers but for people whose jobs rely on having mastered a specific, repeatable task. Machines will eventually automate these processes, and humans are going to have to figure out how to do something else. 

Depending on how we prepare for the new artificially intelligent, increasingly automated world, this future might not be such a bad thing. A few generations ago, it would have been unthinkable to have an executive like Elon Musk, whose ventures include building rockets, attempting satire, assembling electric cars and selling solar roofs, digging tunnels, and developing brain-computer interfaces. As A.I. improves, it will become easier for people to develop ventures in wide-ranging areas that would have required exhaustive training and expertise.

'Range' begins with a quote from 'War and Peace': "And he refused to specialize in anything, preferring to keep an eye on the the overall estate rather than any of its parts .... And Nikolay's management produced the most brilliant results."


In his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, journalist David Epstein argues that as these dynamics continue to play out, we’re all going to have to be a lot more like Musk, at least in one regard. The reign of the experts is ending, Epstein writes. Instead, the workers of the future will have to learn to be generalists. That is, we’re going to have to get better at becoming a little good at a lot of things. I called Epstein up to get a better sense of what it means.

Generalism already has a number of notable benefits and, on the other hand, specialism may have some surprising drawbacks, even in the fields and professions where we’d least expect it. Epstein points to reams of studies, including a fascinating 2015 paper which found that heart patients actually faired better during major cardiovascular conferences, when the best heart surgeons were more likely to be out of town. Their expertise, the paper reasoned, may have made them too set in their ways.

Having lots of passions and hobbies may be an antidote to this kind of “trenching.” Epstein points to another interesting study which found that Nobel laureates in science were 22 times as likely to also be stage performers, magicians, or dancers than their non-Nobel winning peers.

One possible explanation is that science, arguably the most specialized domain there is, makes you susceptible to losing the forest for the trees. Those tap dancin’, rabbit-from-hat pulling scientists, by contrast, were able to draw more disparate, and, therefore, valuable connections.

Epstein knows a lot about human excellence. The former Sports Illustrated reporter got the idea for Range while working on his previous book, which examined the question of what makes an athlete great. Is it talent or obsessive practice? It’s actually a lot more complicated than one or the other. In the introduction to Range, for example, Epstein compares and contrasts the disparate upbringings of two of the world’s greatest athletes, tennis player Roger Federer and golf’s Tiger Woods.

Tiger’s bio aligns with the typical narrative about excellence. He took to golf practically from the cradle, and from then on it was all golf. Here’s a wild clip of the two-year-old Woods driving a ball on the Mike Douglas Show in 1978. Federer, by contrast, was significantly slower to specialize. He played other sports, including soccer, until the age of 12, before deciding to focus on tennis. He was a notorious hot-head until his 20s, when he finally began to mature into the cool-headed, record-breaking champion we know today.

“The Roger Federer strategy is the norm,” Epstein tells Inverse. “We don’t pay attention to the data; we pay attention to the dramatic example.”

So why are the Federers of the world more likely to quietly prevail? There are a few reasons. One of the big reasons explored in Range is the idea that the more stuff we try, the more likely we are to find professions and tasks that are better suited to our disposition and talents. Perhaps if Woods had been allowed to dabble with other sports until his tween years like Federer, he might have found something else at which he was even better suited.

Dabblers may be able to synthesize and develop skills that even the most exhaustive single-mindedness can’t match. One of the best boxers in the world now is a guy named Vasyl Lomachenko, who picked up boxing gloves at the early age of three. From the age of 9 to the age of 13, though, Lomachenko didn’t box at all. Instead, he danced. The skills one acquires from a mix of boxing and ballet makes for a better boxer than one who boxes 24/7.

This dynamic applies to other disciplines, Epstein explains, from business to science. A 2016 study from LinkedIn, for example, estimates that a year of experience doing something new is worth three years of experience doing whatever it is you’re already doing, at least, as far as your odds of climbing the professional ladder go.

“In technology, the biggest impacts were from inventors that spread their work over a large number of technological classes, as classified by the Patent and Trademark Office, not necessarily the ones who drilled down into a particular technology,” he explains. “Humans are good at integrating.”

The integration economy is going to become more important. The explanation might have something to do with Moravec’s paradox, the discovery that machines often seem very good at the things humans are very bad at. Specifically, machines are highly adept at repetition — they don’t get tired — and pattern recognition, which is, of course, mostly what we’re doing when we practice. Repeating an action, observing how well it worked, and adjusting if necessary, and then doing it again a few thousand more times. The better the machines, the less important it may be to practice.

“What makes specialists work in a lot of domains is pattern recognition … [but] the more the endeavor is based on pattern recognition, the easier it is to automate,” he explains.

This is bad news for specialists. The narrower your expertise, the more likely it is that a new invention will come along and automate you away. But similar trends are also good for generalists, which may be what comes more naturally to us curious humans anyway. All this automation and new access to information frees up our time and makes it possible to make connections that weren’t possible before.

In a best-case-scenario, this trend plays out for many of us like it did with bank tellers, who, as you might imagine, got a bit anxious when those automated teller machines began rolling out to bank branches in the 1970s. At the time, many thought bank tellers’ days were numbered, but there are actually between two to three times more bank tellers working today than before the ATM was introduced.

Tech Displaces People, but It Does Create More Jobs

“ATMs made bank branches cheaper, so banks opened more branches,” Epstein explains. “Tellers became a totally different job. Kind of a marketing person but also doing sales, customer service, using a mix of skills. Tech displaces people, but it does create more jobs. But those jobs are much less repetitive and require much broader skills.”

I don’t mean to make light of the fears of automation. Few industries are as lucrative or as adaptable to the times as financial services.

But Epstein’s book does give us a lot to be optimistic about. It’s a boon to the dabblers, the late-bloomers, and the wonderfully weird hobbyists. Not only are they finding ways to do what makes them happy; there’s a method to their madness. Their curiosity and seemingly short attention spans may ultimately be what enables them to some day inherit the world.

This article originally appeared as the weekly Strategy newsletter from Inverse. To get insights and recommendations on your life, career, and finances, sign up for free here.

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