Stuck in The Middle With Palan (EP 3 – Part 1) – Specialisation Vs Generalisation

May 27, 2024 7 mins to read

In a world that strongly believes specialisation and starting early are the routes to achieve success, David Epstein’s book Range is a refreshing departure from prescriptive decisions and clichéd stories. His argument that having a variety of skills and interests—taking the time to sample a variety of things — is better that choosing a specialisation in one area is appealing to many. In this podcast we will discuss the key concepts from the book and Human Capital Development.

We will review some of the core ideas from the book RANGE. How do generalists’ triumph in a Specialised World. We will go a little beyond that and also focus on the Psychology of Talent Development. To do that we have two outstanding panellists Puan Norlida Oli, Chief People office, Axiata Telecommunications and Datuk Wira Shahul Dawood, CEO, Human Resources Development Corporation, Malaysia.

A concise summary of “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein:

1. The World’s Problems:

  • There are two types of problems: kind problems (better suited for specialists) and wicked problems (better suited for generalists).
  • Kind problems have specific rules and unchanging environments (like chess or classical music).
  • Wicked problems are ill-defined, rapidly changing, and require conceptual reasoning across contexts.
  • In a wicked world, range (diverse experience) becomes a valuable life hack.

2. Generalists vs. Specialists:

  • Generalists excel in complex and unpredictable fields.
  • Specialists thrive in certain, rule-bound environments.
  • Hyper-specialists often struggle when faced with wicked problems.

3. Characteristics of Creative Achievers:

  • Serial innovators possess broad expertise.
  • Deep learning (slow, deliberate practice) is essential.
  • The ability to integrate broadly across domains matters.

4. Strategies for Success:

  • Interleaving: Match strategies to problem types.
  • Find your match quality: Align your skills with the right context.

In a world demanding both specialists and generalists, range—embracing diverse experiences—can be a powerful asset.

Human Capital Development

National Human Capital Development is critical for any nation as it is a key factor for economic growth and competitiveness. A workforce needs to be not only skilled but also relevant for economic growth in a changing world. Skills are an important tool to reduce poverty and unemployment. A socially mobile workforce reduces unemployment and poverty. Renowned researchers such as Kenneth Arrow, Becker and Schultz have highlighted on the importance of Human Capital Development theory – as one that focuses on enhancing human productivity and efficiency through education, training, and skill development. Human capital theory views individuals as valuable assets. The economic value of a society is influenced by how effectively it develops and utilizes its human resources.

The Story of two world class athletes

In the book, the descriptive stories of two world class athletes, Tiger Woods versus Roger Federer, best explains the puzzle of generalists versus specialists. I guess there is no this or that answer but the point is to find an enabling environment and to allow the individual choices before jumping in to decide. Do we get the kids to start young and getting them to excel in a specific domain will lead to success or the development of one’s full potential is the primary cause for this decision.

Development of Human Potential – 10,000-hour rule

The development of human potential was largely based on the 10,000-hour rule hugely popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. This referred to individuals whose achievements are outside the norm. To quote Gladwell “Practice is not what you do once you are good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” The 10,000-hour rule was a magical number introduced by psychologist K. Anders Erikson, which is based on the notion that with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, one can become an expert. Within the path to greatness are the opportunities available, talent and preparation. The Epstein argument is that generalising rather than only specialising can also lead to success and is often better. He says that relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting but can be disastrous.

The Federer vs Woods story explains this challenge in a very simple and easy to understand way. The story relates Tiger Woods starting early and working on golf throughout life to become not just the youngest but also the second oldest Masters Champion. This resulted in the notion that any child can become a genius with deliberate practice when coached with error free practice. The fairy tale story of Tiger Woods excites people. The Tiger Woods story was deemed to be conclusive by many when parenting kids for success. The message missed was in the remarks by Tiger’s father that while he was convinced something was special about the boy and he spotted extraordinary talent, he let him grow his interest in that field. In other words, he did not make a choice for Tiger.

The Roger Federer story is a success story too but in a different way. Roger’s mother, while a coach, never coached him. He experimented with many sports before generating an interest in tennis in his teens. Many others around his age had by then focused on strength, mental and skills training and so on. Although Federer started late, it did not hamper his success. He has gone on to become one of the legendary tennis players ever to have played the game. Two extraordinary stories of success.

It was clear both were exceptionally talented, and they had some luck with the way opportunities and the environment presented themselves for them. Tiger’s story and the research behind such success stories suggest that deliberate practice differentiates excellence from the ordinary. Epstein argues that when one examines the developmental path of athletes, one can find that eventual champions devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity they will later excel in. Instead, he says they go through a sampling period. Usually, they do a variety of things in a unstructured way or a lightly structured way. This is when the seeds of passion are planted. They gain a range of proficiencies from which they learn and only later do they focus in and accelerate their technical practice in one area. Epstein makes a strong case that young people need to be given time to find their calling in life and they need to build connections from different fields and cultivate a wide range of skills. This gives them a wider frame of reference. He makes a persuasive case for one to take time to sample and find “match quality.”


Economists use this term to describe the fit between the work someone does and who they are – their abilities and inclinations. In the human resources world and competency movement, this is often called the “job-person fit.”

Learning Environments

Making generalisations about success in some environments like golf and chess can be attributed to what is known as kind learning environments as opposed to wicked learning

environments. Epstein contends that golf and chess are kind learning environments where the rules of the game are clearly defined. Coaches are there to give feedback to correct mistakes. One can learn from the experiences gained unlike wicked learning environments where it is impossible to predict what will happen next. One example is the Covid-19 pandemic crisis that ravaged the world, or it could be a business environment that is very unpredictable. While experiences help, no coach can give us accurate information or feedback on what to do. It is often judgmental, and this is where the experimentation with a variety of things, the sampling period, and match quality helps.

While Epstein is not against specialisation, his book makes a strong case for having breadth and not just depth – the T and I shapes – in a hyper-specialised world.

Join us in this podcast to explore answers to some of the following questions:

  • How do we ensure the workforce remains relevant and employable in a fast-changing world?
  • How can we focus on developing human capability at the macro level for the nation?
  • What is the case for Specialisation Vs Generalisation?
  • Is the 10,000-hour rule for becoming an expert relevant.
  • What are your thoughts on wicked versus kind learning in relevant environments?

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