Want to be brilliant? Be broad
"Don't try to do everything, do one thing well”. It's what Steve Jobs told us, it's what conventional wisdom about successful athletes, concert pianists, and entrepreneurs tells us. But does brilliance really come from picking a specialism and putting in the hours (and hours) of focused practice?
Possibly not. It’s a topic that David Epstein explores in Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. And it’s a question that might shift the way you approach your future and the future of your business.
Distribute your efforts
For a group of young musicians, you may expect those who focused on learning one instrument to be better than those who spent time learning a few different instruments, but that’s not necessarily the case.
Epstein highlights a number of studies found in fact it was the students who distributed their effort initially across three instruments who were the most exceptional.
The most common ‘path to excellence’ was a ‘sampling period, often lightly structured with some lessons and a breadth of activities, followed only later by a narrowing of focus…’.
Taking a broader approach can help you develop more adaptable skills and agile ways of thinking, an ‘intellectual range’ that helps with good judgement and avoiding cognitive bias.
In creative industries this is particularly important. A creative campaign for example is very different to a perfected golf swing. Tiger Woods honing his action from the age of two doesn’t have many parallels with the creative process.
Time spent exploring different ways of doing things even if they don’t work out shouldn’t be seen as wasted or inefficient, it should be seen as part of the process and experience gained. These different experiences combine in unexpected ways that can lead to breakthroughs and big ideas that singular specificity can’t match.
If you’re leading a team, think about whether your processes are too siloed and if your ‘specialists’ could in fact offer more to the business. Could creatives offer useful input to new business, are your UX team big picture thinkers who could give a new perspective on strategy?
The best businesses are known for doing one thing well, how they achieve this result and the diversity of thinking they use to achieve exceptional results may not be a room full of specialists. In fact, it’s likely not to be. Increasing the breadth of thinking, skills, insights and industries around the table will create far more opportunities to move away from linear thinking. New ideas are existing inputs shuffled differently.
A broader future?
It’s natural that as we as individuals change and grow so will our careers and the way we live our lives. What we see as ‘success’ will change as our priorities shift, what we enjoy doing will change as our lives evolve. Epstein talks about testing and learning as a better strategy than planning and implementing when exploring your career. And this exploratory approach rather than one based on specialised knowledge and closed thinking can be applied to our careers and beyond.
Keeping an open mind to broaden your diversity of experiences, and learning opportunities whilst embracing failure can open up new opportunities beyond well-tested activities and safe environments.
Staying as a specialist and staying in situations where you have already achieved might seem like the route to success, but is it your route to brilliance?