I just finished listening to a fabulous episode of the Rich Roll podcast entitled “David Epstein on Why Late Bloomers Win.” I had to pause it several times to jot down a thought and then timecode it so I could go back to it easily. The episode is over two hours long, which is normally a big red flag for me. But this one was chock full of interesting tidbits. Both Rich Roll and David Epstein are athletes, which was a point of discussion early on and it got me hooked. I’m a sucker for any business discussion that relates back to sports, as I’m a wholehearted believer that the mentality required to play well on the field, on the courts, in the pool is a near pre-requisite for ultimate business success.
David Epstein is an incredibly accomplished guy, already at the young age of… well, younger than I. Famous journalist/investigative reporter/author. One couldn’t blame Epstein if he had a big ego, but the reality was quite the opposite. I loved this particular quote, “I don’t ever want to get to a point where I’m not a work in progress as a writer.” I don’t know how many people as accomplished as he would refer to themselves as a work in progress. Even my ten-year-old daughter and her friend left lacrosse practice the other day annoyed because they had to simply catch and throw for fifteen minutes, claiming they “already know how to do that.” (I lost count of the number of dropped balls.)
A good deal of the podcast focuses on the importance of learning how to learn. I remember distinctly telling my mother how ridiculous I thought it was that I had to take school subjects in which I had no interest and that I wouldn’t use as an adult. She told me that while I might never use the content per se, I would use the skills required to learn that content. I was “learning how to learn.” Despite my irritation then, I can admit she was right now. And I have found myself using the same response with my son. Some of his frustration comes from having to read books, articles, etc. in which he has no interest, and I do empathize with his argument there – you get a lot more out of the content when it’s a subject you enjoy, but state tests and school life don’t always go our way. But another point of frustration for him is the requirement now for math students not only to provide the right answer, but to show multiple ways to get to that answer. While I also found that silly at the beginning (mainly because I can no longer even begin to help my 7th grader do his homework as I really have only one way of solving any given problem), it makes a whole lot of sense to me now. Math is now taught as an art, not just a science. It’s creative. This allows students to learn more strategies for solving problems, which in turns makes them capable of solving other problems they may never have seen before by applying a known strategy. (Here you can learn more about this powerful approach referred to, somewhat confusingly in my opinion, as interleaving.)
So now more than ever, kids are being taught to learn how to learn. What about adults?
When Epstein argues that late bloomers win, he’s not talking about the braces-laiden, acne-faced, awkward wallflowers eventually getting homecoming queens, but that those who didn’t settle early into a particular area will ultimately be more successful; those we consider “generalists” rather than “specialists” have the benefit of a wider swath of experience to bring to any challenge in any industry. Having gone to a liberal arts college, I guess I’m a generalist by definition. I have been in marketing my entire career, but the start and ultimate majority of my professional life was on the agency side, where I worked on lots of different industries and brands, before I jumped client side to focus on just a single brand. I have no doubt that generalist agency experience has made me a much better marketer than I would have been otherwise. (Although given the fact that I’m unemployed right now, perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to characterize myself as a “winner.” Ha!) This helps answer the question: is it better to know a lot about a little or a little about a lot? I’m sure either could be argued, but these days, the latter is more advantageous. My father was at the same company for 35 years. That rarely happens anymore. Mergers, acquisitions, closures, technology taking over jobs, technology creating new pre-requisites for existing jobs, technology creating entirely new industries. It’s dangerous to know a lot about just a little, because that little could become irrelevant at any point. Whereas a little about a lot allows you to transfer knowledge about something and apply it to something else. This in turn makes you more valuable at the office (and a lot more interesting at a cocktail party.) But it requires a lot of work. Kids are forced to do this work in school; as adults, we’re on our own. So, some more advice from my wise David Epstein:
“You have to carry a big basket to bring something home.” Translation: If you keep an open mind, you’ll get something from everything.
We’ve all been guilty of sitting in that meeting, or seminar, or conference and thinking “what a waste of time.” But I’ve actively changed my attitude of late. I can’t afford to have anything be a waste of time these days, and so I’m determined to be a student again, to get something out of everything I do/see/read/attend, even if that something ends up being what not to do. The ability to consistently create connections between particular experiences and seemingly completely different ones creates so many new possibilities.