I find myself feeling strangely uncomfortable when people call me a generalist and imagine that to be a compliment. My standard response is that I am actually an extremely narrow, hidebound specialist. I just look like a generalist because my path happens to cross many boundaries that are meaningful to others, but not to me. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know the degree to which I keep returning to the same few narrow themes.
I think I now understand the reason I reject the generalist label and resonate far more with the specialist label. The generalist/specialist distinction is an extrinsic coordinate system for mapping human potential. This system itself is breaking down, so we have to reconstruct whatever meaning the distinction had in intrinsic terms. When I chart my life course using such intrinsic notions, I end up clearly a (reconstructed) specialist.
The keys to this reconstruction project are: the much-abused idea of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, the notion of grit, and an approach to keeping track of your journey through life in terms of an intrinsic coordinate system. Think of it as replacing compass or GPS-based extrinsic navigation with accelerometer and gyroscope-based inertial navigation.
I call the result “the calculus of grit.” It is my idea of an inertial navigation system for an age of anomie, where the external world has too little usable structure to navigate by.
The Generalist-Specialist Distinction
The generalist/specialist distinction constitutes an extrinsic coordinate system. We think of our environment as containing breadth and depth dimensions. The breadth dimension is chopped up by disciplinary boundaries (whether academic, trade-based or business-domain based), while the depth dimension is chopped up by markers of validated progressive achievement. What you get is a matrix of domains of endeavor: bounded loci within which you can sustain deepening practice of some skilled behavior.
The boundedness is key. Mathematicians do not suddenly discover, in the 10th year of their practice, that they need advanced ballroom dancing skills to progress further. Ballroom dancers do not suddenly encounter a need for advanced aircraft engine maintenance skills after a few years of practice. Based on your strengths, you can place fairly safe bets early on about what you will/will not need to do if you make your home somewhere in the matrix.
Or at least, you used to be able to. I’ll get to how these expectations from the twentieth century are breaking down.
There is a social structure that conforms to these breadth/depth boundaries as well. A field of practitioners in each domain, stacked in a totem pole of increasing expertise, that legitimizes the work of individuals and provides the recognition needed for both pragmatic ends (degrees and such) and existential ends (“recognition” in the sense of say, Hegel).
In his book Creativity, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi made up exactly such a definition of extrinsically situated creativity as the behavior of an individual within a field/domain matrix.
We are now breaking away from this model. Ironically, Csikzentmihalyi’s own work makes little sense within this model that he helped describe in codified ways; his work makes a lot more sense if you don’t attempt to situate it within his nominal home in psychology.
Extrinsically situated creativity with reference to some global, absolute scheme of generalist/specialist dimensions is unworkable. At best we can hope for local, relative schemes and an idea of intrinsically situated individual lives.
The Vacuity of Multi-Disciplinarity
The problem with this generalist/specialist extrinsically situated creativity model is that the extrinsic frames of references are getting increasingly dynamic, chaotic and murky. To the point that the distinction is becoming useless. Nobody seems to know which way is up, which way is down, and which way is sideways. If you guess and get lucky, the answers may change next year, leaving you disoriented once more.
The usual response to this environment is to invoke notions of multi-disciplinarity.
Unfortunately, this is worse than useless. In the labor market for skilled capabilities, and particularly in academia, multi-disciplinarity is the equivalent of gerrymandering or secession on an already deeply messed-up political map. Instead of votes, you are grubbing for easily won markers of accomplishment. Its main purpose (in which it usually fails) is to create a new political balance of power rather than unleash human potential more effectively.
The purpose is rarely to provide a context for previously difficult novice-to-master journeys.
How do I know this? It’s patently obvious. If it takes 10,000 hours (K. Anders Ericsson’s now-famous threshold of deliberate practice, thanks to Gladwell, which translates to about 10 years typically) to acquire mastery in any usefully bounded domain, and you assume that there is at least one generation of pioneers who blazed that path to a new kind of mastery, what are you to make of fields that come and go like fruit flies in 2-3 years, in sync with business or funding cycles? The suspicious individual is right to suspect faddishness.
I have come to the conclusion that if I cannot trace a coherent history of at least 20 years for something that claims the label “discipline,” it isn’t one.
The problem with this though is that increasing amounts of valuable stuff is happening outside disciplines by this definition. It isn’t multi-disciplinary. It isn’t inter-disciplinary. It is simply non-disciplinary. It’s in the miscellaneous folder. It is so fluid that it resists extrinsic organization.
So given that most excitement centers around short-lived fruitfly non-disciplines, how do people even manage to log 10,000 deliberate practice hours in any coherent journey to mastery? Can you jump across three or four fruit-fly domains over the course of a decade and still end up with mastery of something, even if you cannot define it?
Yes. If you drop extrinsic frames of reference altogether.
The Compass and the Gyroscope
We are used to describing movement in terms of x, y and z coordinates, with respect to the Greenwich meridian, the Equator and sea level. Our sense of space is almost entirely based on such extrinsic coordinate systems (or landmarks within them). Things that we understand via spatial metaphors naturally tempt us into metaphoric coordinate systems like the depth/breadth one we just talked about. In academic domains, for instance, you could say the world is mapped with reference to an origin that represents a high-school graduate, with disciplinary majors and years of study forming the two axes that define further movement.
Somewhere in graduate school, I encountered an idea that blew my mind: you can also describe movement entirely intrinsically. Actually, I had encountered this idea before, in vague popular science treatments of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, but learning the basics of the math is what truly blows your mind.
The central idea is not hard to appreciate: imagine riding a complicated roller coaster and keeping track of how far along you are on the track, how you’ve been turning, and how you’ve been twisting. That much is easy.
What is not easy is appreciating that that’s all you need. You can dispense with extrinsic coordinate systems entirely. Just keeping track of how those three variables (known as arc-length, curvature and torsion if my memory serves me) are changing, is enough. For short periods, you can roughly measure them using just your intrinsic sense of time and how your stomach and ears feel. To keep the measurements precise over longer periods, you need a gyroscope, an accelerometer and a watch.
If you want motifs for the two modes of operation, think of it as the difference between a magnetic compass and a gyroscope (these days, GPS might be a better motif for the former, but the phrase “the compass and the gyroscope” has a certain ring to it that I like).
We need another supporting notion before we can construct an intrinsic coordinate system for human lives.
Remember that the primary real value of an extrinsically defined discipline in a field/domain matrix is predictable boundedness. Mathematicians can trust that they won’t have to suddenly start dancing halfway through their career to progress further.
This predictability allows you to form reasonable expectations for decades of investment, and make decisions based on your upfront assessment of your strengths, and expectations about how those strengths will evolve as you age.
If I decide that I have certain strengths in mathematics and that I want to bet on those strengths for a decade, to get to mastery, I shouldn’t suddenly stumble into a serious weakness along the way that blocks me, like a lack of natural athleticism.
So a disciplinary boundary is very useful if it provides that kind of predictability. I call this behavioral boundedness. An expectation that your expected behaviors in the future won’t wander too far out of certain strengths-based comfort zones you can guess at fairly accurately, upfront. Before putting in 10,000 hours.
What happens when that sort of predictability breaks down? It is certainly happening all over the place. For instance, I didn’t realize I lacked the strengths needed for a typical career in aerospace engineering (the sort high-school kids fantasize about when they first get interested in airplanes and rockets) until well into a PhD program in the subject. Fortunately, I was able to pivot and head in another direction with almost no wasted effort. Few people are that lucky.
There are domains where the boundedness is very weak indeed. The upfront visible boundedness is a complete illusion. Marketing is one such domain. You might get into it because you love creative messaging or talking to people. You may discover the idea of positioning two years into the journey and realize that creativity in messaging is a sideshow, and the real job is somewhat tedious analysis of the mental models of prospects. A further two years down the road, you may discover that to level-up your game once more, you need to become a serious quantitative analytics ninja and database geek.
This can also work out in positive ways. You might wake up one fine day and realize that your life, which makes no sense in nominal terms, actually adds up to expertise in some domain you’d never identified with at all. That actually happened to me with respect to marketing. On paper, I am the opposite of a marketer. I have a PhD in aerospace engineering, am introverted, and write in long-winded and opaque ways rather than in catchy sound-bytes.
Nevertheless, at some point I realized with a shock that I had accidentally logged several thousand hours along a marketing career path without realizing it. I had just completely misunderstood what “marketing” meant based on the popular image the field presents to novices.
When I went free-agent a few months ago, most of my consulting leads I had coming in had to do with marketing work. This did not surprise me, but it certainly surprised my father and several close friends, who assumed I was doing some sort of technical consulting work around computational modeling and scientific computing.
I’d never thought of myself as a marketer. A computational modeler, yes. A hustler perhaps. A fairly effective corporate guerrilla, yes. A marketer, not really. I viewed my previous marketing work as the work of a curious tourist in a strange land. I viewed my marketing writing as outsider-anthropology amongst strange creatures. But apparently, that’s not how others view me.
Looking back, and trying to make sense of my life in retrospect as “the training of an accidental marketer,” it makes sense though: I’ve logged the right mix of complementary experiences. Marketing is still not my primary identity though (that would mean returning to a Procrustean bed of disciplinary identity).
Many people luck out like me, accidentally. We recognize what particular path to mastery we’re on, long after we actually get on it.
Many do not. They bum around in angsty anomie, craving structure where none exists, and realizing after a decade of wandering that they’ve unfortunately gotten nowhere.
Is it possible to systematically do things to put yourself on a path to mastery, and know you’re on one, without actually knowing what that path is until you’re already far down it?
Inside and Outside Views of Grit
If there is no external frame of reference, how do you know where you are, where you are going and whether you are progressing at all, as opposed to bumming around?
Can you log any old time-sheet of 10,000 hours, slap a label on it, and claim mastery?
Thankfully, intrinsic navigation is not quite that trite.
A clue to the mystery is the personality trait known as grit, probably the best predictor of success in the modern world.
Grit is the enduring intrinsic quality that, for a brief period in recent history, was coincident with the pattern of behavior known as progressive disciplinary specialization.
Grit has external connotations of extreme toughness, a high apparent threshold for pain, and an ability to keep picking yourself up after getting knocked down. From the outside, grit looks like the bloody-minded exercise of extreme will power. It looks like a super-power.
I used to believe this understanding of grit as a superhuman trait. I used to think I didn’t possess it. Yet people seem to think I exhibit it in some departments. Like reading and writing. They are aghast at the amount of reading I do. They wonder how I can keep churning out thousands of words, week after week, year after year, with no guarantee that any particular piece of writing will be well-received.
They think I must possess superhuman willpower because they make a very simple projection error: they think it is hard for me because it would be hard for them. Well of course things are going to take superhuman willpower if you go after them with the wrong strengths.
For a while, I went around calling this faux-grit. The appearance of toughness. But the more I looked around me at other people who seemed to display grit in other domains, the more I realized that it wasn’t hard for them either. What they did would merely be superhuman effort for me. Faux grit and true grit are the same thing (the movie True Grit is actually quite a decent showcase of the trait; it showcases the superhuman outside/fluid inside phenomenon quite well).
So what does the inside view of grit look like? I took a shot at describing the subjective feel in my last post on the Tempo blog. It simply feels like mindful learning across a series of increasingly demanding episodes that build on the same strengths.
But the subjective feel of grit is not my concern here. I am interested in objective, intrinsically measurable aspects of grit that can serve as an internal inertial navigation system; a gyroscope rather than GPS.
The Grit Gyroscope: Reworking, Referencing, Releasing
In physical space, latitude, longitude and altitude get replaced by arc-length, curvature and torsion when you go intrinsic.
In endeavor space, field, domain and years of experience get replaced by three variables that lend themselves to a convenient new 3Rs acronym: reworking, referencing, releasing (well, technically, it is internal referencing and early-and-frequent releasing, but let’s keep the phrase short and alliterative). I believe the new 3Rs are as important to adults as the old ones (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic) are for kids.
I stumbled upon rework as a key variable when I tried to answer a question on Quora: what are some tips for advanced writers?
Since writing is something everybody does, logging 10,000 writing hours is something anyone can do. My aha! moment came when I realized that it isn’t the writing hours that count, it is the rewriting hours. Everybody writes. People who are trying to walk the path towards mastery rewrite. I won’t say more about this variable. If you want a worked example, read my Quora answer. If you want a quick and pleasant read on the subject, Jason Fried’s Rework gets at some of the essential themes (though perhaps in a slightly gimmicky way).
For referencing, my clue was my recent discovery that new readers of this blog often dive deep into the archives and read nearly everything I’ve written in the last four years. I dubbed it the ribbonfarm absurdity marathon because I didn’t understand what would possess anyone to undertake it.
But then I realized that I write in ways that practically demand this reading behavior if people really want to get the most value out of what I am talking about: I reference my own previous posts a lot. Not to tempt people into reading related content, but out of sheer laziness. I don’t like repeating arguments, definitions or key ideas. So I back-link. I do like most of my posts to be stand-alone and comprehensible to a new reader though, so I try to write in such a way that you can get value out of reading a post by itself, but significantly more value if you’ve read what I’ve written before. For example, merely knowing what I mean by the word legibility, which I use a lot, can increase what you get out of some posts by 50%. This is one reason blogging is such a natural medium for me. The possibilities of hyperlinking make it easy to do what would be extremely tedious with paper publishing.
The key here is internal referencing. I use far fewer external reference points (there’s perhaps a dozen key texts and a dozen papers that I reference all the time). It sounds narcissistic, but if you’re not referencing your own work at least 10 times as often as you’re referencing others, you’re in trouble in the intrinsic navigation world. Instead of developing your own internal momentum and inertia, you are being buffeted by external forces, like a grain of pollen being subjected to the forces of Brownian motion.
And finally, releasing. As in the agile software dictum of release early and often. In blogging, frequency isn’t about bug-fixing or collaboration. It isn’t even about market testing (none of my posts are explicitly engineered to test hypotheses about what kind of writing will do well). It is purely about rational gambling in the dollar-cost averaging sense. It is the investing advice “don’t try to time the market” applied to your personal work.
If the environment is so murky and chaotic that you cannot strategically figure out clever moves and timing, the next best thing you can do is just periodically release bits of your developing work in the form of gambles in the external world. I think there’s a justifiable leap of faith here: if you are work admits significant reworking and internally-referencing, you’re probably on to something that is of value to others.
If a post happens to say the right thing at the right time, it will go viral. If not, it won’t. All I need to do is to keep releasing. This realization incidentally, has changed my understanding of phenomena like iteration in lean startups and serial entrepreneurs who succeed on their fifth attempt. It’s mostly about averaging across risk/opportunity exposure events, in an environment that you cannot model well. I am pretty sure you can apply this model beyond blogging and entrepreneurship, but I’ll leave you to figure it out.
These three variables together can measure your progress along any path to mastery. What’s more, they can be measured intrinsically, without reference to any external map of disciplinary boundaries. All you have to do is to look for an area in your life where a lot of rework is naturally happening, maintain an adequate density of internal referencing to your own past work in that area, and release often enough that you can forget about timing the market for your ouput.
What does navigating by these three variables look like from the outside?
If you only do a lot of internal referencing, that’s like marching along a straight, level road.
If you do a lot of internal referencing and a lot of rework, that’s like marching along a steady uphill road that’s gradually getting steeper from an external point of view (in other words, you are on your own exponential path of progress). What you are doing will look impossible to observers. It may look like you are marching up a vertical cliff. A great example is the Silicon Valley archetype of the 10x engineer.
And finally, if you are releasing frequently, that’s like turning and twisting: spiraling around an increasingly steep mountain (or zig-zagging up via a series of switchbacks).
The Path of Least Resistance
Navigating with the 3Rs as an adult isn’t enough. You still have to recover the value the old disciplinary model provided: behavioral boundedness. Whether you are navigating intrinsically or extrinsically, suddenly running into a mountain — a major weakness — is just as bad.
The key here is very simple and very Sun Tzu: with respect to the external world, take the path of least resistance.
Why? Think of it this way. The disciplinary world very coarsely measured your aptitudes and strengths once in your lifetime, pointed you in a roughly right direction and said “Go!” The external environment had been turned into a giant obstacle course designed around a coarse global mapping of everybody’s strengths.
So there was no distinction between the map of the external world you were navigating, and the map of your internal strengths. The two had been arranged to synchronize. If you navigated through a map of external achievement, landmarks and honors, you’d automatically be navigating safely through the landscape of your internal strengths.
But when you cannot trust that you’ve been pointed in the right direction in a landscape designed around your strengths, you cannot afford to navigate based on a one-time coarse mapping of your own strengths at age 18.
If you run into an obstacle, it is far more likely that it represents a weakness rather than a meaningful real-world challenge to be overcome, as a learning experience.
Don’t try to go over or through. It makes far more sense to go around. Hack and work around. Don’t persevere out of a foolhardy superhuman sense of valor.
Hard Equals Wrong
If it isn’t crystal clear, I am advocating the view that if you find that what you are doing is ridiculously hard for you, it is the wrong thing for you to be doing. I maintain that you should not have to work significantly harder or faster to succeed today than you had to 50 years ago. A little harder perhaps. Mainly, you just have to drop external frames of reference and trust your internal navigation on a landscape of your own strengths. It may look like superhuman grit to an outsider, but if it feels like that inside to you, you’re doing something wrong.
This is a very contrarian position to take today. Thomas Friedman in particular has been beating the “harder is better” drum for a decade now, most recently in his take on the London riots, modestly titled A Theory of Everything (Sort Of):
Why now? It starts with the fact that globalization and the information technology revolution have gone to a whole new level. Thanks to cloud computing, robotics, 3G wireless connectivity, Skype, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, the iPad, and cheap Internet-enabled smartphones, the world has gone from connected to hyper-connected.
This is the single most important trend in the world today. And it is a critical reason why, to get into the middle class now, you have to study harder, work smarter and adapt quicker than ever before. All this technology and globalization are eliminating more and more “routine” work — the sort of work that once sustained a lot of middle-class lifestyles.
The environment that really matters isn’t the external world. It is pretty much pure noise. You can easily find and process the subset that is meaningful for your life. It isn’t about harder, smarter, faster. If it were, I’d be dead. I’ve been getting lazier, dumber and slower. It’s called aging. I think Friedman is going to run out of superlatives like “hyper-” before I run out of life. If I am wrong, the world is going to collapse before he gets around to writing The World is Hyper-Flatter-er. Humans are simply not as capable as Friedman’s survival formula requires them to be.
Exhortation is pointless. Humans don’t suddenly become super-human just because the environment suddenly seems to demand superhuman behavior for survival. Those who attempt this kill themselves just as surely as those dumb kids who watch a superman movie and jump off buildings hoping to fly.
It is the landscape of your own strengths that matters. And you can set your own, completely human pace through it.
The only truly new behavior you need is increased introspection. And yes, this will advantage some people over others. To avoid running faster and faster until you die of exhaustion, you need to develop an increasingly refined understanding of this landscape as you progress. You twist and turn as you walk (not run) primarily to find the path of least resistance on the landscape of your strengths.
The only truly new belief you need is that the landscape of disciplinary endeavors and achievement is meaningless. If you are too attached to degrees, medals, prizes, prestigious titles and other extrinsic markers of progress in your life, you might as well give up now. With 90% probability you aren’t going to make it. It’s simple math: even if they were worth it, as our friend Friedman notes with his characteristic scare-mongering, there simply isn’t enough to go around:
Think of what The Times reported last February: At little Grinnell College in rural Iowa, with 1,600 students, “nearly one of every 10 applicants being considered for the class of 2015 is from China.” The article noted that dozens of other American colleges and universities are seeing a similar surge as well. And the article added this fact: Half the “applicants from China this year have perfect scores of 800 on the math portion of the SAT.”
If you’re paying attention to the Chinese kids who score a perfect 800, you’re paying attention to the wrong people. I mean, really? You should worry about some Chinese kid terrorized into achieving a perfect-800 math score by some Tiger Mom, and applying to Grinnell College?
It’s the Chinese kids who are rebelling against their Tiger Moms, completely ignoring the SAT, and flowing down the path of least resistance that you should be worried about. After all Sun Tzu invented that whole idea.
So rework, reference, release. Flow through the landscape of your own strengths and weaknesses. Count to 10,000 rework hours as you walk. If you aren’t seeing accelerating external results by hour 3300, stop and introspect. That is the calculus of grit. It’s the exponential human psychology you need for exponential times. Ignore everything else.
Factoid: this entire 4000-plus word article is a working out of a 21-word footnote on page 89 of Tempo. That’s how internally-referenced my writing has become. Never say I don’t eat my own dogfood.