Monday, October 30, 2023

Range: Generalization vs. Specialization

We live in an age where specialists appear to have more money and respect.  Parents encourage their children to pick a specialty that they can master and make more money.

Tiger Woods from the world of sport and Yo-Yo Ma from the world of music provide examples of the advantages of mastering a skill at an early age.

We are told to "think outside the box"  The reality is in an age of specialization we work in relatively small boxes and too often try to resolve concerns inside the box.  There are in fact lots of boxes, but we are unaware of most of them

James Flynn, from the University of Otago in New Zealand has studied the challenges of thinking.  "They < students> must be taught to think before what to think about."  

"Sunk costs" discourage people from changing course.  No one wants to admit they wasted their time and money.  Really it is never a total waste to learn what is not working.

Andy Ouderkirk, an inventor at 3M with a multitude of patents noted that over years communications have greatly improved.  "When information became more widely disseminated it became easier to be a broader than a specialist, to start combining things in new ways."  

Charles Darwin wrestled with different theories to explain the information he had gathered.  He had come from a religious background and started from that base.  However he had read Charles Lyell, a geologist that claimed the earth was much older than supposed and that changes were gradual.  This idea prompted him to explore other possibilities leading to the theory of evolution.

There are quite a few pages devoted to the Challenger case study.   On January 27, 1986, many experts gathered and discussed the information they had been given and gave the go ahead.  On January 28th, an O ring failed to seal adequatley  and an explosion killed all seven crew members.  The decision could have been avoided if the decision makers had asked for more data instead of settling for what was given.

There is a great deal of thinking from many different sources that prove that although we need specialists we also need generalists.  Also it is better to learn a variety of things to find a match and then specialize.

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