Generalists vs specialists
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - September 1, 2019 - 12:00am

I have always considered myself a generalist in a world that is becoming extremely specialized. I must confess that I have always found it difficult to answer when people ask me what is my area of expertise. In high school I wanted to take history and ended up taking a double degree course in business and social science. In college I wanted to take up law but ended up taking a masters degree in business management. I would have loved to teach history; but, since my degree was in business management, I ended up teaching strategic management for 22 years in the graduate school of business in De La Salle University. 

I wrote a book on family business and strategic management because I did a lot of consulting on family business. Then I started writing a column in BusinessWorld and started by writing mainly about business topics; and then went into politics. Today my column is mostly about geopolitics and politics. I write a lot of book reviews because it gives me a reason to delve into other non-business topics. Mostly I write about books on history, economics, geopolitics and varied other topics mostly in the area of social sciences – history, anthropology, economics, sociology, and social psychology. When I write business topics, I usually write about business ethics, corporate social responsibility, AI. In the interest of full disclosure, this will alert my reader to understand why I had to buy this book just based on the title. The book is RANGE: Why generalists Triumph In A World Of Specialists by David Epstein published by Riverhead Books, 2019.

The publisher’s introduction states that plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument or lead their field should start early, focus intensely and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up with the people who got a headstart. However they also said: “...a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule.” 

This conclusion will certainly be disputed by “experts” from the academe and the medical profession. The field of medicine has become so specialized that there is a joke, in the book, that says if a person goes to a clinic to say something is wrong with his ear, the first question will be asked before being referred to the proper specialist is “...the right ear or the left ear?” Even in science, soon there will be more chemistry majors; but, there will be majors in biochemistry, organic chemistry and so on. 

The book is full of interesting stories and case studies. Epstein examines who he claims are the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists. He concludes that in the fields that are the most complex and unpredictable, it is the generalists, not specialists that are primed to excel. He says: “Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make more connections their more specialized peers can’t see.”

Epstein’s introduction is unique in that he told the story of two athletes – Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. At the age of two, Tiger won his first gold tournament. From then on, his father believed that his path to greatness was through the path of golf. By the time he reached Stanford, Tiger’s father was already calling him the Chosen One. His father believed that he would have a larger impact on the world than Mandela, Gandhi or Buddha. 

Federer grew up differently. His mother was a tennis coach but she never coached him. He played squash with his father. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming and skateboarding. He played basketball, handball, tennis table tennis, badminton and soccer at school. He would later give credit to the wide range of sports he played for helping him develop his athleticism and hand-eye coordination. It was only in early teens that he gravitated towards tennis. His father had only one advice: “ Just don’t cheat.” Other kids had been working with coaches, sports psychologists and nutritionists. But this did not hamper his development in the long run. In his midthirties, an age when even legendary tennis players are retired or past their peak, Federer would still be ranked number one in the world. His life would also be a more balanced one than other superstars. 

Epstein also categorized geniuses into foxes and hedgehogs. Hedgehogs tend to see simple, deterministic rules of cause and effect framed by their area of expertise, like repeating patterns on a chessboard. Foxes see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect. There are always unknowns and luck for foxes. Einstein was a hedgehog, a specialist; and Darwin was a fox, a generalist. 

This is a book worth reading whether you are a generalist or a specialist, a hedgehog or a fox. 

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on Sept. 7 and 21 (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC.  Adult class on writing poetry with Gemino Abad on Sept. 28, 1:30-4:30 pm. For details and registration, email

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