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Why specializing early doesn't always mean career success

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    So I'd like to talk about
    the development of human potential,
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    and I'd like to start with maybe the most
    impactful modern story of development.
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    Many of you here have probably heard
    of the 10,000 hours rule.
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    Maybe you even model
    your own life after it.
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    Basically it's the idea
    that to become great in anything,
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    it takes 10,000 hours
    of focused practice,
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    so you'd better get started
    as early as possible.
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    The poster child
    for this story is Tiger Woods.
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    His father famously gave him
    a putter when he was seven months old.
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    At 10 months, he started
    imitating his father's swing.
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    At two, you can go on YouTube
    and see him on national television.
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    Fast-forward to the age of 21,
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    he's the greatest golfer in the world.
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    Quintessential 10,000 hours story.
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    Another that features a number
    of bestselling books
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    is that of the three Polgar sisters,
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    whose father decided to teach
    them chess in a very technical manner
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    from a very early age.
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    And really he wanted to show
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    that with a head start
    in focused practice,
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    any child could become
    a genius in anything.
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    And in fact,
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    two of his daughters went on
    to become grandmaster chess players.
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    So when I became the science writer
    at "Sports Illustrated" magazine,
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    I got curious.
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    If this 10,000 hours rule is correct,
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    then we should see that elite
    athletes get a head start
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    in so-called "deliberate practice."
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    This is coached,
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    error-correction focused practice,
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    not just playing around.
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    And in fact,
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    when scientists study elite athletes,
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    they see that they spend
    more time in deliberate practice ...
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    not a big surprise.
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    When they actually track athletes
    over the course of their development,
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    the pattern looks like this:
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    the future elites actually spend
    less time early on in deliberate practice
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    in their eventual sport.
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    They tend to have what scientists
    call a "sampling period,"
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    where they try a variety
    of physical activities,
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    they gain broad, general skills,
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    they learn about
    their interests and abilities
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    and delay specializing until later
    than peers who plateau at lower levels.
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    And so when I saw that I said,
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    "Gosh, that doesn't really comport
    with the 10,000 hours rule, does it?"
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    So I started to wonder about other domains
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    that we associate with obligatory,
    early specialization,
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    like music.
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    Turns out the pattern's often similar.
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    This is research from
    a world-class music academy,
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    and what I want to draw
    your attention to is this:
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    the exceptional musicians didn't start
    spending more time in deliberate practice
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    than the average musicians
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    until their third instrument.
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    They, too, tended to have
    a sampling period.
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    Even musicians we think of
    as famously precocious,
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    like Yo-Yo Ma.
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    He had a sampling period,
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    he just went through it more rapidly
    than most musicians do.
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    Nonetheless, this research
    is almost entirely ignored,
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    and much more impactful
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    is the first page of the book
    "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,"
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    where the author recounts
    assigning her daughter violin.
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    Nobody seems to remember
    the part later in the book
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    where her daughter turns to her
    and says, "You picked it, not me,"
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    and largely quits.
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    So having seen this sort of surprising
    pattern in sports and music,
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    I started to wonder about domains
    that affect even more people,
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    like education.
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    An economist found a natural experiment
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    in the higher-ed systems
    of England and Scotland.
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    In the period he studied
    the systems were very similar
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    except in England,
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    students had to specialize
    in their mid-teen years
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    to pick a specific course
    of study to apply to,
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    whereas in Scotland,
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    they could keep trying things
    in the university if they wanted to.
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    And his question was:
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    who wins the trade-off,
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    the early of the late specializers?
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    And what he saw was that the early
    specializers jump out to an income lead
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    because they have more
    domain-specific skills.
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    The late specializers get to try
    more different things,
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    and when they do pick,
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    they have better fit,
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    or what economists call "match quality."
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    And so their growth rates are faster.
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    By six years out,
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    they erase that income gap.
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    Meanwhile, the early specializers
    start quitting their career tracks
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    in much higher numbers,
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    essentially because they were
    made to choose so early
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    that they more often made poor choices.
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    So the late specializers lose
    in the short term
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    and win the long run.
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    I think if we thought about
    career choice like dating,
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    we might not pressure people
    to settle down quite so quickly.
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    So this got me interested --
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    seeing this pattern again --
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    in exploring the developmental backgrounds
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    of people whose work I had long admired.
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    Like Duke Ellington,
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    who shunned music lessons
    as a kid to focus on baseball
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    and painting and drawing.
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    Or Maryam Mirzakhani,
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    who wasn't interested
    in math as a girl --
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    dreamed of becoming a novelist --
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    and went on to become the first
    and so far only woman
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    to win the Fields Medal,
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    the most prestigious prize
    in the world in math.
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    Or Vincent Van Gogh --
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    had five different careers,
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    each of which he deemed
    his true calling
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    before flaming out spectacularly.
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    And in his late 20s picked up a book
    called "The Guide to the ABCs of Drawing."
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    That worked out OK.
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    Claude Shannon was an electrical engineer
    at the University of Michigan
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    who took a philosophy course
    just to fulfill a requirement,
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    and in it, he learned about
    a near century-old system of logic
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    by which true and false statements
    could be coded as ones and zeros
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    and solved like math problems.
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    This led to the development
    of binary code,
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    which underlies all of our
    digital computers today.
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    Finally, my own sort of role model,
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    Frances Hesselbein --
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    this is me with her --
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    she took her first professional
    job at the age of 54
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    and went on to become
    the CEO of the Girl Scouts,
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    which she saved.
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    She tripled minority membership,
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    added 130,000 volunteers,
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    and this is one of the proficiency badges
    that came out of her tenure --
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    it's binary code for girls
    learning about computers.
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    Today, Frances runs a leadership institute
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    where she works every
    weekday in Manhattan,
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    and she's only 104,
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    so who knows what's next.
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    (Laughter)
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    We never really hear developmental
    stories like this, do we?
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    We don't hear about the research
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    that found that Nobel laureate scientists
    are 22 times more likely
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    to have a hobby outside of work
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    as are typical scientists.
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    We never hear that.
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    Even when the performers
    or the work is very famous,
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    we don't hear these
    developmental stories.
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    For example, here's
    an athlete I've followed.
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    Here he is at age six,
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    wearing a Scottish rugby kit.
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    He tried some tennis,
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    some skiing,
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    wrestling.
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    His mother was actually a tennis coach
    but she declined to coach him
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    because he wouldn't return balls normally.
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    He did some basketball,
    table tennis, swimming.
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    When his coaches wanted to move
    him up a level to play with older boys,
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    he declined because he just wanted
    to talk about pro wrestling
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    after practice with his friends.
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    And he kept trying more sports:
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    handball, volleyball, soccer,
    badminton, skateboarding --
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    so who is this dabbler?
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    This is Roger Federer.
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    Every bit as famous
    as an adult as Tiger Woods,
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    and yet even tennis enthusiasts
    don't usually know anything
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    about his developmental story.
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    Why is that even though it's the norm?
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    I think it's partly because the Tiger
    story is very dramatic.
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    But also because it seems
    like this tidy narrative
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    that we can extrapolate to anything
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    that we want to be good
    at in our own lives.
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    But that I think is a problem,
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    because it turns out that in many ways
    golf is a uniquely horrible model
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    of almost everything
    that humans want to learn.
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    (Laughter)
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    Golf is the epitome of what
    the psychologist Robin Hogarth called
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    a "kind" learning environment.
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    Kind learning environments
    have next steps and goals that are clear,
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    rules that are clear and never change --
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    when you do something you get feedback
    that is quick and accurate;
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    work next year will look
    like work last year.
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    Chess:
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    also a kind learning environment.
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    The grandmasters' advantage is based
    on knowledge of recurring patterns,
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    which is also why
    it's so easy to automate.
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    On the other end of the spectrum
    are "wicked" learning environments,
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    where next steps and goals
    may not be clear.
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    Rules may change.
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    You may or may not get feedback
    when you do something.
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    It may be delayed,
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    it may be inaccurate
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    and work next year may not
    look like work last year.
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    So which one of these
    sounds like the world
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    we're increasingly living in?
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    In fact, our need to think
    in an adaptable manner
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    and to keep track of interconnecting parts
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    has fundamentally changed our perception
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    so that when you look at this diagram,
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    the central circle on the right
    probably looks larger to you
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    because your brain is drawn
    to the relationship of the parts
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    in the whole,
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    whereas someone who hasn't been
    exposed to modern work
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    with its requirement for adaptable,
    conceptual thought,
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    will see correctly that the central
    circles are the same size.
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    So here we are in the wicked work world,
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    and there, sometimes
    hyperspecialization can backfire badly.
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    For example,
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    in research in a dozen countries
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    that matched people
    for their parent's years of education,
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    their test scores,
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    their own years of education,
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    the difference was some got
    career-focused education
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    and some got broader, general education.
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    The pattern was those who got
    the career-focused education
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    are more likely to be hired
    right out of training,
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    more likely to make more money right away,
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    but so much less adaptable
    in a changing work world
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    that they spend so much less time
    in the workforce overall
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    that they win in the short term
    and lose in the long run.
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    Or consider a famous,
    20-year study of experts
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    making geopolitical
    and economic predictions.
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    The worst forecasters
    were the most specialized experts.
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    Those who'd spent their entire careers
    studying one or two problems
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    and came to see the whole world
    through one lens or mental model.
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    Some of them actually got worse
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    as they accumulated
    experience and credentials.
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    The best forecasters were simply
    bright people with wide-ranging interests.
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    Now in some domains,
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    like medicine,
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    increasing specialization has been
    both inevitable and beneficial.
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    No question about it.
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    And yet it's been a double-edged sword.
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    A few years ago,
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    one of the most popular surgeries
    in the world for knee pain
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    was tested in a placebo-controlled trial.
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    Some of the patients got sham surgery.
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    That means the surgeons make an incision,
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    they bang around like
    they're doing something,
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    then they sew the patient back up.
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    That performed just as a well.
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    And yet surgeons who specialize
    in the procedure continue to do it
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    by the millions.
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    So if hyperspecialization isn't always
    the trick in a wicked world, what is?
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    That can be difficult to talk about
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    because it doesn't
    always look like this path.
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    Sometimes it looks like
    meandering or zigzagging
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    or keeping a broader view.
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    It can look like getting behind.
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    But I want to talk about what
    some of those tricks might be.
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    If we look at research
    on technological innovation,
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    it shows that increasingly,
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    the most impactful patents
    are not authored by individuals
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    who drill deeper, deeper, deeper
    into one area of technology,
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    as classified by the US Patent Office,
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    but rather by teams
    that include individuals
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    who have worked across a large number
    of different technology classes
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    and often merge things
    from different domains.
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    Someone whose work I've admired
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    who was sort of
    on the forefront of this --
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    a Japanese man named Gunpei Yokoi.
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    Yokoi didn't score well
    on his electronics exams at school,
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    so he had to settle for a low-tier job
    as a machine maintenance worker
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    at a playing card company in Kyoto.
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    He realized he wasn't equipped
    to work on the cutting edge,
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    but that there was so much
    information easily available
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    that maybe he could combine things
    that were already well-known
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    in ways that specialists
    were too narrow to see.
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    So he combined some well-known technology
    from the calculator industry
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    with some well-known technology
    from the credit card industry
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    and made handheld games.
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    And they were a hit.
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    And it turned this playing card company,
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    which was founded in a wooden
    storefront in the 19th century,
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    into a toy and game operation.
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    You may have heard of it;
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    It's called Nintendo.
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    Yokoi's creative philosophy translated
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    to "lateral thinking
    with withered technology;"
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    taking well-known technology
    and using it in new ways.
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    And his magnum opus was this:
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    the Game Boy.
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    Technological joke in every way.
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    And it came out at the same time
    as color competitors from Saga and Atari
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    and it blew them away
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    because Yokoi knew what his
    customers cared about wasn't color.
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    It was durability,
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    portability,
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    affordability,
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    battery life --
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    game selection.
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    This is mine that I found
    in my parents' basement --
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    (Laughter)
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    seen better days.
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    But you can see the red light is on.
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    I flipped it on and played some Tetris,
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    which I thought was especially impressive
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    because the batteries had expired
    in 2007 and 2013.
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    (Laughter)
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    So this breadth advantage holds
    in more subjective realms as well.
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    In a fascinating study of what leads
    some comic book creators
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    to be more likely to make
    blockbuster comics,
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    a pair of researchers found
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    that it was neither the number of years
    of experience in the field
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    nor the resources of the publisher,
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    nor the number of previous comics made.
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    It was the number of different genres
    that a creator had worked across.
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    And interestingly, a broad individual
    could not be entirely replaced
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    by a team of specialists.
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    We probably don't make as many
    of those people as we could
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    because early on,
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    they just look like they're behind
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    and we don't tend to incentivize anything
    that doesn't look like a head start
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    or specialization.
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    In fact, I think in the well-meaning
    drive for a head start,
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    we often even counterproductively
    short circuit even the way we learn
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    new material at a fundamental level.
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    In a study last year,
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    seventh-grade math classrooms in the US
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    were randomly assigned
    to different types of learning.
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    Some got what's called blocked practice.
  • 12:08 - 12:10
    That's like, you get problem type A,
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    AAAAA,
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    BBBBB,
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    and so on.
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    Progress is fast,
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    kids are happy,
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    everything's great.
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    Other classrooms got assigned
    to what's called "Interleaved practice."
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    That's like if you took
    all the problem types
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    and put them in a hat
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    and drew them out at random.
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    Progress is slower,
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    kids are more frustrated.
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    But instead of learning
    how to execute procedures,
  • 12:31 - 12:34
    they're learning how to match
    a strategy to a type of problem.
  • 12:35 - 12:37
    And when the test comes around,
  • 12:37 - 12:40
    the interleaved group blew
    the block practice group away.
  • 12:41 - 12:41
    It wasn't even close.
  • 12:42 - 12:45
    Now I found a lot of this research
    deeply counterintuitive.
  • 12:46 - 12:47
    They idea that a headstart,
  • 12:47 - 12:49
    whether in picking a career
    or a course of study
  • 12:49 - 12:51
    of just in learning new material,
  • 12:51 - 12:54
    can sometimes undermine
    long-term development.
  • 12:54 - 12:58
    And naturally, I think there are as many
    ways to succeed as there are people,
  • 12:58 - 13:02
    but I think we tend only to incentivize
    and encourage the Tiger path
  • 13:02 - 13:04
    when increasingly in a wicked world,
  • 13:04 - 13:07
    we need people who travel
    the Roger path as well.
  • 13:07 - 13:09
    Or as the eminent physicist
    and mathematician
  • 13:09 - 13:11
    and wonderful writer,
  • 13:11 - 13:13
    Freeman Dyson put it --
  • 13:13 - 13:16
    and Dyson passed away yesterday,
  • 13:16 - 13:18
    so I hope I'm doing
    his words honor here --
  • 13:18 - 13:19
    as he said,
  • 13:19 - 13:21
    "For a healthy ecosystem,
  • 13:21 - 13:23
    we need both birds and frogs.
  • 13:23 - 13:24
    Frogs are down in the mud,
  • 13:24 - 13:26
    see all the granular details.
  • 13:26 - 13:29
    The birds are soaring up above
    not seeing those details,
  • 13:29 - 13:31
    but integrating
    the knowledge of the frogs."
  • 13:31 - 13:33
    And we need both.
  • 13:33 - 13:34
    The problem, Dyson said,
  • 13:34 - 13:37
    is that "we're telling everyone
    to become frogs"
  • 13:37 - 13:38
    and I think,
  • 13:38 - 13:42
    in a wicked world
    that's increasingly short-sighted.
  • 13:42 - 13:44
    Thank you very much.
  • 13:44 - 13:47
    (Applause)
Title:
Why specializing early doesn't always mean career success
Speaker:
David Epstein
Description:

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Video Language:
English
Team:
closed TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
14:00

English subtitles

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