Our culture loves to lionize people who have focused on one thing and excelled in it - whether that's Tiger Woods in golf, Warren Buffett in business, or Lindsey Vonn in skiing. But while it's admirable for someone to master a craft, there's another path to success that's rarely talked about: generalism. In this article, we'll explore how seemingly diverse skills can lateralize, explain why broadening your horizons makes it more likely to find the thing you're best at, and look at how acquiring new skills will actually improve your performance of existing ones.
Harnessing the Positive Manifold Effect
Until the early 1900s, the long-held belief was that to be great at one thing, you have to focus on it exclusively. In a Twitter post, Billy Oppenheimer, who works with The Daily Stoic author Ryan Holiday, shared how English psychologist Charles Spearman shook this notion like a snow globe.
“Before Spearman, the natural assumption was that the more you specialize in one thing, the worse you’ll be at other things,” Oppenheimer wrote. “Instead, Spearman discovered ‘the positive manifold’ phenomenon. He found that different abilities tend to be positively correlated. That the expertise gained through specialization is transferrable.”
Oppenheimer related Spearman’s discovery back to the unlikely origin story of legendary shoe designer Tinker Hatfield. In 1985, he entered a contest run by Nike. Though they had signed Michael Jordan to a landmark deal, the company was still working on the design of his debut signature sneakers and was struggling financially – as shown in the recent Matt Damon/Ben Affleck/Viola Davis film, Air. As a Hail Mary play, they ran a shoe design contest, hoping to find the right person to revolutionize their process and stick it to rivals like Converse, Reebok, and Adidas, who were all outperforming them.
Hatfield wasn’t in the footwear business at all – in fact, he’d spent four and a half years building his portfolio as a corporate architect after graduating from the University of Oregon’s College of Design. But he entered anyway with the bold idea of revealing the air cushioning inside a Nike running shoe, which was inspired by the structure of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The company realized it had found a clear winner and told the startled Hatfield that he was their new shoe designer, without even formally offering him the job. Their assumption that he’d change careers paid off, as the architect accepted. His entry became the iconic Nike Air 180, and he went on to create similarly legendary shoes like the Air Jordan XI and Kobe IX.
As Oppenheimer put it, Hatfield’s journey is inspiring to anyone hoping to cross over from one field into another because it demonstrated that “the cognitive and creative abilities cultivated as an architect could positively correlate with being a shoe designer.” In an episode of the Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design, Hatfield stated: “When you sit down to create something...what you create is a culmination of everything you’ve seen and done previous to that point.” So while it might not be obvious right now how your past or present activities might inform future opportunities, it’s likely that they’re preparing you for what’s next in some profound way.
Hopping Between Projects
In their book Wired to Create, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and Huffington Post senior writer Carolyn Gregoire make the argument that experimenting with a lot of different ideas and sampling many new things is a hallmark of elite-level creators in many fields. They summarized two of the major takeaways from the pioneering research of University of California, Davis psychologist Dr. Dean Keith Simonton this way:
“First, creative geniuses simultaneously immerse themselves in many diverse ideas and projects. Second, and perhaps even more important, they also have extraordinary productivity. Creators create. Again and again and again.”
One of the geniuses who Simonton studied was Thomas Edison. Kaufman and Gregoire make the case that his ongoing struggles to invent fuel cells – which industrial engineers wouldn’t pull off until many decades after his death – contributed to the Wizard of Menlo Park’s best-known invention.
“Edison accepted the inevitable frustrations of the creative process and turned his attention to other projects that would eventually lead to the invention of the electric lightbulb – the source of his recognition as a genius today,” they suggested. “Such frequent shifts among projects may have primed Edison’s mind to consider options he might have otherwise ignored.”
Such lateralization and skill transfer not only led to the world being electrically illuminated, but also prompted Edison’s creation of the phonograph, automated telegraph, movie camera, alkaline batteries, and many more. Even if you don’t consider yourself an inventor, the point still holds: challenge yourself to pursue multiple creative outlets and when you run into roadblocks in one, eagerly switch to another.
Increasing Match Quality
A few people are so obviously gifted in one thing that it would be foolish for them not to pursue it, like the child prodigy who sits down at a piano and plays it with greater aplomb than a concert performer. Some other outliers are endowed with natural gifts that enable them to dominate their competition, like LeBron James in basketball, Usain Bolt in track, or Serena Williams in tennis. But for the rest of us, finding the things that we’re both good at and enjoy doing takes time and is an ongoing journey of self-discovery.
This process is known as match quality. It has led to the development of strength finding assessments that have become popular among executives and other people interested in self-improvement. This is tied to the kind of personality profiling that has gone mainstream in the past few years. In his bestselling book Range, journalist David Epstein references the work of Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organization at London Business School. She believes that strength finding frameworks can be flawed because they’re self-limiting and don’t take into account how people grow and evolve over time.
Such self-evaluations can also have the unintended consequence of preventing us from trying new things because we mistakenly believe that we will be ill-suited to them or that they will steer us away from the things that we’re supposedly a good fit for. “Ibarra concluded that we maximize match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives,” Epstein wrote. When he asked Ibarra about why strength finding can’t just be a theoretical exercise, she said, “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.”
It's all too easy to become so confined by our current routines or bound by limited visions for our future that we never try anything new, different, or challenging. Certainly, you won’t be good at everything and are unlikely to find a new lifelong career or craft at the first attempt. But if you never branch out and give something a shot, you could be severely limiting your match quality, ensuring that the status quo will continue, and preventing yourself from making an invigorating transition. Whereas if you commit to continual exploration, you might find your way to exciting and unexpected destinations in your professional and personal lives.