ICON 2023 Recap: David Epstein on the Value of Being a Generalist

“As your career progresses, what will determine what you’re able to do will not be how smart you are, but your accumulation of a tool kit that you can wield as you go through your career,” said David Epstein.

The New York Times bestselling author and science writer noted the value of having a breadth of experiences rather than specialization in our ever-evolving world as he presented the keynote at the opening General Session of PRSA’s ICON 2023 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn.

Epstein presented data, research and stories from numerous professional athletes, outlining their career scenarios and paths to success.

From Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Serena Williams to grand masters of chess, the Army and even the creator of binary code and Nintendo, he tracks the development of these performers over their lives. Epstein references the “10,000-hours story, or the idea that the only route to exceptional performance is 10,000 hours of so-called deliberate practice,” but clarifies that it wasn’t always a clear-cut path to success for these people who excel in their field.

Delving into these developmental backgrounds, he notes that many of these “domains that we associate with early obligatory specialization,” were deemed average at first and that these people dabbled in other things first before specializing.

“There’s a lot of zigzagging and doing different things by which people accumulate that tool kit,” said Epstein. “We don’t hear that story of development. Even when the work is really famous.”

It’s important to try out a sampling of activities and learn a broad range of skills — learn about your own interests and abilities and systematically delay specializing in something.

“If you’re in an area that’s amenable to that kind of early hyper-specialization, you may not want to be there that much longer,” he said, because, like chess, it can possibly be automated.

Learning environments 

Epstein discussed kind vs. wicked learning environments: “The rules are clear, the rules don’t change, patterns are made, and not a lot of human dynamics are involved. Work next year will look like work last year” in kind environments. As for wicked learning environments: “Next steps and goals may not just be handed to you in a clean manner. You may have to formulate them. The rules may not be clear; they may change. Patterns don’t repeat. Human behavior is involved. Work next year may not look like work last year.”

Which one of these looks like the situation we’re increasingly finding ourselves in? Both, Epstein says, but were trending more toward the environment where you can’t just have a training period and then work based on that.

“You have to learn and learn and relearn. And think about how things relate to one another and larger strategies. In fact, our need to think in a relational manner — or what psychologists call ‘transfer’ — which is taking your skills and knowledge and continually applying it to problems that are a little different than you’ve seen before, has altered our perception,” he said.

“So here we are in this increasingly wicked work world, where things change fast, and it’s kind of unsettling. And our instinct is to become narrower and focus in on the tools that we already have and sharpen those. And sometimes that makes sense, but sometimes that can backfire,” he said, noting that increasing specialization is a double-edged sword.

“When you’ve solved a problem so many ways to a certain effect, you will continue to solve problems that way, even if the problem has changed or if it’s not the right solution,” Epstein said. This is where a network of people moving together to create ideas come in.

This movement, where people take knowledge from one area to another area where it might be seen as something new, is called “the import-export business of ideas.” And, he said, “this is the hallmark of organizations that are adaptable, ‘learning organizations’ that give rise to creative performance when they’re in times of change.”

Epstein called on PR professionals to help cross-pollinate information for their organizations and industries and to become information hubs — seeing more of the big picture, facilitating the import-export of business ideas and looking out for what’s coming next.

Connecting information and ideas 

As communicators, it’s important to collect people’s perspectives on things, synthesize that information and test the ideas — becoming connectors of information across the organization.

Epstein notes the importance of professional communicators differentiating the chain of communication from the chain of command. Establishing informal communication networks can help so that the chain of command isn’t the only way information moves.

“People in this room will be in a place where they can help differentiate these two — whether that’s internally for an organization or across the industry. And that is a tremendous responsibility that we have to be more thoughtful about than ever, given that maybe there’s less water-cooler serendipity, so to speak, to be had no matter what field we’re working in.”

In this rapidly changing work world, personal development is not always linear, and neither is career development. In addition to grit and persistence, match quality is also important — make sure that there’s a correlation between someone’s interests and abilities, and the work that they do. “It turns out to be very important for your performance and your sense of fulfillment,” he said.

Traditionally, people trained for their specific role, there was less change and they solved the same problems the same way, often without much opportunity for career movement or change.

“As we enter the information/knowledge/creativity age, and people engage in knowledge creation, creative problem-solving, and learning and relearning information, and have tremendous lateral mobility,” Epstein said.

“If you can help yourself or help others get to a place where they have higher match quality, they will display the characteristics of grit, like persistence, even if they didn’t before,” he said. Finding the right fit in a large industry with many choices is an important part of career development.

“Even when you’ve figured out the right general place to be, there are still advantages to keeping yourself broad over the course of your career. And this will be increasingly true,” he said, “especially as PR and advertising and marketing and social media and all of these things are converging.”

There are many benefits of staying broad, and working in many different genres can often lead to innovation, Epstein said. “It’s difficult to replace the skills of those broad individuals” — like many of the professional athletes mentioned at the outset — “who often maybe looked like they were behind early in their career until they really weren’t.”

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of Strategies & Tactics.

[Photo credit: Jim Cowsert/Grapevine Photo]

The post ICON 2023 Recap: David Epstein on the Value of Being a Generalist first appeared on PRsay.

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