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When Generalists Are Better Than Specialists, and Vice Versa

Improving creative performance

Two types of capabilities can improve creative performance.

  1. The ability to connect ideas across subject areas, especially if the field is relatively stagnant.
  2. The ability to efficiently build on progress in your field, particularly when things are progressing quickly.

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The era of problem-solving generalists
The era of problem-solving generalists

From an era of specialized workers having expertise in one particular activity, the professional world has slowly moved towards problem-solving generalists. Workers are asked to don differe...

The pursuit of mastery

Mastery, once a sought-after attribute, is falling out of favour, according to the 2016 World Economic Forum report, and is slowly clearing the field for employees who can:

  • Have a diverse set of skills.
  • Can display the mental agility to switch between tasks.
  • Are able to pivot towards a new problem or activity.
  • Can take on a variety of roles at a short notice.
Expertise decline consequences

With the value of true expertise in serious decline, and the economy evolving towards a different set of requirements from employees, the impact on college education, career paths, worker safety, employability and even the nature of work is going to be profound.

Chaos Theory
Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory is a mathematical toolkit that allows us to extract ordered structures from chaos. The theory can reveal the intricate workings of such diverse natural systems as the beating of the hu...

Tiny variations vastly affect the outcome

Order on a small scale can produce chaos on a larger scale. In systems that behave without chaotic effects, small differences could eventually increase in size until they produce large effects - the hallmark of a chaotic system.

Meteorologist Edward Lorenz made this profound discovery when he attempted to predict the weather more accurately using a mathematical model. He found that rounding numbers off to three decimal places significantly changed the course of his weather predictions. Lorenz famously illustrated this effect with the analogy of a butterfly flapping its wings, thereby causing a hurricane formation elsewhere.

Understanding the butterfly effect

A good way to see the butterfly effect is with a game of billiards. No matter how consistent you are with the first shot, the smallest of differences in the speed and angle with which you strike the white ball will cause the balls to scatter in different directions every time.

What at first appears to be random behavior is completely deterministic. It only seems random because changes that are hardly noticeable are making all the difference.

The Half-Life of Facts
The Half-Life of Facts

Facts decay over time. And the time it takes to disprove or replace half of it can be predicted.

Data in medicine become half as relevant in 2-3 years. For exact sciences, 2-4 years.

Half life of facts and compound knowledge

If we want our knowledge to compound, we’ll need to focus on the invariant general principles.

Half-lives show us that if we spend time learning something that changes quickly, we might be wasting our time.