Education
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Episode 117
Featuring David Epstein
Demetri Kofinas speaks with David Epstein about the world’s most successful people and why generalists who often find their paths late in life, juggle many interests and don't make firm plans are the ones most primed for success.

In this week’s episode of Hidden Forces, Demetri Kofinas speaks with author David Epstein about what the world’s most successful people have in common. He discovers that in most fields—especially those that are complex and unpredictable—generalists, not specialists, are the ones primed for success. “As computers master more of the skills once reserved for highly focused humans,” says David, “people who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will increasingly thrive.”

David’s conclusions run counter to the prevailing view among “experts” who 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,” they say “you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start.” But a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, paints a very different picture. In fact, it shows that early specialization is actually the exception, not the rule.

In his research, David Epstein discovers that while generalists often do find their path late—juggling many interests rather than focusing on one—they arrive at their destination with a higher degree of “fit” after undergoing a prolonged sampling period. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see. 

In their conversation, David Epstein makes a compelling case for actively cultivating inefficiency. He explains why failing a test is the best way to learn and that frequent quitters end up with the most fulfilling careers. He gives example after example of how some of the most impactful inventors cross domains rather than deepening their knowledge in a single area. In a 21st century increasingly dominated by automation and the specter of artificial intelligence, David believes that people who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will increasingly thrive.

You can access the rundown to this week’s episode, along with a transcript to Demetri’s conversation with David through the Hidden Forces Patreon Page. All subscribers also gain access to our overtime feed, which can be easily be added to your favorite podcast application, allowing you to listen in on the rest of Demetri and David’s conversation.

Producer & Host: Demetri Kofinas

Editor & Engineer: Stylianos Nicolaou

Subscribe & Support the Podcast at http://patreon.com/hiddenforces

Join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @hiddenforcespod

David Epstein is the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and The Sports Gene, which has been translated in 18 languages. He was previously a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica, and prior to that a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, where he co-authored the story that revealed Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez had used steroids. His writing has been honored by an array of organizations, from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, to the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Center on Disability and Journalism, and has been included in the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology. His story “Following the Trail of Broken Hearts,” on sudden cardiac death in athletes, was chosen as one of the top 100 stories of the last 100 years by Columbia Journalism alumni.  David has master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism and is reasonably sure he’s the only person to have co-authored a paper in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research while a writer at Sports Illustrated. He has worked as an ecology researcher in the Arctic, studied geology and astronomy while residing in the Sonoran Desert, and blithely signed up to work on the D-deck of a seismic research vessel shortly after it had been attacked by pirates. An avid runner, he was a Columbia University record holder and twice NCAA All-East as an 800-meter runner.

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