Why specialized careers will halt innovation

Interesting people will change the world, not the specialized majority.

Daniel Lee - Medium

Innovation raises the status quo

The status quo will always be there. We’ve been able to raise it continuously for centuries. With each form of technological innovation, people have been evolving.

Technology like the chair, wagon, car, internet and so on.

Most were made possible thanks to mavericks who went against the grain. Who made the bet that others didn’t believe in.

They innovated and disrupted the old ways. Not making something faster but providing completely new options to the existing process. Thanks to Uber I have multiple modes of transit, options to go to areas I never considered and the option to not own a car in the future. Thanks to Facebook I don’t need the phone numbers of friends and can contact them whenever we want. Thanks to Google I can find anything I want. I don’t even have to print out physical maps when I travel.

I’ve named the few successes. Most have tried and failed of course. But, like Picasso had to go through tens of thousands of paintings for a few that made him famous, we’ll need many more to try.

It makes me think, isn’t that a worthy pursuit for the short life we have?

Interesting people innovate

Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger is famous for quoting the value of building mental models throughout one’s life. Mental models can be in as many areas as finance, psychology, physics, biology, history, you name it. It’s like amassing tools in a toolbox (i.e. your brain). He attributes a part of his investment success to his pursuit of obtaining worldly wisdom to learn the many mental models he has.

I believe experience may have a greater impact on our ability to amass such mental models than merely reading about them. The final form of learning is application (i.e. experience). So the wider one’s experience set, the wider one’s knowledge base could be. Breadth of experiences, as it is commonly called.

There are many factors to successful innovation. I believe one major factor is leading an interesting life.

Whether it's experiencing living in ten countries, working in three career fields, having education in unrelated fields to one’s career, or wide-ranging hobbies and passions; they all add to the adoption of various models. This makes someone interesting. By societal standards, I would consider a ballet dancing, drum playing, Ph.D. engineer turned CFO to be interesting. Is it due to a divergence from the norm?

As Dan Gilbert mentions in Stumbling on Happiness, our imagination is vastly limited by our experience. What we see and do cast a psychological ceiling on our own imagination of what could be possible. To expand such an imagination, one would need to widen her perspective with different kinds of experiences.

In Adam Grant’s Originals, a Michigan State University study looked at the last 100 years of Nobel Prize-winning scientists. Turns out, the scientist’s involvement in the arts led to a materially higher chance of winning the prize. If the scientist had a hobby related to the performing arts (i.e. acting, dancing, magic) they had the highest odds of winning the Nobel Prize at 22x greater than a typical scientist. This transferred over to entrepreneurs and inventors in their likelihood to have patents.

Erik Dane, Professor at Rice, found that the more expertise and experience an individual had in a specific field, the more entrenched in the existing view he will be.

Makes sense.

It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy of continuously shouting your viewpoint. You believe you are right, so you say what you believe to be right. Your colleagues view the same way so you all think you are right. The cycle continues.

So, if I wanted to disrupt hotels, taxis, or e-commerce… turns out I had to be an industrial designer (Brian Chesky), work in peer-to-peer file sharing (Travis Kalanick), and be a quant trader (Jeff Bezos).

Those in the system are less willing to find something wrong with it. Even if they did, they may not be able to radically change it.

We like to streamline paths,

Make them defined

I scoffed at the idea of generalist programs when applying for university.

I thought: “Why “waste” time pursuing unrelated subject matters?”“How would this translate to getting a high paying job?”

I was all about thriving in the “system”. With the ego-driven type-A personality all primed up, I joined a specialist program in accounting. Unlike other business programs, where individuals would declare a major in a third or fourth year, I was declaring my major in year 1. “How efficient!”, I thought.

I’m not the only one. Everyone is in a hurry. Why do you think the lottery still exists? Sooner or later, we will find a way to make things efficient (i.e. Assembly lines, and careers).

You want to be an accountant? Do 4–5 years of schooling, get a job at a public accounting firm, take a series of exams, get 3 years of experience and ta-da.

You want to be a lawyer? Do 6–7 years of schooling, get an articling, write the exams, get some experience and ta-da.

You want to be an investor? Do 4 years of schooling, get a top investment banking job, go to private equity, get an MBA, and ta-da.

You get the point. The paths are not absolute but are commonly assumed to be so.

I’m not saying whether following such set “paths” are right or wrong. Rather, that they exist and many are influenced to believe that is the only way. I can’t be a doctor without going to medical school. But if I wanted to change healthcare for millions, I don’t have to be a doctor.

I studied veteran investors while on my own journey. Turned out many did not follow a defined path. Some were hedge fund investors who are philosophy majors (George Soros) or medical students (Michael Burry) and how there are venture capitalists who were artists (Paul Graham) and philosophy majors (Peter Thiel).

Interesting people will become scarce

Following the streamlined path is easy. All you need is effort, time and blind faith.

It’s a decision to not think.

The majority will take on this path. It’s been continuously fine-tuned throughout the years. Humans love making a formula for everything and use the past to forecast the future. Most are wrong for many reasons. Yet, many prefer the path of an un-interesting life because the unknown is scary. The unknown is associated with “risk”. By going on the set pathway, the person knows how it will end and will be content with it.

Oddly, that makes one a poor investor. Rolling the dice on a path with a limited upside seems to be poor risk management at best. If something is knowable and obvious, it’s a crowded bet and no crowded bet yields high returns. It’s a rather high risk + low return proposition to set on the defined path. How is it high risk? Is it not risky to limit your own development by not exploring? Is it not risky to trade-off the nonrenewable resource of time and biological youth to a pre-determined path that is neither guaranteed nor likely to change in a decade?

I might have riled some feathers. My opinion here so take it or leave it. I ain’t one to judge either. I made the above bet before too.

Most will not explore. Most have stopped going on unknowable adventures after high school. They’ve ceased to learn of the unknown. They’ve killed their own curiosity.

With such streamlined systems and defined paths, interesting people will become scarce.

Why be interesting?

Oddly, it’s the same people who embark on the defined path that generally feel threatened by new technology. Maybe it’s because they know they’ve ceased doing what humans do best. Being creative.

That is our advantage. Human capital’s value resides in our ability to learn, think and be creative. There is no formula to this.

It’s a long process that comes from deliberate practice combined with a breadth of wide-ranging experiences.

If raising the status quo through innovation is not your ‘cup of tea’ that’s cool. Then maybe preserving your own career can be enough of a motivation for you to live an interesting life.

This is a call to explore. Be interesting. Be different. Branch off to build out a new mental model and learn.

Originally published at www.oldmandan.com.