If you missed the earlier chapters, catch up on them:
And, if you haven’t had time to read the comment threads, I encourage you to check them out. We’ve got a good discussion going on.
Knowing a little about a lot…
First things first: confessions. Hi, my name is Heather, and I am a compulsive learner.
It started out innocently enough. “Sure, stained glass club sounds fun! Never tried it, why not?” I played multiple sports, played piano, sang in the choir, took creative writing and astronomy and photography courses, and read incessantly. Without a second thought, I gallivanted off toward whatever next shiny object caught my eye. This innate fascination with everything I don’t know has led to early graduations, a somewhat unhealthy obsession with Malcolm Gladwell and brain psychology, a couple of master’s degrees, and a impractical pining for a PhD.
I have always been a fast learner. Yet I never had the interest or discipline in excelling at any one or five things—I always did just enough to land me a spot near the top, but never at the top. I don’t know if this was sheer laziness or a genuine desire to fulfill my tendencies for a multi-passionate life: I was way too busy doing other fun stuff than to waste energy on being valedictorian. However, I’ve long believed the “jack of all trades, master of none” trait was a hindrance and a negative, and I’ve tried to cure myself of it. This was such a refreshing chapter!
Sonenshein opens the chapter with a nod to Napoleon Dynamite, a film I’m hesitant to admit due to its cult following never having watched. It was one of Netflix’s most watched films, and the greatest challenge to its recommendation algorithm, due to its polarizing results: people either vehemently loathed it, or were tattooing movie quotes on their delicate flesh. Thus was born the Netflix Prize: a contest to improve the algorithm’s accuracy by 10%. It attracted the brightest minds in math and science, and just a guy in a garage—quite possibly the best team name ever. “For Gavin Potter, the Netflix Prize was as much a puzzle in understanding these types of human irrationalities as it was a show of math and computing prowess”.
We are introduced to the idea that “outsiders can regularly outperform experts in solving a problem in their own area of expertise, especially for complex challenges. The key to outsiders’ results lies with the diversity of their experience.” In short, we can’t see it, because we know too much about it and this is clouding our judgment; literally rendering us unable to access creativity in problem solving. This must be the origin of the concept of having a fresh pair of eyes when we are finally tired of beating our heads against the wall.
Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule from his book Outliers “reasons that obtaining expertise depends on practice…and not inborn talent”. This applies to situations with static rules: chess or hockey, or in my case, piano. I played classical piano from 6 years old through college. I could play damn near any piece of music that was put in front of me. But I couldn’t improvise to save my life. I watched with envy and terror as my musician friends started bands and jammed together, improvising and creating music from thin air. That scared the shit out of me. There were no rules. No way to do it “right”. This is precisely why I started piano lessons again, at age 38, to learn jazz improv. And it still terrifies me, every single time I go to my lesson.
Sonenshein shares that practice predicts performance far less that we believe—as little as 1%, for fields such as selling insurance or flying a plane—and that the greater indicator was the level of predictability. “For fields without stable rules, thousands of hours of practice turn out to be less relevant because the rules constantly shift; it is hard to become an expert in something always changing.”
Thus is the nature of life: two heads are better than one, the hive mind, the wisdom of crowds. Yet we are trained to trust the experts, to not be open to the perspectives of outsiders. By adhering to the mindset that outsiders are of no worth, we gloss over this: “Experts come with a significant liability…cognitively entrenched, blinded to using resources in ways that depart from conventions.” Only after we’ve exhausted all possible solutions (aka kept trying the same thing over and over and getting the same results…Einstein’s definition of insanity!) do we even think about looking to outsiders for help.
I was surprised/not surprised by Sonenshein’s correlation to women in science as outsiders, and their 23.4% greater probability of solving a problem compared to men: approaching problems more openly and not being set on traditions and the ways things are “supposed” to be done or used.
Sonenshein’s multi-context (multi-c) rule purports that the more diverse a person’s experience, the more expansively they are able to consider creative and non-traditional uses of resources. This is in stark contrast to the traditional economy-growing gospel from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: more widgets, cheaper, faster. That’s great for manufacturing. Innovation and problem solving, not so much. A study of CEO pay found that multi-c executives earned up to 19% higher; jobs with more complexity earned multi-c executives up to 44% more.
He presents four steps for embracing the multi-c rule.
1. Explore the world around you: cast a wide net, satisfy your curiosity for no other reason than that, and take Thomas Edison’s advice: “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”
2. Make all resources accessible: from past projects, that seem to have no relevance to the problem at hand, ideas and prototypes and failed initiatives.
3. Analogical Reasoning: “make connections to similar problems that on the surface look different.”
4. Regularly test ideas. Expect most to fail. Don’t hesitate to abandon ideas that don’t work (but keep them in the resource museum for future challenges!).
Sonenshein closes the chapter with an ode to the time when “the same people wrote poetry and built bridges”. This sounds like a dreamy world. He shares research about innate differences between people that seem so obvious but are overlooked/have skewed importance in the way our society operates today: openness to experience. We are taught to conform, to get that job, to graduate college, to save up to buy that house or car, etc. etc., do one thing well and build our career and life around it, all in the name of perpetuating the “American Dream”. I’m thrilled to see so many pushing back against this conformity and being open to seeking out the unfamiliar, embrace curiosity, follow our passions, change careers, and try new things without being held back by that fear of failure or lack of conformity.
I have been fairly successful in doing this in my personal life. In business it’s a far greater challenge. I have this fledgling sustainability program I’m trying to redesign, and find myself getting stuck in the same thinking that I’ve had around it for the past 9 years. I am excited to apply what I learn in this book to figure out a way to approach it in new and different ways.
I look forward to hearing your takeaways from this chapter!
Up Next: Ch 5 by Xeno Hemlock