Remixing fields

I liked the career advice from Scott Adams last week (also seen at Seppo’s blog), where he points out:

…if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort.

I think that Adams’s point is that no matter how narrow a field you define for yourself, you’re not going to be the best in the world at it. However, once you start combining fields, the possibilities go up exponentially so intersections of two or three fields are less populated and competitive.

Adams is also right about not having to reach the top of a field to reap the benefits. Most fields have a learning curve of diminishing returns, where you can learn 80-90% of the field in a few years, but have to spend the rest of your life to get the last 10-20%. Even worse, other people in the field are simultaneously mastering the field, so you have to work continuously to match the rising level of mastery. However, if you settle for the competence of 80% rather than mastery, you can leave the field after a few years and learn something else.

One important benefit of competence in a field is the ability to speak the language or the jargon. Being able to communicate with the masters of the field means you can benefit from their expertise without having to attain it yourself. You can engage their interest and convince them to apply their skills to the problem by framing it in terms they understand. This skill is particularly important when dealing with a discipline that tends to be dismissive of outsiders, like, say, software developers.

Adams’s post reminds me of Grant McCracken’s post where he points out the importance of hiring people who have more than one deep interest:

Once someone has mastered one additional identity (or deep interest) it is easier to master new identities in the same way (and perhaps for the same reason) that knowing one additional language makes it master more languages. The candidate has learned to learn.

By learning how to learn, people can reach the point of competence in a field ever faster, increasing the number of possible ways to combine their competencies and create a niche for themselves. They can speak the languages of the experts, making them a “boundary spanner” across different areas of the organization. They can find the innovation happening at the constructive interference between fields.

I’m biased, of course, in that I call myself a generalist. I have to take the Adams strategy of combining fields, because grad school in physics proved that I don’t have the necessary focus to succeed in a single field. I’ve covered this terrain before (see the comments on my post about passion), but it’s always going to be a continuing theme in my life until I find a niche where I achieve “success”.

I’m still working out what fields I want to combine. Given my previous careers in physics and software development, and my current foray into management, leading a team to develop scientific software might suit me nicely. I’m also interested in the possibility of leading an interdisciplinary team – I really enjoyed working at Signature with the mix of biologists and physicists and engineers and software developers. The post by Adams is a good reminder that I’m not necessarily drifting – I’m just building up competence in the several fields I need to create my niche.

3 thoughts on “Remixing fields

  1. How do you define “success”? Or rather, how will you know when you’re there? And once you are there, then what?

    (You see where I’m going with this 🙂

  2. “Success” was put in quotes for a reason – it’s going to be different for everybody.

    For me, it’s finding a field which I feel passion for, as the link suggests. Something that gets me out of bed in the morning excited to go to work. I’m arrogant enough to believe that I’ll be conventionally successful at something if I focus on it, so the problem for me is choosing a focus. So success isn’t a destination, a place I reach and say “Now what?” Success is rearranging my life so that my journey of life is as satisfying as any destination. Something like that.

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