We Need Less Experts: The Power of Educating Generalists

We Need Less Experts

Imagine that you’re a doctor and that your patient has just died on the operating table. Now, you have the difficult task of telling the family the bad news. You’re an expert in medicine but you have no knowledge of human psychology and a very basic understanding of human emotion. How do you think that conversation will play out?

You probably already know the answer. Badly.

Medical schools in Australia and the UK have come to recognize something very profound: being an expert alone is not enough. The med school entrance exam now tests if students have general knowledge in poetry analysis, essay writing and science. They want to train good doctors. But they also want doctors who can talk to their patients.

What they’re doing is something we used to do in education all the time.

They are training generalists. As opposed to an expert, who only understands one field… A generalist is someone who understands two or more fields, and uses that knowledge to invent, to create and to master all of them.

The most famous generalist of all time was a man named Leonardo Da Vinci.

Now many of you know Da Vinci as a painter. But what few people know is that Da Vinci was also a scientist, an engineer and a medical researcher.

Now I know what you’re thinking. He must have been a genius. Only geniuses can do more than one thing at a time. But what if I told you, he wasn’t a genius? What if I told you that he was a genius because he was a generalist.

You see – this is the thing about generalists. Generalists are great at taking skills from one field and applying them to another. Da Vinci took skills from art and applied those skills to medical research, to biology, to geology and to civil engineering.

You might ask:

Why was Da Vinci so good at art? The reason is because he knew the science behind art. His Mona looks so real precisely because he knew how the human body worked. He knew the mechanics of muscles and the science behind facial expressions.

So– why was Da Vinci so good at medical research? The answer is because he knew the art behind science. His sketches of the human heart were so precise that they’ve been compared favourably to modern imaging technology.

Da Vinci seems to be a genius to us today simply because he had knowledge of more than one industry. As a result, he became one of the greatest inventors of all time. Along with sketches of hearts, he drew the first helicopter and the first parachute.


So why aren’t we all geniuses today?

A lot of the blame can be placed on the university system. Since the late 1970s, we have moved away from the idea of a generalist education and towards the training of experts for narrow jobs.

Today, the education system is in what we might call…. a crisis of expertise. We are training people so narrowly that they are incapable of reaching their full potential.

This is not my idea alone. Even professors from the Ivy League say as much. Ivy League educator Bill Deresiewicz puts it simply:

When kids go to college, they hear a speech or two that urges them to ask the big questions. And when they graduate, they hear another speech that urges them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to answer the little questions: specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students.

University degrees have become a system of specialist training. And today, a degree is required for jobs as simple as photocopying a document, keeping appointments in a diary or writing a newspaper column. You might argue that a doctor without training can kill someone. But what about a PA? What about a bank teller? Do we need experts in every single job? Surely not. Shouldn’t we allow more people access to these positions?

Over the last thirty years, there has been a steady increase in degree requirements in every single industry. A high school diploma used to be enough to get a job in banking. Now you need a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree was enough to get a job in research. Now you need a masters. A master’s degree was enough to get a job in tutoring. Now you need a PhD.

In 1973, only 28% of jobs in the U.S. required a degree. Today, that number has more than doubled.


What is the effect of having so many experts?

The problem is that experts tend to think inside the box. They struggle with creativity and invention. They tend to inch knowledge forward slowly through gradual progress, rather than radical change.

Put simply: the more experts we create, the less inventions we create. This shows up in the data. Over the last three decades, as universities have created more and more experts, we have seen a decline in the rate of patenting new technologies.

But it’s even worse than I’m suggesting.

Today, we are preventing young people from inventing anything at all. An analysis of Nobel Prize winners shows that the average age of winners has increased by five to six years per century. Where Einstein was most productive in his early twenties, over the last century, 93% of Nobel Prize winners were thirty and older. In other words, we are losing out on an entire generation’s creative potential.

As inventors having become experts, they have likewise turned away from inventing anything new, and are increasingly recombining old technologies instead. To put it simply, they are creating smart phones instead of light bulbs. Where the smart phone combined old technology, such as maps, the internet and phones, the lightbulb was revolutionary in creating an entirely new industry.

This is the main blind spot of expertise; an arrogance and over-confidence in the existing way of doing things.

Think of it like the Hollywood effect. Hollywood used to produce dozens of original films every year. Now it produces mainly sequels. Why is that? Because experts armed with big data have come up with a narrow formula for success. What the formula ignores, however, are new, exceptional and breakthrough stories that defy expectations.

Our biggest companies are making the same mistake, and have the same blind spot.

Companies think that they can hire an expert coder, psychologist and designer and that together they will create brand new inventions.

This is plain wrong. Research shows that a team of generalists will always outperform a team of experts, when tasked with creating something new. Studies have been done where experts and generalists are given the same task of creating an invention. And the generalists come out on top, every single time.

That should teach us something.

It’s difficult to be an expert and to create something new.

Experts have a second blind spot however: they fail to understand how their job relates to other industries.

In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg was caught by surprise when he discovered that Facebook was not just a piece of software but a political platform that could spread mass misinformation. Fake news and hate speech caused riots in Myanmar that year, spread online through Facebook. In 2016, we saw the same problem with the spread of Russian propaganda prior to the US election.  Zuckerberg himself admits than an expert knowledge in coding is not enough to manage a social media platform. More is needed. Perhaps if our leaders were trained more broadly, they wouldn’t fall victim so often to these blind spots in their thinking.


So how can we fix this?

How can we go back to producing graduates who can go on to change the world?

I think there are three steps.

Firstly, instead of training experts, our schools and universities need to begin the difficult task of training generalists. This will involve a radical rethink of the current curriculum. We need to include more general knowledge, cross-disciplinary skills and training across multiple fields.

We shouldn’t force someone at eighteen to choose their entire career path. They should have the freedom to dabble in many different areas; to try out the jobs that suit them best.

Secondly, our companies need to get rid of degree requirements for all jobs. If we want to create generalists, we need to get rid of the barriers between different industries to give people the experience they need to create new technology. This means companies need to hire people with diverse backgrounds and diverse skills.

Finally, as individuals, we need to read widely and pursue a broad self-education across the industries that fascinate us.

Let me finish by introducing you to a man named Uddhab Bharali. Bharali is an Indian inventor, a college dropout who has invented over 140 new inventions across agriculture, medicine and many other fields.

The key to his success was not expert training. He wasn’t trained in any of those fields. In his own words, his success comes from “reading widely”. He read books on medicine, engineering and agriculture. His broad self-education has made him one of the most prolific inventors in the modern world.

I believe that his story shows us that a generalist education empowers people to achieve incredible things to this day.

Let me conclude by admitting that obviously we need some experts in our society. They are great at mastering their own industry and they are great at mastering technical skills.

But experts alone are not enough.

To create a society of new ideas and new technologies, we need to start training generalists.  People trained in two or more fields, who are able to question the world around us, our traditions, our beliefs and our ideologies and to come up with new daring, conclusions, inventions and technologies. Once we have escaped the boundaries of expertise, there’s no telling what we can accomplish.


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