Reading ‘Beginners’ led me to this book. Epstein explores the idea of sampling a wider range of experiences, disciplines and interests both early and later on in life and how that can help one succeed in various circumstances.

He tells the stories of individuals from across the spectrum of places, history and disciplines to  show how problems, large and small, were consistently solved faster, or if at all, by people outside specific disciplines or areas of expertise. Knowing more about more things helped individuals to integrate information across fields.

We’re taught that specialising earlier enables us to excel better. Yet, studies show that those who sample more widely and then choose a concentration often do better. “Learning stuff was less important than learning about oneself.”

Similarly, we think that we must choose careers or situations based on faces of our personality. Match quality, one of my favourite concepts explored in the book, looks at “the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are.” But we also need to look at if-then signatures. If someone is at a party, they might be very shy; if they are among a group of close friends, they might be gregarious and outgoing. Is this person introverted or extroverted? Both, really. This ‘context principle’ frees ourselves up to exploring and trying and being different kinds of people. “We learn who we are only by living, not before.”

Van Gogh is a beautiful example given. He trained to be a pastor, an art dealer and so on – he sampled widely, including in different styles of art before finding his own way and style. Even JK Rowling has said that she failed in an epic way in her twenties before finding her voice. Many feel they were set free by their failures and succeeded in spite of their late starts. “Their late starts were integral to their eventual success.” 

My ultimate takeaway came from this note – instead of asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, it might be more prudent to ask ‘what five things do you want to learn this year?’ Adults would do well to ask themselves the same question.

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