[Link] Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

by arikr 1 min read5th Jun 20193 comments



Summary of why this is a worthwhile read for people interested in EA:

  • Reading this book helped me see the benefit of breadth for solving particularly "wicked" environments ('Specialists flourish in such “kind” learning environments, where patterns recur and feedback is quick and accurate. By contrast, generalists flourish in “wicked” learning environments, where patterns are harder to discern and feedback is delayed and/or inaccurate.')
  • It seems to me that many of the problems that effective altruists are tackling are in "wicked" environments, with delayed feedback, difficult to discern patterns. ("Golf, chess, classical-music performance, firefighting and anesthesiology are (in this sense) kind learning environments; tennis and jazz are less kind; emergency-room medicine, technological innovation and geopolitical forecasting are downright wicked — as is much of the rest of modern life.")
  • Therefore, the implication of the book is that many people solving problems in EA would benefit from being generalists. I suspect that this is already often the case. I think this book is useful because it provides a case for why that is beneficial, which I believe could lead to more effective problem solving on some of the thorny EA and EA adjacent problems.
  • The downsides of the book are that it has some apparent inconsistencies and that it has many stories and less concrete data. I think that's the nature of the topic, and I still think it's worth reading – at least the article, and likely the book – for people in EA that are trying to tackle particularly complex problems.