Curiosity As Expertise

An article appeared today about Charlie Munger on The Hustle. It caught my attention not because in it, Charlie—Warren Buffet's #2—credits his success to knowing a little bit about a lot of things (as opposed to going deep in any one thing); he's far from the first to find success that way.

The article says Charlie uses Orit Gadiesh's term "expert-generalism" to describe what he does. OK. If it has a name—two, if you include "Renaissance man," or three, if you also include "jack-of-all-trades"—it's a thing. There's even debate about the technique—one of the three monikers for it is even a pejorative—so you know it’s a real thing  

No, what caught my attention was the definition provided of expert-generalism: "the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise..."

Sorry, Orit, you've put the cart before the horse.

What Charlie—and you, and others cut from a similar cloth—demonstrates is an expertise in curiosity.

The Hustle's article takes a swipe at the 10,000 hours rule of expertise popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, the implication being that EG is broad rather than deep. Which is too bad, because I bet Munger has at least 10,000 hours practice applying his curiosity. It's just hard to see because the application seems broad.

The fact he applies it to different fields of study is no different than a basketball player taking different types of shots, or a poker player playing different hands. But the basketball player is always shooting a ball, and the poker player always has a deck of cards in her hand, and those things are specific and easy to identify. What Charlie always has is an area of study. That's more conceptual and so it's harder to see the connective tissue between topics. 

But just because something's hard to see doesn't mean it's not there.

And as a "expert-generalist" myself, I can guarantee: it's there.

Why this distinction is important

Curiosity itself is a skill. People have it in varying amounts, like strength or coordination, and those who have it and hone it develop a mastery in learning that they then apply to new situations. What looks like knowing a little about a lot of topics is a result, not the skill. What EG's know is the equivalent to a stack of chips in front of a poker expert; no one would say that the poker player is expert in having chips. Or that the basketball player is an expert in having points. Those—like a range of knowledge—are all outcomes of a mastered skill being applied.

And if I'm right (I'm right), and the power of EG's is not what they know but their ability to learn quickly, then organizations in their current states have a problem.

At present, organizations are good at saying they want EGs—ie, curious thinkers—but they're very, very bad at hiring them or retaining them. EGs tend to lose out to domain experts who lack the ability (or curiosity) to think laterally, across disciplines. Both hiring practices and performance reviews are rigged to devalue lateral thinking. So when EG's are up against non-curious, single-domain thinkers, the non-EGs appear stronger. But make integrative thinking, system thinking, and creative problem solving part of the hiring/review process—which they should be, given how important they are in guarding against the unintended consequences of scaled software—and the results flip. Dramatically.

This is an adjustment organizations need to make—and fast.

Thanks to The Hustle for a thought-provoking email... especially today's.

Jason Seiden