Beijing China, Summer 2008
Michael Phelps has already won 7 gold medals. He is one away from “out golding” Mark Spitz’s 32 year old record. He has done it with an unprecedented variety of events. He has won both IMs (Individual Medley), both Butterflies, the 200 Freestyle, and two relays. He has mastered highly specialized events, like the butterfly and 200 freestyle, and the generalists events, the individual medleys. Michael Phelps is a box – his skills are insanely deep and unprecedentedly broad. He can sprint, he can swim distance, he’s the best at fly and IM, and very close to the best at backstroke and freestyle. In his worst stroke, breast stroke he’s just very very good. How did Michael Phelps get to be so good?
In Sydney, Australia, back in 2000, when the Aussies were upsetting the USA in the 400 Freestyle relay, and Tom Dolan and Erik Vendt were winning the 400 IM, a 15 year old snuck into the Olympics in the 200 fly. He arrived at the games with little fanfare – except to note he was the youngest US Olympian in Swimming in 68 years – and placed a respectable 5th. While it was obvious he had talent, perhaps enough to become the best “flyer” ever, few at the time knew what would be obvious in only a few years. This young man was destined to be the best swimmer ever in an unprecedented way. And it all started by being really good at one specific thing.
Specialization – (the biological definition) Adaptation, as of an organ or organism, to a specific function or environment. In layman’s terms, becoming really good at a certain thing.
Generalization – The act of inferring from many particulars. In layman’s terms, having a background in lots of areas.
We sometimes view these two skills through a false dichotomy: this or that, but not both. That is a mistake, for they aren’t opposed, they are complimentary. If you want to be really good at two things, start by being really good at one, not by being average at both. The process of getting really good at something is a skill that can and should be learned. Doing so, will facilitate mastery of the second skill.
The classic example of this is the linguist. In my experience the people who pick up languages the way the rest of us pickup fiction books at the airport, are people who have learned one language and mastered it. By doing so they have learned the “how to” of learning language, a skill very useful when learning a second, third or fourth foreign language.
Dashes, I’s & T’s – What’s Your Type?
Domestically and increasingly globally, a shift is underway with regards to the acceleration of services innovation. As one sector accelerates, naturally others, like agriculture and manufacturing, shrink. Of the dashes, I’s and T’s, only one type of individual will excel in an economy dominated by services innovation. So which is -it?
The Dash – The ultimate Jeopardy player, superficial knowledge of everything. Jack of all trades, master of none.
The I – An expert without a broad basis to draw upon. Our education and corporate world are optimized to produce I’s. The reality of innovation is that skills learned in mastering a discipline can be re-applied to solve “near domain” problems. Additionally, further mastery requires further generalization.
The T – The correct answer. Flip the T upside down to understand why an expert needs to generalize: the cross-bar is the foundation and without a broad foundation there is no way to keep adding to the vertical knowledge.
The individuals who will succeed in a service driven economy aren’t just a mile wide and an inch deep or narrowly focused. The T’s leverage their expertise cross domain, and leverage their breadth to expand their expertise.
We know how the story ends for Phelps – an 8th gold medal and glory. But we can learn from this story – find the areas where you have the passion to gain mastery and support that mastery with the conviction to generalize. Apply what you’ve learned, including the “how to” of mastery and find yourself solving more challenges, all the while increasing the potential value you can bring to any situation.
Image Credit: oobject.com, freewallpapershd.net, flickr.com/photos/lwr/3971386923/