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Curiosity Wins – Hands Down

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science,
the one that heralds new discoveries,
is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny ….'”
– Isaac Asimov

I would argue that the key success factor to be a scientist is not intelligence, but a high level of curiosity. Naturally, intelligence would follow closely behind curiosity so that we don’t venture into MTV Jackass territory. There are those that reach to the top with discoveries due to their brilliant mind – and there are those who would succeed through grit and hard work. Curiosity is the common ground.

There are many quotes and books written about curiosity. I suppose in recent years, many of us adults find merits in retaining our child-like curiosity. Why didn’t Alexander Flemming throw away the moldy petri dish? Why would Isaac Newton ponder about a falling apple?

It was curiosity about data and insights that led me to build a career in retail banking marketing with an honours degree in computer science. I took a year off to do a graduate diploma in applied economics because I was curious about econometrics. After the break, I resumed my career in banking, before pivoting to academic research in marketing science after also a short stint in market research. Rather than going deep, I preferred to go broad.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but my career move has also given me the benefit as a generalist. This brings me to discuss a book by David Epstein, Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

The title of the book caught my attention at Kinokuniya bookstore in Singapore years ago – with product range being my research focus at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. I also associate myself as being a generalist – and feeling inferior at times for not perfecting a specific career or a particular field. The curiosity about the book (that word again!) then compelled me to purchase it and read on.

Epstein’s key point is that generalists may seem to take a slower route at first as they cover a wider base of experience and knowledge. This wider knowledge would allow generalists to draw upon seemingly unconnected fields and experience to proceed and solve any challenges and remove roadblocks. Generalists are like the integrator foxes, who know many little things as compared to specialists who are like narrow-view hedgehogs, who know one big thing. He also argues that if there is too much focus on specialisation and a devotion to a particular area, the results can be disastrous myopia. Ultimately, Epstein argues, generalists would overtake the specialists with their adaptability and their ability to think and act laterally.

There are great examples in the book on how discoveries and inventions were achieved through curious visionaries who would approach issues creatively. Epstein also spoke to and wrote about many leaders who achieved greatness through unconventional routes: like how a young electronics graduate called Gunpei Yokoi was instrumental in the success of Nintendo in the early years, or how Oliver Smithies discovered a method to separate insulin molecules through his childhood experience watching his mother starch his father’s work shirts.

I also didn’t know for example, that, unlike Tiger Woods who was obsessively trained to be a golfing specialist by his father, Roger Federer was encouraged to be a generalist by his parents. Despite his mother being a tennis coach, Federer was allowed to dabble in skiing, wrestling, swimming, basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, badminton, soccer — and ultimately, back to tennis. These experience allowed him to be a brilliant all-rounder.

Admittedly, I have only finished reading Range after a number of years in multiple flight trips. When you build a career on reading papers, reading for enjoyment tends to take a back seat. The book has given insights on why I tend to give analogy when I explain concepts and things. It also makes me realise that some of the papers that I enjoyed writing really came out of curiosity – like whether I could use the Gini coefficient to measure market concentration. Ultimately, the book also gives reassuring words that I should not feel behind as a generalist. There’s a bank of experience and multiverse of insights in my head. How about this for a killer statement:

Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind.

So, who knows where ultimately I’m heading towards – whether this lane is it, or that I shift to a different lane in the future. What I’m certain is – curiosity will still be that oil that keeps me going.

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