Are Entrepreneurs Generalists?

Keith Sawyer notes the decline of the polymath, the person with world-class expertise in multiple fields. Modern social science has had its share — John von Neumann and Herbert Simon come to mind. I’ve had the privilege of knowing a couple, Murray Rothbard and David Gordon. But the increasing emphasis on hyper-specialization in most academic disciplines makes it hard to be a generalist, unlike, say, the 1800s:

One could acquire a working knowledge of a discipline (materials science, optics and the eye, life insurance) just by reading the few books that had been written on the topic. Today all of these fields have had another 200 years of knowledge created. That’s why creativity researchers have observed a “ten year rule”: that it seems to take ten years of working away in one specialized domain before you can make a significant creative contribution. (This rule was first published in the 19th century, when a study of telegraph operators found that the best operators had ten years of experience.) Ten years roughly corresponds to Professor Anders Ericsson’s finding that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to attain world-class expertise.

And over time, as new knowledge is created and total knowledge accumulates, it should take longer to become an expert.

This brings to mind Ed Lazear’s argument that entrepreneurs are more likely to be generalists, or  jacks of all trades — the polymaths of business. To foster entrepreneurship, and encourage creativity more generally, perhaps educators should worry less about specialization and tolerate a little more dilettantism.


One Response to Are Entrepreneurs Generalists?

  1. Pingback: Risk, Balanced Skills, and Entrepreneurship « entrepreneurship … | The Entrepreneurship Blog

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