Go Big Generalist or Go Home

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I hope you’re sitting comfortably … Lexus has helped produce a documentary on master craftmanship in the age of automation that runs 60,000 hours in length.  That’s going to require a lot of popcorn and a heap-ton of seventh-inning stretches.

Seriously, though, you get to fast-forward over most of it … like, all but an hour of it (check out the very cool timeline-interface design that interactively captures the weight and passage of 60,000 hours).  The one hour of actual documentary is exquisitely rendered … the film itself is a work of visual art, serene and rich in imagery.

Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize (via his book “Outliers”) the notion that if one wanted to attain mastery at a given skill, subject, etc., one would have to do put in 10,000 hours of focused practice.  That’s a hefty chunk.  Per this film, to attain true master-craftsman status (to become a “Takumi”), one would have to log a lot more road work: the aforementioned 60,000 hours.  Suddenly that 10K price tag looks pretty cheap, huh?

Takumi Film

Film description:

“There is a popular theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours of focused practice for a human to become expert in any field. But in Japan, there are craftspeople who go far beyond this to reach a special kind of mastery. These people are called Takumi, and they devote 60,000 hours to their craft. That’s 8 hours a day, 240 days a year, for over 30 years. It’s an almost superhuman level of dedication. To a life of repetition and no shortcuts. Most of us will never reach such heights. But what about machines? Artificial Intelligence is no longer science fiction, it is in our household appliances, the phones in our pockets. It is learning, improving and calculating at speeds way beyond human capability. It is developing so rapidly that by 2050 machines will outperform humans in virtually every field. Will human craft disappear as artificial intelligence reaches beyond our limits? Or, will this cornerstone of our culture survive and become more valuable than ever? This extraordinary story demands an extraordinary film. To appreciate the dedication and time devoted by Takumi we invite you to experience the world’s first 60,000 hour documentary.”

The film looks at four Takumi: a woodworker, a chef, an artist whose medium is paper and an engineer (who works at Lexus, natch, because y’know: advertising.).

Interweaved into the documentary is commentary by various pundits weighing in on craftsmanship, automation and artificial intelligence.  One of the commentators is Martin Ford, author of “Rise of the Robots”. Here’s one of his noteworthy quotes from Takumi:

“The concern that technology might displace a lot of workers is something that’s been around for a long time.  So far, it’s always been kind of a false alarm.  However, there are many of us – including me – that believe technology is finally reaching the point where these fears could well be realized.  An optimist would say that there are going to be lots and lots of new jobs created that we can’t even imagine today.  So, traditional jobs will disappear, new jobs will be created.  If you go back to, say, 1900, a lot of people had jobs shoveling coal but then we’ve got new jobs now, like for example scanning barcodes at Walmart, right? That’s a brand-new job that no one would have been able to imagine.  The thing I would point out, though, is that both of those jobs – shoveling coal and scanning barcodes – they’re very routine, predictable jobs.  They’re the kind of job where you do the same kind of thing over and over again and eventually machines are going to be able to figure that out.  So it’s a little bit like the story of the little boy who cried wolf, right?  The alarm gets raised again and again, people get complacent, they ignore the warning but then eventually the wolf does show up and then things don’t go so well.  And I think that could be the kind of situation we find ourselves in now because the technology is really proving to be disruptive already and I think that as we look ahead to the coming decades we’re going to see a lot more disruption.”

Well, sure.  We’ve seen these concerns before, and like that last hanging-on guest at the party, they’re not going away soon.

There is obvious and tremendous value in becoming a Takumi.  Not only would one become a master at a given discipline/trade/craft, but I suspect that there would be a colossal amount of deep discipline and character imparted to the individual from such sustained, applied focus.

However, as the documentary points out:

“Artificial Intelligence can learn in an instant what a human learns over a lifetime.”

Or myriad lifetimes. To shore up that notion … I recently read “Automating Humanity” by Joe Toscano (great read – please do yourself a favor and pick it up).   In it, he observes, “Consider, for example, that the average person in the United States drives 13,476 miles a year, which equates to a little over 800,000 miles in 60 years on the road.  Now, compare this to Tesla’s machine intelligence, which has already driven more than 7.2 billion miles, more than 9,000 times more driving experience than the average person will have in their entire lifetime, since 2003 thanks to crowdsourced driving experience.”

So … ka-pow.  In far less than the blink of an eye, an amount of experience that would be impossible for a human to accrue (I don’t care how much fiber, omega fatty acids & yoga you get in … you won’t ever live long enough to rack up that much drive time) is imparted to AI.  This capability of machine intelligence will not be exclusive to automobiles – it will extend into most other automated domains, as well. 60,000 hours (or even 10,000 hours) of focused effort toward mastery of anything gets blown to ash. Specialization suddenly looks like a chump’s game.

But … what if … rather than becoming a Takumi in one particular, specific thing, we instead become Takumi in evolving into “generalists”?

Consider this recent article from The Ladders:


Quotes of Note:

“As more disruptive technologies penetrate the workforce in rapid succession and skills gaps widen even greater, those who survive and prosper will be agile lifelong learners.

Their expertise will not be deep like their forefathers, instead it will resemble that of a polymath—a wide knowledge base across unrelated domains. They will hold the keys to innovation because as studies have found, the best ideas emerge from combining insights from fields that don’t seem connected. There is no one better poised to do so than a generalist.”

And, “… it would appear that perhaps we have reached the end of the romantic fairy-tale: that of a specialist and a machine working together in harmony.  The breakneck speed of technological improvements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, are beginning to shake the very foundation of the nature of work.  Traditional career paths and the educational institutions that feed them, are no longer the bedrock of job security as they have been for centuries.  And old guard firms and leaders that continue to stubbornly hold onto the notion that “we’ve always done it this way,” will vanish as quickly as fallen autumn leaves swept away by a sudden gust of wind … The era of the specialist has come to an end. The future belongs to the generalist.”

You may be wondering, “what would becoming a “Generalist Takumi” look like when applied to our lives?”  It would be a new lens, worldview or subroutine running beneath our everyday experience.  It would entail having one’s awareness broadened, being constantly prepared and open to assimilating new experiences and perspectives into one’s arsenal of knowledge.  This obviously cannot happen to everything into which we come into contact … we must allow in and absorb only that which is congruent with our values, mission, passion and vocation.  The Remain Relevant course conveys these skills resulting from the exploration of Ikigai.

The challenge is: are you willing to become a Generalist Takumi?  It is worth the effort, I assure you.  One thing is certain: it’s never boring.

Further: do we really have a choice?

Do you want to Remain Relevant in the Age of Automation?  If so, please have a look at the FastFulcrum courses that provide the substrate skills needed to do so: