Courageous Leadership: The Journey of a Generalist with Reshma Saujani and David Epstein

Published
Jul 12, 2021

This week on World Reimagined, host Gautam Mukunda speaks with Reshma Saujani and David Epstein about their career experiences, leadership lessons, and the power and benefits of being a generalist.

In a world of specialists, a generalist’s broad range of knowledge and expertise can actually make his or her team much better. But, being a generalist requires grit and courage. The courage to raise your hand, to take chances, and to be confident in your ability to tackle any subject.

However, in a world that most often rewards specialists, where and how can generalists shine? What benefits and learnings can leaders draw from focusing on generalization, versus specialization?

This week, Host Gautam Mukunda speaks with two trailblazers who have reinvented their careers by way of passion, diversity, and failure. David Epstein, the New York Times bestselling author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, shares thoughts about how generalism is at the core of true innovation. And Reshma Saujani, who is the first Indian-American woman to run for U.S. Congress and the Founder of Girls Who Code, discusses how failure-bred resiliency inspires confidence.

Being a generalist allows you to raise your hand when you don’t know exactly what you are doing because you have built this base of skill set that gives you the confidence to know that you can get in it and try to figure it out.
Reshma Saujani
I think there is all this evidence that every conceivable kind of diversity adds to the potential problem-solving toolbox.
David Epstein
My read of the research is that sometimes what gives you the short-term advantage, or what appears to be a head-start, actually undermines your long-term development, whether that is developing a sport or music skill or deciding what to study, or deciding what to do in your career, or accumulating the skills you need for problem-solving. That there is a tension between short and long-term development and I wish it weren't that way.
David Epstein

Follow @GMukunda on Twitter or email us at WorldReimagined@nasdaq.com

Books Referenced on World Reimagined Season 2, Episode 5:

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein 

The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation, by Frans Johansson

Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, by Gautam Mukunda

Guest Information for Courageous Leadership:

David Epstein is author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and of the New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene. He was previously an investigative reporter at ProPublica and before that a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. His two TED Talks have been viewed more than 11 million times. David has master's degrees in environmental science and journalism and is currently the host of Slate’s How To! podcast and author of the “Range Report” newsletter.

Reshma Saujani is a leading activist and the founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms. She has spent more than a decade building movements to fight for women and girls’ economic empowerment, working to close the gender gap in the tech sector, and most recently advocating for policies to support moms impacted by the pandemic. Reshma is also the author of the international bestseller Brave, Not Perfect, and her influential TED talk, “Teach girls, bravery not perfection,” has more than five million views globally. Reshma began her career as an attorney and Democratic organizer. In 2010, she surged onto the political scene as the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. Reshma lives in New York City with her husband, Nihal, their sons, Shaan and Sai, and their bulldog, Stanley.

Episode Transcript:

Gautam Mukunda:

To be good at something, really good at it, you need to focus on it, obsessively. Keep failing until you succeed. We've all heard that, but what does it take to try and fail and try again, if the thing you have to be good at is, everything?

Speaker 2:

I think of it as trying to create a new world, the kind of world that we perhaps have always wanted to live in.

Speaker 3:

Climate change is a systemic risk to the entire economy. You cannot diversify away from it.

Speaker 4:

To intervene, when your country, your company, your family, needs you to do so, that's leadership character.

Speaker 5:

World Reimagined, with Gautam Makunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world, an original podcast from NASDAQ.

Speaker 6:

Why do leaders fail? Unwillingness to learn, a fear of showing their vulnerability, and a fear of being themselves. Lack of authenticity.

Speaker 7:

Character of a corporation is not the personality. Character of corporation is the integrity and the morality for company.

Speaker 8:

So without truth and trust, there is no democracy.

Gautam Mukunda:

Running for office is insanely hard. It takes time, money, connections, dedication, and a very, very high tolerance for stress. In other words, very few people are good at it, and nobody can just walk in and expect to do well. It takes practice and experience.

Gautam Mukunda:

So imagine spending all that time, getting good at it, and then jumping here, to the press box at the NBA finals. You have to report on this pivotal game while tying together what's happening on the court, in the stands, and in the lives of the players, while following the action in front of you, and keeping one eye on Twitter. Sound tough? Well, then try bringing those skills here, to a geologic research station north of the Arctic circle. It's cold, remote, and your job isn't just about science, it affects the well-being of every person on your team.

Gautam Mukunda:

Do those three jobs sound unrelated? They may be, but our guests today have carried their experiences across these very different places, and then some.

Gautam Mukunda:

You've just sort of had this varied career path moving from field to field, from law, to politics, to Girls Who Code. So what's it like moving from field to field like that?

Reshma Saujani:

It was scary and fun. I guess, freeing. I feel like what I tell young people is like, the way that I figure out what I want to do with my life is by figuring out what I don't want to do. And oftentimes I think like we romanticize, like I really want one to work in government and then you get there and you're like, oh my God, I can't get anything done. So I think part of it is, I feel very blessed and lucky that I've had so many different careers, because I think it's really helped me find what, I would say is like, what's my Dharma? What am I put on this earth to do?

Gautam Mukunda:

Reshma Saujani worked in law, then politics, and then ran for office in New York, before founding Girls Who Code, a nonprofit focused on closing the diversity gap in Silicon valley. It takes girls from underrepresented communities and gives them coding skills, and by extension, the tools to compete in a very lucrative, very male, very white, sector of the economy. It has trained more than 300,000 girls since it was founded.

Reshma Saujani:

I was running for office in 2010 in this congressional race. I had basically done what AOC did before she did, except I lost and she won. As part of that experience, you go into schools, and I would see lines and lines of boys in CS classes, computer science classes, that wanted to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, and I didn't see any girls.

Reshma Saujani:

And so when I lost that race, I was like, okay, of all the things that I saw on the campaign trail, what's the thing that moved me? What's the problem that moved me?

Reshma Saujani:

My parents came here as refugees, and so I marched into the middle-class through education and through opportunity. And I knew that the future was tech, and that those jobs paid pretty well. And not seeing girls, not seeing girls of color, not seeing people of color, was a problem for me, and seemed like it was an economic problem. And so Girls Who Code was really started because I wanted to close the poverty gap, or the opportunity gap, in tech, and so the coding piece of it was really the opportunity piece. And so I guess, I didn't really think about like, oh my God, well, I don't know how to do this, I just found smart people who could help build a program together.

Gautam Mukunda:

Even though it was completely unrelated to what she was doing at the time, running for public office in the brutally competitive world of New York City, an observation Reshma made during her campaign led her to found Girls Who Code. So she was able to go from failed political candidate to successful nonprofit founder. That takes a pretty broad set of skills. Luckily, we were joined by an expert in exactly that. What does that lens tell you about this career that Reshma had, and people who have that kind of experience?

David Epstein:

My brain was all lighting up while she was describing that.

Gautam Mukunda:

David Epstein literally wrote the book on being a generalist. His work, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, lays out the case for being good at several different things. Like being a geologist who writes about sports. It's so insightful that whenever any of my friends has a kid, I send them a copy, to make sure they keep its ideas in mind as they help their children think through their futures.

David Epstein:

And Gautam, just to add to you and Reshma, I mean, I was living in a tent in the Arctic studying the carbon cycle when I decided I was going to try to be a sports writer. The only person who've had an article in the journal of Alpine, Arctic and Antarctic tundra, with my contact information at Sports Illustrated, because of how quickly I was changing careers.

David Epstein:

At first, it was like, well, it was good to learn that I didn't want to be a scientist, but I wasted that time. But then pretty soon realized that I was a very average scientist among other scientists, but then you take that average skill over to sports magazine and it's like, you're a Nobel prize winner. You know?

Reshma Saujani:

Yes.

David Epstein:

I'm like, "Hmm. This thing that was totally ordinary over here, makes me extraordinary over here."

Gautam Mukunda:

This is one of the biggest assets generalists bring to the table. In a world of specialists, the generalist's broad range of knowledge and expertise can make his or her teams much better. Generalists have access to insights from other fields that specialists would never know about. When building a team, it's easy to focus on maximizing technical skills, and that's what specialists are for.

Gautam Mukunda:

But research by Harvard Business School's Amy Edmondson showed that teams shine when their members can share information. That's why diverse teams outperform homogenous ones, because they have much more access to a wide variety of information and approaches, and that's where generalists shine.

Gautam Mukunda:

David described the research of the psychologist, Kevin Dunbar, who examined different teams of biologists to see which ones perform better and why.

David Epstein:

He would often see, because he was a fly on the wall, different lab groups. I think he literally saw two lab groups were under the same problem around the same time, and one was all experts in a certain microorganism, and the other was a med student, and a chemist, and a physicist, and an undergrad doing internship, and all this stuff. And they solved it like right at their lab meeting, by everyone making analogies to their own field. Whereas the one that was all people with the same background, had to do trial and error. He wasn't allowed to transfer knowledge between labs, by the way. It took them like six months. And so I think there's all this evidence that every conceivable kind of diversity adds to your potential problem solving toolbox.

Gautam Mukunda:

This is one example of a larger pattern described by Frans Johansson in his book, The Medici Effect. Johansson observed that the most important innovations tend to come at the boundaries of fields, where insights from one discipline can eliminate another. Darwin, for example, was a trained geologist. But what he noticed about birds, that is, about ornithology, became the foundation for his theory of evolution. This happens because powerful ideas in one field can often explain similar, but unrelated phenomenon in another. But specialists who only know their own field cannot see the connection.

Gautam Mukunda:

I've taken that approach in my own career, where I've used Clay Christensen's ideas about disruptive innovation in business, to explain why military sometimes struggle against much weaker opponents, and used ideas from corporate finance to understand when individual leaders can have a huge impact, for better or worse, which I wrote about in my first book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.

Gautam Mukunda:

In other words, if you need a breakthrough innovation, or an original solution to a complex problem, instead of calling for a technical specialist, it might be time to find a generalist.

David Epstein:

It seems to me, that what we're all saying is that the ability to handle multiple fields, it's not that you're specializing in content, you're specializing in a way of thinking. Essentially, an inability to learn quickly, an ability to adapt quickly, and the ability to see connections between different things quickly. And that, in and of itself, is a skill, but it's one that doesn't belong in an academic department.

Reshma Saujani:

Right. Like you're becoming an expert in being a generalist, which is like, you can dive into any problem and participate in a solution, rather than being an expert in a specific industry or field.

David Epstein:

Totally. And I want to be clear that I don't think we shouldn't have a specialist by any stretch of the imagination. I think it's more that, I view this sort of in the way that Freeman Dyson, the eminent physicist and mathematician, who was a brilliant writer, said that we need both birds and frogs. The frogs are down in the mud, looking at the small D granular details. The birds are up above not seeing those details, but connecting the knowledge of the frogs. And as he said, for a healthy ecosystem, we need both. The problem is when we're telling everyone to become frogs. And so I sort of view it that way.

Reshma Saujani:

Yeah. I also think as you guys have been talking, in the work that I do in teaching women bravery and resiliency, I think that learning how to be a generalist is an important skill. Because part of why I think women often don't raise their hand for promotions, part of why you see a gender gap, aside from sexism and discrimination, in almost every single field, is because women and girls have been raised to be perfect and not brave. And so you're not going to raise your hand for that assignment, or that promotion, or that opportunity, if you can't figure it out, exactly. And so being a generalist allows you to raise your hand when you don't know exactly what you're doing, because you've built this base of skillset that gives you the confidence to know that you can get in it and try to figure it out.

Gautam Mukunda:

Being a generalist requires more than a wide range of skills and a broad knowledge base. It requires grit, maybe even courage. The courage to raise your hand, to take chances, to be confident in your ability to tackle any subject. That's because being a generalist isn't easy. Academic institutions, and early career jobs in particular, are set up to reward specialists, not generalists. What's more, it's harder for some people than others.

David Epstein:

Everything you guys are saying has triggered a bunch of thoughts with me, but one I wanted to pursue first. There's all this research saying that women and underrepresented minorities essentially have to prove their competence. They have to be twice as good to get half the credit. And I wonder, does that make it more difficult for someone from that background to become a generalist, because they're the standard for technical expertise that society forces them to meet, is higher?

Reshma Saujani:

Absolutely. Because I think that it's like 10,000 hours, times 10. Right?

David Epstein:

Yeah.

Reshma Saujani:

It's like, put in all your work in becoming an expert in this field, and then you can then go make it. And in being a generalist myself, I failed a lot. I tried a lot of things that didn't work out. I went into spaces and places that weren't exactly a fit, and I needed to have built the resiliency and their permission from society to fail. I think failure is a privilege for some and not all.

Reshma Saujani:

We know that women are disbarred at twice the rate as men. Black girls are suspended at a higher rate than white girls, for doing the exact same thing. So there's a higher cost of failure for women, and for people of color, than for anybody else. And so if you're facing that as a woman, if you're facing that as somebody of color, you kind of say, "Well, if I can't do this perfectly, why bother to try? If the only way for me to get recognition is to become an expert in something, and I don't live in a society that allows me to be a generalist, because of discrimination and because of bias."

David Epstein:

You made this dichotomy between perfect and brave, and I remember thinking, what struck me about it is, it's easy to be brave if you don't have to be perfect.

Reshma Saujani:

Exactly. I have two sons and I see this all the time. It's like society doesn't push them to draw in the lines, to cross every T and dot every I. You see this in the world of startups, right, where you're an attractive person to invest in if you've had some failure. It Shows grit. But for women, it's like, "I don't know, she missed Q1. I don't know if we can write her that check."

Reshma Saujani:

We have very, very, very different standards in society, and I think so much of that is socialized. Some of that is baked in our culture. If we want to push the next generation to be generalists, again, being a generalist means that you are tinkering and trying in different industries. And to me, that means that you have to be able to fail, and that is just like a baseline, right, for being a generalist.

Gautam Mukunda:

Building skills in many different fields is tougher than building them in just one. You can start to fall behind your peers, and it can start to feel like being a Jack of all trades, really means being a master of none. Nurturing new abilities means learning, and learning involves failure, because no one is great at something when they start out. At the end of the path, you might get pretty big rewards, but no one begins at the end of the path.

David Epstein:

I wonder, do you see that when you've zigzagged, you say, "Huh? This thing that was taken for granted over here, suddenly makes me super special in this other space."

Reshma Saujani:

Oh, totally. I mean, I guess my parallel to that is like, I can not win an election to save my life. You know what I mean? But the organizing skills that I learned, right, the storytelling skills that I learned, when I brought that to building Girls Who Code, it was a game changer. And that's how I built a movement in less than 10 years, and how I was able to shift culture. Because those two skills were not typical skills that you brought into running a non-profit to teach girls to code, but it was exactly what was needed at that moment.

Gautam Mukunda:

So if you want to be the sort of person who has this, I would say, extraordinarily but extraordinary unconventional career, where you build a movement, or you write books on genetics and sports, or on [inaudible 00:15:07]. What you're both saying, this is my own experience as well, is you have to embrace failure in a real sense. Right? You just have to accept that I'm going to be behind my peers in everything in modern American society, being behind your peers, is like a fate worse than death. Right?

Gautam Mukunda:

What would you advise people to shape their psychology, to be able to handle that?

David Epstein:

For me, I think the thing to do is, and this is natural. Again, I know Gautam mentioned me in the context of athletes. When you think about athletes it's like, they are the ones that have goals, like the very rare exception. Like you think of an Olympian, they are behind people who they're going to have to compete against, but you realize it's like, you can get better, you can catch up with the certain types of trainings.

David Epstein:

So first of all, I think just having that sort of improvement goal, and focusing on improvement, and I think maybe the most important habit of mind is what's called self-regulatory learning. So if you look at the Harvard's Dark Horse Project, which is so named, it was looking at people who had high match quality in their work. So it's a good fit between their interests and abilities in the work that they do. Which leads to all sorts of good things, like sense of fulfillment. And it was called the Dark Horse Project because most of them, not all, not all, some had traveled linear path, but the large majority had the zigzagging path and viewed themselves as having come out of nowhere. So they would say things like, "Well, don't tell people to do what I did, because I did all these other things first."

Gautam Mukunda:

I have told so many students don't, don't do what I did.

David Epstein:

There you go.

Gautam Mukunda:

My advice is, don't do what I did. Always.

Gautam Mukunda:

There are two problems with zigzag paths, and they're why I tell my students to do as I say, not as I did. The first is, that it's just objectively difficult to build competence in many different areas. And you make sacrifices when you do.

Gautam Mukunda:

Olympic decathlon champions are traditionally called the finest athletes in the world, because they are so good at 10 different events. But they couldn't even make the finals in any one of those events, against the people who specialize in them. If you want to be competent in three different areas, you're going to have to work three times as hard.

Gautam Mukunda:

The bigger issue though, is that institutions, particularly academic ones, reward specialists, not generalists. It's easy to see why.

Gautam Mukunda:

Suppose you are hiring someone to fill a position at your company, and you were trying to decide between two applicants. Everything about them, from their level of education, to the elements of their cover letters, is identical. Except, one applicant has spent the last decade working a few years here and there in wildly divergent disciplines. And the other, has 10 years of experience in the exact position you're hiring for. Take a moment, be honest with yourself. Even after everything you've just heard about the advantages of generalists, which one would you hire? So being a generalist means facing failure after failure, rejection after rejection, until you finally find your niche. Because, as much as a wide range of skills can give you strength, they require a lot of strength too.

Reshma Saujani:

I think what has become deeply part of American culture that you work at Ford for 40 years, and you do the same thing over and over and over again. Like given our entire education system is about teaching to the test, and regurgitation, and not a lot of free space and free thinking. Even in, I would say in industry, I mean, part of the work that I've been doing over the past 10 years of Girls Who Code, is just getting the tech industry to hire women and people of color, and to be open to having different people sitting at the table, so you can create the innovation that we desperately need as a nation. So maybe there's a moment, right, where we're acknowledging that the way we've been doing things has taken us off course, in terms of being the most competitive nation in the world.

David Epstein:

There is a striking general phenomenon in the tech world, Reshma, where you've been for the last few years. We are told constantly it's the most innovative part of American society, and these are the companies that most value innovation. And I'm not disagreeing with that in many ways, that's true.

David Epstein:

There are three things that I would say the research says that are very, very strongly suggest, you're much more likely to be more innovative. People who are generalists, people who cross fields, and teams that are demographically diverse. The research is unambiguous, make innovation more likely, and more fruitful. And yet, institutions of all kinds, it seemed to punish them, those three traits.

Reshma Saujani:

Yeah, that's right. That's right, and that's a problem. And I think that, I hope with this administration, that we'll be able to push the tech industry to not be so myopic, in terms of who they select to be sitting around the table. Also in terms of like where they hire from, what schools they hire, from what degrees they hire from. Right? You're kind of getting the same person, over, and over, and over again. I think one could argue that we've lost the innovation race in the past 10 years, as these big tech companies have become more powerful and less diverse.

David Epstein:

Christine Lagarde had a great phrase when she took over, where she said that her institution represented people from every conceivable race, creed, nationality, and every one of them had a PhD in economics from MIT.

Gautam Mukunda:

That's pretty funny.

Reshma Saujani:

So funny.

Gautam Mukunda:

Sometimes, being a generalist isn't a matter of choice. It's common, for example, to hear about a STEM shortage, that there aren't enough Americans trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These concerns about a shortage are usually met by efforts to increase the number of Americans who get a STEM education. Research by economists David Deming and Kadeem Noray however, shows that the shortage is the product of technological change, not a lack of trained STEM workers.

Gautam Mukunda:

As technology advances, workers with specialized STEM skills find that those skills have been rendered obsolete, and they end up leaving STEM occupations. They are forced, in other words, to become generalists. But since they're usually not trained for it, they pay a price. Graduates with STEM degrees are paid very well when they enter the workforce. But the economic returns from their highly specialized technical educations decrease rapidly over the next 10 years.

David Epstein:

My read of the research is that, sometimes what gives you this short-term advantage, or what appears to be a headstart, actually undermines your long-term development. Whether that's, again, developing a sport or music skill, or deciding what to study, or deciding what to do in your career, or accumulating the skills you need for problem solving, that there is a tension between short and long-term development. And I wish it weren't that way, and we could say, "You'll be ahead from the get go.", but I think that's not necessarily the case, and it's a question of balancing your short and long-term development.

David Epstein:

And for the long-term, what Reshma mentioned is, when you get competent and you sort of stop learning, you stop taking advantage of that steep early part of the learning curve in something else.

David Epstein:

I talked to the economist, Russ Roberts, about this once. People get in a rut of competence, and then they don't look for things that can make them grow. They start lifting the same weights, the same number of times every day, basically, which is you won't get worse, but you're not going to get better. He called it the hammock of competence, because it's so comfortable, they don't want to get out.

Reshma Saujani:

That's right. I mean, I love historical fiction. And if you study leaders, even from a Gandhi, to a Barack Obama, they were in the woods. There were periods of time where they were in the woods, and they didn't know exactly what was next. They traded those periods of uncomfortability for great achievement, in the end.

Gautam Mukunda:

No one likes being in the wilderness. Everyone from Abraham Lincoln, to Barack Obama, to Winston Churchill, had a period of prolonged failure before their career breakthroughs. These periods can be especially long and difficult for generalists, because it's often very hard for them to find the career that really fits them. The one where their seemingly random sets of unrelated competencies, suddenly snapped together into mastery of something entirely new and different. Like we said before, being a generalist often means being a Jack of all trades, but the master of none. Not something anyone ever wants to be called. Who would want to be, or hire, someone who isn't the master of any particular trade? Well, about that phrase, Jack of all trades, but master of none, David told us where it came from.

David Epstein:

And the first written use recorded of that insult was in the Johannes Factotum. It was in new Latin, insulting a young poet who was trying to write plays, and run a theater company, and act, and other stuff like that, and it was William Shakespeare. So the first use of Jack of all trades in writing was an insult aimed at William Shakespeare.

Gautam Mukunda:

Well, I wish, I would love to be compared to that. Thank you, David. I'm going to use that. I'm going to use that fact about 10 times a year, for the rest of my life.

Gautam Mukunda:

William Shakespeare. I might want that guy on my team. Shakespeare was, of course, the greatest storyteller who's ever lived. And that fact provides a key to understanding how generalists can flourish in a world where institutions don't recognize their value. It's all about the story.

David Epstein:

I was on a committee for the Pat Tillman foundation, which is named for the late football player who joined the Army in the middle of his NFL career and died in Afghanistan. And it gives scholarships to military spouses, and soldiers, and veterans, who are usually doing career changes. And the people who, when we get these applications, I'm like totally, the joker of the committee. It's like generals, and like me, but they want some outside eyes.

David Epstein:

When we get these applications, I look at these people, and it'll be someone who, say they went to high school or college, and they start some job. They are unfulfilled, so they joined the service. They end up in some remote village, administering medical care to people. And they learn things about delivery of medical care, diplomacy, or bureaucratic dysfunction, or whatever. And they learned they're good and bad things they didn't expect. And they come back, and they now have a new goal. And when I see their resumes, even I say, "Oh, this person looks scattered." These resumes, they look confusing, then you learn about the people, and you realize what they've been doing is pivoting in response to their lived experience. Like Reshma did when she walked into a school and saw, oh, there's a need here.

Gautam Mukunda:

It's not an uncommon story. Right? That's an authentic story. It's not the retrospective story that often gets imposed to people like, just had a goal, from the moment they were born. Why does that confuse people? Why do people struggle with it?

Reshma Saujani:

I think we teach young people to figure out what job they want. And so job as doctor, engineer, lawyer, teacher. We don't tell them to go live life and figure out what moves them. And so I think that we are still taught to chase credentials and chase titles, rather than find our passion.

Reshma Saujani:

It's funny, as you were talking, David, I was thinking about, technically I'm unemployed right now, and it's kind of fun, because I do get a job offer, or a job opportunity, like every day. And it's different things. Like, come be a college president, come work at a Fortune 100 company, come be a teacher. And I'm like, "No, no, no, no."

Gautam Mukunda:

When we recorded this interview, Reshma was, in fact, technically unemployed. When she left Girls Who Code earlier this year, she wasn't sure what she was going to do next. But she was able to approach the unknown, thanks to the courage she developed, both as someone with experience in multiple fields, and as the daughter of immigrants, who's had to work twice as hard to prove her worth. It's a courage that comes, at least in part, from embracing the almost limitless potential of failure. From knowing that for the generalists, failure is often a necessary predicate for success.

David Epstein:

Reshma what do you think about... There's lip service to how good it is to fail everywhere, and yet I think at a lot of places when it actually happens, it's not treated so well. But I was just thinking about some of the bosses or mentors who have been most helpful to me and... One of my closest friends, who was a officer in special forces, who said he only made a few decisions in his career that really mattered, and they all involved basically underwriting risk for his subordinates.

Reshma Saujani:

Yeah.

David Epstein:

And I kind of think of some of the coaches, when I was a competitive runner, or editors who were the most helpful to me that in retrospect, a lot of what they were doing was underwriting risk, that I don't think I would have felt okay to take if they didn't do that. And I'm curious just how important is that? And maybe what are some good ways that we can do that for people who aren't used to getting that?

Reshma Saujani:

Yeah. It's such a powerful point. I mean, I always say, at Girls Who Code, we throw failure parties when we try products that actually don't work. And that just inspires us to be innovative, because I think as a company, by your fifth or sixth year, you're not that same nimble startup you were in year one and year two. And often that means that you get a little stale and a little stagnant. And I think when you're trying to solve really big complex problems, you have to stay innovative. So how do you build that muscle organizationally? And I think it's about being able to try things that might not work out, and having people who are going to give you the capital to underwrite your risk.

Reshma Saujani:

And so, we did that at Girls Who Code, we had launched this product called Campus, and we were going to charge a fee for a two week coding program, even though all of our services are free, because quite frankly, I wanted to stop having to beg for money as a non-profit, and raised my own revenue. So I wasn't reliant on any one funder. But the product failed, because in many ways we had priced ourselves out of the market by offering so many free products, that there wasn't just an appetite to pay for a coding camp.

Reshma Saujani:

And so, we threw a party, we shelved the product, blah, blah, blah, blah. Then COVID-19 happens, and in less than six weeks have to pivot our programs from being in-person to virtual. But guess what? We had built that Campus program. And so we had a product on the shelf that we could use. And because we had tried that and it didn't work out, we were then able, in COVID, to respond quicker than any of our other brothers and sisters in this space, and teach more girls than we ever had before. So there was an upside, right, of failure. I mean, it was a really great use case of why that's so important, and why that we have to, for entrepreneurs, for women, for people of color, for creators, for innovators, we have to keep underwriting risk and failure, so that we have these test cases on the shelf that we can use when that moment comes.

Reshma Saujani:

Or if we simply can just learn from failure. Because like I always say, I am so grateful for my campaign losses. I am so grateful for all the mistakes I made at Girls Who Code. I am so grateful for my years and years of infertility, because it built my resiliency. It taught me how to be strong, how to be brave, how to learn, and the only way that you can be great.

Reshma Saujani:

If you think about competitive athletes, they're always sitting at the edge of their ability, and a coach who's saying, "Do it again. Do it again. Do it again." So the only way you're ever going to be great, is if you fail, and get rejected, and lose.

Gautam Mukunda:

To move on from something that you've known, that you've become good at, because you no longer have the ability to contribute anything new, takes a lot of courage. Because, of course, trying something new means you will fail.

Gautam Mukunda:

It's easy to keep doing what you've always done. That is usually the lowest risk course, and almost no one succeeds at something new on their first try. But do the same thing for too long, and you might end up harming both yourself and your organization. Yourself, because doing the same thing over and over again, makes it difficult or impossible to grow. When you lift weights, you don't get stronger by lifting the same weight. You get stronger by lifting heavier ones, or by doing new exercises you've never done before. But pushing your limits can be scary. You might drop the weight. You might hurt yourself. That fear is an important signal. It tells you that you should be careful, but if you never feel it, then you'll never improve. Courage, in the face of both potential and actual failure, is the linchpin of success for the generalist. So it didn't surprise me that courage came up again, when I asked our guests our final question.

Gautam Mukunda:

David, a person who most impressed you, and why.

David Epstein:

Frances Hesselbein, who I met in the reporting of Range, and sort of profiled there, who took her first professional job at the age of 54, went on to become the CEO of the Girl Scouts, which she saved. She added 130,000 volunteers. That's people she paid in a sense of mission, not in money. She tripled minority membership. She turned the cookie business into a third of a billion dollars a year that kept growing. Weathered some scandals. She changed the organization from one that was preparing girls for life in the home, to one that was preparing them for careers in math and science. The merit badge with binary code on it for girls learning about computers, came out of her tenure, and I have a souvenir version of that. And she had one semester of junior college education to her name.

David Epstein:

She now works in Manhattan at a leadership institute named for her. Now she works there five days a week, and she's only 105.

Reshma Saujani:

Wow.

David Epstein:

So who knows what she'll get up to next. But even more than all that, she has just like being around her... She has this saying that you have to carry a big basket to bring something home. Meaning that, if your mind is really open, you'll learn from any experience. And I love that, because I have still yet to not learn a lot from even... I'll take writing 101 courses online once in a while, and I still learn a ton from them. Yeah. I feel like I want to be a better person when I'm around her, just because of the way she treats everyone in her life, and focuses on them when she's interacting with them. And so just being around her, reminded me of things I want to be better at, constantly.

Gautam Mukunda:

Wow. And Reshma?

Reshma Saujani:

Stacey Abrams.

Gautam Mukunda:

Okay.

Reshma Saujani:

She is, I think, hands down, the most prolific leader of our times. An activist, just incredibly, just bright, and just honest, and authentic, and real, and passionate. Talk about someone who speaks authentically about what she's gone through, has taken failure to pretty much, in my opinion, saving the nation. At a time where, I think, even as someone who has run for office twice, I am so disheartened by the political process, and ask myself like, can we really get it done? Or, back in the day when I was young, I loved Kennedy, and just, we have these incredible leaders. And today it's unclear who my sons should look up to. And I'm just grateful for having her, and she gives me hope.

Gautam Mukunda:

I took three key lessons from our guests today. First, if you are a leader, you need to shape your organization to make a career path for generalists. If you want to innovate or adapt, they're the people you need. And because most organizations don't know how to handle them properly, creating space for generalists in yours, will end up being a major competitive advantage.

Gautam Mukunda:

Second, if you're shaping your own career, be cautious about advice to specialize. It might pay off in the short run, but in the long run, you might find out that you would have been way better off going broad. Taking that class in political science, instead of one more in engineering, or reading that book about a topic you've never even thought about before. You never know where it might lead.

Gautam Mukunda:

Third. However, great an idea lining yourself up with William Shakespeare might seem, remember that being a generalist is valuable, precisely because it means you were wandering off the beaten path, and off the beaten path is where the bears are. Blazing this trail requires courage. That courage is not optional, and it's not for everyone. So before you go this route, you need to ask yourself if it's right for you. But if it is, remember that off the beaten path is where the best stories are too.

Speaker 5:

World Reimagined, with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world, an original podcast from NASDAQ. Visit the World Reimagined website at nasdaq.com/world-reimagined-podcast.

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