• Joseph Ishaku

The Temin Effect: Does learning outside your area of expertise make you a better expert?

Photo Credit: IBM model of the T-shaped professional

The Temin Effect is used to describe breakthroughs made by those who have many interests and hobbies well outside their field of specialty. It is named after biologist and Nobel Prize winner Howard Temin. Temin had wide interests, which turned out to be important to his scientific pursuits.

Testing the Temin Effect

Taking would-be physicians out of the hospital and into a museum —taking them out of their own world and into a different one— made them better physicians.

The above quote captures the main finding from a study conducted by Jaclyn Gurwin and her colleagues to test the “Temin effect”.

They randomly separated 36 medical students from the University of Pennsylvania into two groups. One group received a treatment –which involved receiving six 90-minute training sessions from professional art educators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The second group was the control –they did not receive lessons and continued the regular medical school curriculum. In those six sessions that taught students how to look at art, the treatment group learnt to observe, describe and discuss works of imagination.

Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art

As it turns out,

Observation and description are critical to the practice of medicine.

While this is a small study, its implications are not. The dominant trend in complex fields like medicine has been towards greater specialisation. Basically, people learning more and more about a small part of the domain. These disciplines have responded to the increasing technical and informational demands of the modern age with focus.

To illustrate this, think about cardiologists. They were once experts in all areas of the heart. Now, the field has been broken into many pieces with some cardiologists focusing on only cardiac valves, leaving the rest of the heart to others.

The point here is not to disregard focused and sustained practice. A medical expert is right to be concerned with the narrow aspects of their specialty. The important point here is that inspiration for breakthroughs can come from interests outside your area of focus/specialization. However, the best expert is the one who also belongs to the wider world. Therefore, don’t despite your creative interests as a drag to productivity.

Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake in serious hobbies apparently unrelated to their work, and those hobbies are particularly likely to involve serious aesthetic interests.

These accomplished people can draw on analogies from one domain to inform the other domain when they face difficult problems. This research suggests that accomplished people hone their skills because of the interests they pursue outside their field. It is not just the case that they succeed despite having “outside” interests.

Take a cue from Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and other greats whose legend confirm that those best positioned for greatness are generally generalists.

Embrace the opportunity to be what Orit Gadiesh calls an expert-generalist —someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different domains and then:

  1. Recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.

  2. Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.

Still curious? See:

  • David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell’s article on the Temin Effect.

  • Gurwin et al.’s journal article in the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  • Gurwin’s own visual art pieces.

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