Papyrus Review of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

📜 If I had to rewrite the whole book on a singe papyrus scroll, which parts would I keep?
By Alexandros Sainidis

Why is this book beneficial for those interested in International Relations?
Because by nature we are generalists. We study the biggest social actors, states and international organisations, which cover enormous parts of Earth’s geography and include every possible activity. Plus, with increased globalisation, the density of international and transnational activity is of much higher degree.

1. There are activities, such as chess, in which indeed it is better to become skilled at since a young age, because such activities take place in a safe and predictable environment. This is why AI are better in Chess than Starcraft, a real time strategy game with many little and unpredictable elements.

2. Poor performance at the beginning is crucial for better performance later. This poor performance is deeply criticised at work, at school and family environments. Perhaps IR students should accept this and not attempt to digest all information about the whole world at once. Do not confuse learning with current performance, as it is an unreliable metric.

3. Consulting firms have broad databases which can be used to access different methods and apply them to different projects. Problem solving is key (which is why there is a positive bias in favour of Engineers with MBAs). The most successful problem solvers are those who invest in figuring out the nature of the problem before implementing a strategy or using memorised procedures. Combine the inside view with analogies from the outside view and explore a wide range of options before letting intuition do its part.

4. There was an interesting experiment with Stanford International Relations students. Supposedly a weak, fictional democratic country was under threat from a totalitarian neighbouring state. The students had to decide how the U.S. should act. Students who were given descriptions similar to World War 2 were more likely to choose war. On the other hand, students who were presented images from Vietnam were more likely to choose nonmilitary diplomacy.

5. Many things in the book are based on “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

6. Scott Eastman, who had many Russian sources available, was bad at making predictions about Russia. He was spot on about Syria, though. He mentions he learned that being highly specialised in a certain topic does not necessarily help with accurate forecasts. Jonathan Baron advocates the use of “active open-mindedness.” According to this, forecasters should treat their ideas as hypotheses which require testing.

7. Do not rely on quantitative analysis too much. Listen to views from the qualitative side as well. Do not be afraid of learning new thing in areas of knowledge you have never touched. Even if it happened to be a successful strategy to be specialised since a young age, opening your mind to broader skills and knowledge can enrich your existing base.

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Alexandros Sainidis

I am an International Relations Analyst and the creator of the blog Pecunia et Bellum. I have studied International, European and Area Studies at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece. I am a bilingual Russian speaker and I am currently learning Mandarin in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current International Affairs in Eurasia.

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