Expertise, Diminishing Returns, and Intersecting Niches

I have been thinking recently about skill development, because I have a habit of never being focused in a single area and instead trying to learn as much as I can in as many niches as I can. Because of this, I am only what could be considered an expert in a relatively narrow subset. However, I am significantly knowledgeable in a wider array of niches. I am beginning to think that this form of knowledge may actually be more valuable. (Crazy that I would try to justify my own shortcomings right?)

I also want to try to treat these mathematically in order to explain my thinking, however, do not worry the math will be kept relatively simple.

So this idea came to me after I was sitting and reflecting on the kinds of tasks that will become valuable as our economy progresses with increasing automation. The conclusion I came to is that many jobs now will be either partially or completely automated. Many industries where there is little fear of automation, will end up being partially automated, destroying job prospects and wages. For example: accounting. It likely will not be fully automated anytime soon, however, a significant number of hours are spent on heuristic based tasks that computers will be able to in large part supplant. There will still need to be humans, but if one person can do the work of ten wages will fall and job prospects will dissapear.

So what will become valuable? Until there is significant progress on Artificial General Intelligence, a huge amount of the automation will be in very focused niches. So the value will come from humans who can bridge niches, understand broader pictures and connect information from disparate realms. Now the issue with this at first glance seems to be that it is going to require significantly more time and effort to reach a competitive level in multiple niches rather than just one. I believe that may be a little bit simplistic however, and I will explain why.

There is this concept when you are learning a new skill called the point of diminishing returns. Basically as we asymptotically approach expertise the amount of effort required to gain additional expertise is exponentially greater. Or to phrase it more simply the vast majority of the improvement comes from the initial investments of efforts. The move from middle 50% to 95% may take the same amount of effort as the move from 95% to 99% which will take the same effort as the move to 99.9% which will take the same effort as the move to 99.99%. Why is this valuable to us? Because by focusing on intersecting niches we do not the same super high level of expertise in order to be successful.

Let me explain: expertise in intersecting niches can be expressed as the product of your expertise in each individual niche. So let’s say for example I am in the top 5% of the world in knowledge about healthcare, and in the top 5% of the world in knowledge about running a non profit, for expertise in running a healthcare based non profit I am not in the top 5% I am instead in the top 0.25%. How is this possible? Because our expertise in this intersection is equal to the product so in this case: total expertise=.05 * .05 = .0025. If I am correct about this construction of expertise (and I am not, it is vastly simplified but focus on the concept) then if we can bring even more niches into our areas of expertise we reach progressively rarefied realms of cumulative expertise.

To really emphasize this, consider the fact that we have already established that it will take the same amount of effort to reach the top 1% of a single niche, as it will take to reach the top 0.25% of the intersection of two niches. If I am correct about this vision of the future the value of the Renaissance man is back. Being able to conceptualize and view the world through multiple well honed viewpoints and see the connections between them will become an incredibly valuable skill.

If I am wrong, I have a whole list of skills where I am almost good enough to be an expert but not quite.