The anthill model to controlled learning and development

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

I’ve had a chance to speak with many college students graduating into this pandemic ravaged economy and our modern civil rights movement. The main different piece of advice I’ve given this year is for them to think like an ant building a networked system of tunnels in an anthill. It’s the anthill model to controlled learning and development.

That is, the class of 2020 should broaden out to slightly adjacent skills to expand their range in a competitive and tight job market. It’s a valuable piece of advice for all of us.

In the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein tells the juxtaposed story of how Tiger Woods had a golf club placed in his hands before he could speak. His life was mapped out for him and he spent his life solely focused on mastering this skill. Compare this with Roger Federer who decided on his own he wanted to play tennis and didn’t start playing until he was much older.

Federer had a chance to develop his love for tennis for himself without sacrificing as much of his younger life.

Epstein argues that being a generalist is more valuable than being a specialist. Typically, we say a generalist goes a mile wide while a specialist goes a mile deep. The generalist dabbles and is pretty good at a lot of things but not great at anything. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. The magic appears to be when you can show range and versatility in a defined area.

That is: Go deep with controlled range. Not too wide, but not too narrow.

Science Insider / YouTube

I think of it as the complex network of tunnels inside an anthill. There may be a narrow straight shot down, but then at some point width starts to appear, and even connecting tunnels. This is exactly how we learn and discover what we like. We may start focused, then start to broaden out in a related area, and then two completely unrelated areas of life connect.

Going deep with range

Meet Lundberg Family Farms. Maybe you’ve heard of them? They make some of the foods I eat most often like rice, rice cakes, and rice chips. The honey Dijon rice chips are my favorite!

Lundberg pioneered rice farming in the U.S. after heading from the Dust Bowl Midwest to California’s Sacramento Valley.

While rice may seem like a pencil-thin category, the company continues to expand with an array of rice products. They have colorful rice varieties you can make from scratch, pre-made rice, rice cakes, rice flour pasta, rice syrup, and my favorite rice chips.

I’m sure people have told them along the way to expand to other food offerings to grow the brand and profits. I mean, how deep can you go with rice?

However, if you look closely Lundberg has expanded, just not in the traditional sense. They have expanded by going deeper, not wider.

They have added new rice products over the years, but they were also the first to grow organic rice (which is very challenging to do) at a time when everybody was getting into chemical farming. Their commitment to leaving the land better than they found it has led to them becoming leaders in sustainably-grown agriculture. More broadly, this is such an important message for today’s world.

“Leave the land better than you found it” — Alber Lundberg

Additionally, the farm grows, harvests, produces, and distributes its products. They choose to spend energy and resources to bring the very best products to people rather than leave these elements in the supply chain up to chance.

Lundberg Family Farms made the intentional decision to expand with depth and controlled deliberate range. They grow the best rice, have expanded the rice products they offer and get those products in front of as many people as possible. And it’s all independent and family-run.

The Lundberg anthill started fairly narrow and straight down as they figured out how to grow amazing organic rice. It has broadened out over time as they expanded into other rice products, and linked together with the distribution.

In our world of overcomplicating things and biting off more than we can chew, Lundberg Family Farms has under-complicated business for themselves. They focus only on creating the best rice products in a way that is good for us and the ground.

They have simplified their thinking to go deep with range — something easier said than done.

Class of 2020, approach your journey like an anthill. Start digging vertically in a couple of places, find some nooks to broaden horizontally in a controlled and deliberate way, and over time those different tunnels may just connect to one another.

Hi, I’m Grant. I write the weekly Sustain newsletter about how to prevent burnout from work based on research and my own experience. It’s a fresh approach called Holistic Burnout Prevention which treats the causes, not the symptoms of burnout. Join me and let’s create a world without burnout. Subscribe >



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Grant Gurewitz

Writing about how to quit burnout without leaving your corporate job @ Marketing pro, kayaker, and gardener in the Pacific Northwest.