Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein is part history, part psychology, part self-help book, written in an easy, journalistic style that will keep you turning the pages. Not since Susan Cain’s Quiet, have I found a book this informative and validating. And as Cain’s book held insight for introverts and extroverts alike, both generalists and specialists should benefit from reading Range.
Range begins with a compare/contrast pairing that serves as a through-line for the entire book: Tiger versus Roger. The great Tiger Woods began deliberate practice in his one, highly specialized sport when he was barely old enough to walk. Contrast this with the formation of Roger Federer, arguably the best tennis player who’s ever lived, playing many different sports as a child—anything that included a ball—and not locking in on his primary sport until his teens, valuing the social interactions with peers more than opportunities to advance by competing against older players.
Both paths toward greatness—early specialization versus broad experimentation; depth versus range—have their shining examples and outspoken proponents. But Epstein’s main argument is that in a “wicked world,” where things don’t always go according to history or charts, it’s the generalists with broad knowledge in a variety of topics who have a greater advantage. And effective generalists usually possess some depth in a number of areas, as well.
Epstein makes the point that endeavors such as golf and chess can be mastered by lots and lots of repetition and quality, guided practice. But these are exceptions, not the rule. In real life, situations are always changing; what went before doesn’t necessarily mean that a similar outcome can be expected this time (see stock traders, football coaches, and campaign managers). Therefore, it’s often not the “expert” who has the advantage in a fight, but instead, the quick-study novice, who is able to view things through a fresh, objective pair of eyes. This isn’t to say that expertise and depth don’t matter. But it takes individuals who can be fluid and synthesize data, as well, to accomplish great things.
Psychologist Robin Hogarth termed domains in which pattern recognition is key and things repeat over and over “kind” learning environments. On the other hand, Epstein explains, “in wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.” So, it’s not that experience doesn’t matter, it’s just that it might require also considering unlikely sources of information while searching for answers to difficult problems. The inability of some experts to make good decisions when the rules are altered is called “cognitive entrenchment.” An example listed in the book is a study in which a new tax law for deductions is introduced and novices consequently do better than experienced accountants. To avoid this trap, Rice University Professor Erik Dane, states that one should “vary challenges within a domain drastically, and, as a fellow researcher put it, insist on ‘having one foot outside your world.’”
Epstein writes about some of the world’s greatest inventors, musicians, athletes, entrepreneurs, and artists, who all dabbled in multiple areas, attaining some degree of depth in more than one skill, and adeptly synthesizing information relatively later in life in paradigm-shifting ways. He also details cautionary tales of group think and rigid devotion to protocol that sometimes end in disastrous effect (the lead up to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster is used as an example).
In Chapter 6, “The Trouble with Too Much Grit,” he discusses the importance of making a change, sometimes even mid professional career, once one recognizes a lack of fit between the work he or she does and who a person is (known by economists as “match quality”). So often, people just stick things out and stay too long with one job or career path, because they buy into the infamous “sunk-cost fallacy.” They feel they have too much invested to make a change and don’t want to “lose” all that they’ve already put in (measured in time, energy, money, or a combination of all three). Yes, grit and stick-to-itiveness can be qualities to be admired; however, sometimes the prudent choice is a change of course. Quitting can sometimes be a wise move!
Chapter 9 includes real-world examples regarding how “lateral thinking” can be applied to solve problems and hatch new ideas. In this chapter, Epstein writes about how talented, inquisitive generalists can draw upon the work of multiple specialists to great effect. For example, Howard Gruber, a psychologist who studied Charles Darwin’s journals, concluded that “‘Darwin’s greatest works represent interpretive compilations of facts gathered by others.’” In Epstein’s words, “He was a lateral-thinking integrator.”
For someone like myself, who has gone from being a graduate exercise and nutrition science major to a graduate English major before going back again, and who knows what it feels like to stay in a job for way too long, before going out on his own and finally feeling free to think laterally and draw on multiple disciplines, this book makes a whole lot of sense. And hopefully, if you are a dedicated specialist, who has never considered making any significant changes, this book with be thought provoking for you, as well. In Range, Epstein makes a strong case for generalists, but without minimizing the contributions of those with tunnel vision. And in a perfectly wicked world, we’d all be a little of both, depending on what the current, always shifting circumstances called for.