Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

by David Epstein

“The response, in every field, to a ballooning library of human knowledge and an interconnected world has been to exalt increasingly narrow focus… Both training and professional incentives are aligning to accelerate specialization, creating intellectual archipelagos.”

In Range, David Epstein examines the advantages of having a range of experiences, a broader perspective, an interdisciplinary approach, and the value of flexible thinking and reasoning in a world full complexity and uncertainty where precise, deterministic solutions are unknowable.

SAMPLING PERIOD. The book starts by contrasting Tiger Woods, who began golfing at age two, and Roger Federer, who dabbled in a lot of activities before taking up competitive tennis. “As complexity increases—as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part—we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress.”

“The sampling period is not incidental to the development of great performers—something to be excised in the interest of a head start—it is integral.” Yo-Yo Ma “started on violin, moved to piano, and then to the cello because he didn’t really like the first two instruments.”

“Teaching kids to read a little early is not a lasting advantage. Teaching them how to hunt for and connect contextual clues to understand what they read can be… The trouble is that a head start comes fast, but deep learning is slow. ‘The slowest growth,’ the researchers wrote, occurs ‘for the most complex skills.’”

MATCH QUALITY. Northwestern University economist Ofer Malmud studied match quality, “a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are—their abilities and proclivities… For the period he studied, English and Welsh students had to specialize before college so that they could apply to specific, narrow programs… In Scotland… students were actually required to study different fields for their first two years of college… It should come as no surprise that more students in Scotland ultimately majored in subjects that did not exist in their high schools, like engineering.” Graduates in England and Wales were more likely to switch careers.

“Instead of asking whether someone is gritty, we should ask when they are. ‘If you get someone into a context that suits them,” Orgas said, ‘they’ll more likely work hard and it will look like grit from the outside.” This reminds me of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.

“All of the strengths-finder stuff, it gives people license to pigeonhole themselves or others in ways that just don’t take into account how much we grow and evolve and blossom and discover the new things.”

KIND OR WICKED? Epstein explains the difference between “kind” learning environments, where patterns repeat predictably, and “wicked” learning environments.

“In kind environments, where the goal is to re-create prior performance with as little deviation as possible, teams of specialists work superbly… Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient.”

“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. In the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lesson.”

“Our ability to think relationally… analogical thinking… allows humans to reason through problems they have never seen in unfamiliar contexts. It also allows us to understand that which we cannot see at all… It is a powerful tool for solving wicked problems.”

“Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable… In a wicked world, relying on experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.”

HEDGEHOGS AND FOXES. “The narrow-view hedgehogs, who ‘know one big thing,’ and the integrator foxes, who ‘know many little things’” are good metaphors. “Beneath complexity, hedgehogs tend to see simple, deterministic rules of cause and effect framed by their area of expertise, like repeating patterns on a chessboard. Foxes see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect. They understand that most cause-and-effect relationships are probabilistic, not deterministic. There are unknowns, and luck, and even when history apparently repeats, it does not do so precisely. They recognize that they are operating in the very definition of a wicked learning environment, where it can be very hard to learn from either wins or losses.”

DEFINING A PROBLEM TOO NARROWLY. “Seeing small pieces of a larger jigsaw puzzle in isolation, no matter how hi-def the picture, in insufficient to grapple with humanity’s greatest challenges.”

ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE. Epstein explains how “incongruence” shifts the culture from mindlessly following standard procedures to encouraging critical thinking and good judgment. The book includes a life-or-death example of this sort of nimble thinking involving a team of U.S. Air Force pararescue jumpers.

The book also includes a very interesting post-mortem analysis of the NASA Challenger shuttle catastrophe. “Physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman was one of the members of the commission that investigated the Challenger and in one hearing he admonished a NASA manager for repeating that Boisjoly’s data did not prove his point. ‘When you don’t have any data,’ Feynman said, ‘you have to use reason.’”

Psychologist and organizational behavior expert Karl Weick coined the term “dropping one’s tools” as a metaphor for “unlearning, for adaptation, for flexibility.”

“These are, by definition, wicked situations. Wildland firefighters and space shuttle engineers do not have the liberty to train for their most challenging moments by trial and error. A team or organization that is both reliable and flexible, according to Weick, is like a jazz group. There are fundamentals—scales and chords—that every member must overlearn, but those are just tools for sensemaking in a dynamic environment. There are no tools that cannot be dropped, reimagined, or repurposed in order to navigate an unfamiliar challenge. Even the most scared tools. Even the tools so taken for granted they become invisible. It is, of course, easier said than done. Especially when the tool is the very core of an organization’s culture.”

RESEARCH AND INNOVATION. Epstein quotes Arturo Casadevall, chair of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “If you write an interdisciplinary grant proposal, it goes to people who are really, really specialized in A or B, and maybe if you’re lucky they have the capacity to see the connections at the interface of A and B… Everyone acknowledges that great progress is made at the interface, but who is there to defend the interface?”

The book includes a great example of how knowledge from an unlikely field—concrete mixing—helped to solve a problem that petrochemical engineers working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill were unable to solve within their own domain.

“The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration into a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.”

Range nicely complements books I’ve read about complexity and efficiency.

Epstein, David. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Riverhead Books, 2019. Buy from Amazon.com

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Some of the books mentioned in the text:

Logic: The Theory of Inquiry by John Dewey

Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith  

Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms by Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price, Bruce Vojak

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock, Dan Gardner