Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World – by David Epstein
Date read: 7/25/19. Recommendation: 8/10.
In a complicated, competitive world, there’s a push to focus early and narrowly. Navigating life seems to demand specialization. And the stories told the loudest (Tiger Woods) push that narrative. In reality, far more eventual elites devote less time to deliberate practice early on and instead undergo a sampling period. This offers them an opportunity to learn about and discover their own abilities and inclinations. Only later do they focus on one specific area and ramp up technical practice (Roger Federer). Awesome resource for generalists and those pursuing a multidisciplinary approach in life. This is a book that needed to be written, and Epstein does a great job emphasizing breadth over depth, the dangers of specialization, and the importance of match quality.
See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.
Illusion of Specialization:
In a complicated, competitive world, there’s a push to focus early and narrowly. Navigating life seems to demand specialization. And the stories told the loudest (Tiger Woods) push that narrative.
In reality, far more eventual elites devote less time to deliberate practice early on and instead undergo a “sampling period.” This offers them an opportunity to learn about and discover their own abilities and inclinations. Only later do they focus on one specific area and ramp up technical practice (Roger Federer).
Specialization works in fields where massive amounts of narrow practice help with repetitive tasks: golfers, surgeons, poker players, chess-masters, accountants. Doesn’t apply as well to scientists, entrepreneurs, artists. But you need both.
Breadth > Depth:
Earlier career specializers make more immediately out of college. But delayed specializers end up surpassing them by finding work that better fits their skills and personalities.
Gathering experience in multiple domains is a force multiplier in creative endeavors (technology, art, etc.). Helps avoid “cognitive entrenchment.”
Standard advice cautions changing directions. That’s why so many people need to have their life choices affirmed by outsiders.
“If you’re working on well-defined and well-understood problems, specialists work very, very well. As ambiguity and uncertainty increases, which is the norm with systems problems, breadth becomes increasingly important.” Andy Ouderkirk
In product management, you’re a “T-shaped person.” You’re the trunk connecting the “I-shaped people.” Mosaic building. Asking the right questions. Via Jayshree Seth (scientist at 3M).
Breadth can often reveal itself in terms of genres: Nail Gaiman, Hayao Miyazaki, Jordan Peele.
Dangers of Specialization:
Specialization has created a “system of parallel trenches” – everyone’s digging deeper but rarely standing up to look at the terrain. Result is that we end up missing systemic issues.
“Man with a hammer” syndrome. Everything looks like a nail.
“The bigger the picture, the more unique the potential human contribution. Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.” DE
Spaced Repetition and Speed:
Space between practice sessions enhances learning. The struggle to retrieve information when it’s on the edge of your short-term memory ultimately improves retention (See Gabriel Wyner, Fluent Forever).
“Frustration is not a sign you are not learning, but ease is.” DE
The best learning is slow, no matter how tempting learning hacks might seem. Slow, deliberate learning is a struggle that improves performance later.
“Learning deeply means learning slowly. The cult of the head start fails the learner it seeks to serve.” DE
Vincent van Gogh:
“He tested options with maniacal intensity and got the maximum information signal about his fit as quickly as possible, and then moved to something else and repeated, until he had zigzagged his way to a place no one else had ever been, and where he alone excelled.” DE
Dropped out of school at 15. Went to work full time at his uncle’s art dealership. At 22 he was transferred to Paris. Passed studios of brilliant artists and never made the connection. Instead, found a new obsession in religion and decided he would work towards becoming a missionary in South America. In the meantime, he went to work as an assistant teacher at a boarding school and then became a tutor, followed by time spent as a bookstore clerk. At 27, in despair, turned to the last thing he could think of…drawing. Enrolled in art school at age 33, dropped out after a few weeks after being ridiculed by judges in a drawing competition. One day he found an easel and oil paints and took it to a sand dune in a storm. Slapped on colors, squeezed paint straight from the tube onto the canvas and discovered he could paint. He emerged with a new art without formality that attempted to capture something infinite. Works he made in hours as experiments would later become some of the most valuable pieces in the world.
Seek the best match quality based on where you are in this moment…who you are, your motivations, what you’d like to do, what you’d like to learn. Use this as a filter for new opportunities.
Learn about yourself through a discovery period or sampling period. It’s risky to make long-term commitments (law school, med school), before you know how it fits you. Most personality changes occur between 18 and late 20s. Specializing early means attempting to predict match quality for a person who doesn’t exist yet.
Michael Crichton went to Harvard Medical School out of fear of how little money writers made. But he was able to leverage medical knowledge in his novels and scripts (Jurassic Park, E.R.).
Patrick Rothfuss, fantasy writer, studied chemical engineering in college and bounced between majors for the next nine years. After that he went to grad school and slowly started piecing together The Name of the Wind. Used his knowledge of chemistry throughout the book and the world he created.
Chrissie Wellington, four-time Ironman world championship winner, didn’t get on a bike until age 27. She was working on a sanitation project in Nepal and found she could keep up with the Sherpas in the Himalayas.
“Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous the examined in the light of more self-knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.” DE
“We learn who we are only by living, and not before.” DE
NASA Challenger Disaster:
Occurred because they failed to shift strategies when conditions changed (See Ernest Shackleton for a true master of shifting strategy). NASA failed to value both quantitative and qualitative data. Instead, there was an allegiance to hierarchy and procedure. Valued consensus over conviction.
Not Everything Needs to Have a Point:
Exploration and curiosity are enough. Louis Pasteur experimenting on chickens with cholera led to lab-created vaccines. Einstein investigating what happens to time in high versus low gravity.
Hyper-specialization is a push for efficiency. But experimentation and pushing the boundaries, by nature, is inefficient.