• Dan Connors

Range- Why generalists triumph in a specialized world- Book review


Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

by David Epstein 2019

**** Four of five stars


In many ways, specialists rule our world. If you find a niche or specialty, you've got it made. But can you take this to extremes? Can you create a chess champion by training a child from birth in chess maneuvers and little else? When does specialization work best and when do generalists shine? These important questions are looked at in David Epstein's book.


Epstein looks at the cult of the head start, which in some ways has given certain children a decided advantage in school, sports, and social situations. Starting them early and fast in certain disciplines, like a tiger mom pushing her cubs, places them above other kids temporarily. But the author says that many times the other kids eventually catch up, and given their better read on what they're capable of and what the world has to offer, eventually pass up the early achievers.


The world is broken into two types of experiences that we have to navigate. Kind ones like math, chess, and golf, play by certain rules that the more you practice the better you get. In those environments specialization takes advantage of the predictable nature of the game and maximizes results. Unfortunately, most of the world is the other type of experience- wicked. In wicked environments things are decidedly unpredictable, and what worked yesterday could be useless today. In these situations prior practice not only doesn't help, it hurts because people fall back on earlier patterns, wasting precious time before figuring out a new approach is needed. Here is where the generalists shine, because they can use their more varied experiences to synthesize new approaches.


Epstein draws from real examples of successful musicians, athletes, and artists who went through what he called a "sampling period." Rather than dive right in from childhood, the sampling period allows people to try their hand at a variety of activities before finally settling in on one thing. This is basically the idea behind liberal arts education, where general information about the world is pumped into ALL students so that specialists have more tools in their tool belts once they start working on problems.


The book spends a refreshing chapter on failure, changing your mind, and grit. Failing is not necessarily bad. Too many stay in bad situations rather than admit they made a mistake and discard all the training and investment they had in getting there (sunk cost fallacy). Long term goals always have to be adjusted as we grow and the world changes. Switching can be good and those that do it report it was one of the best things they ever did. There is no failure if you use the lessons from it to move forward.


The author talks about something called Innocentive, where outsiders are given problems that have stumped specialists. Their fresh viewpoint sometimes comes up with the perfect solution. This is basically the argument for diversity everywhere all the time. When you lose diversity, you narrow your options for finding the best solutions.


Specialization can fool you into thinking you know everything. You know a lot about one situation, but your brain is unaware of what else might be out there that's unexpected. This is how we got the 2008 financial crash, the Iraq war, and many other blunders. The Dunning Kruger effect has been profiled many places, and it states that people who know just a little about something can get overconfident because they don't know what else is out there. The author goes into Phillip Tetlock's research on prediction, and how specialists and experts were no better at predicting the future than anyone else in his famous study.

So what can be done about this problem? Because so much time and money is spent on creating specialists, we will always tend to listen to them, even when they might be wrong. In arenas that might be considered complex, unpredictable and wicked, we need to rely more on generalists. Generalists can pull from their varied experience and create new solutions that are unique and powerful. Specialists need to be challenged to think outside the box and not be afraid to drop their assumptions to focus on a better solution when necessary. The author tells the tragic story of firefighters who refused to drop their tool when faced with a rapidly approaching firestorm. Those that did, survived, but those that didn't were too slow to escape.


This was an enjoyable and informative book. It was thought-provoking and made me want to expand my horizons even more. None of us is capable of seeing every possibility, but diversity, variety, and creativity will help us when the unexpected happens.





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