Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Author: David Epstein
I picked up David Epstein’s Range after hearing him on the Bill Simmons Podcast discussing a very interesting concept. Essentially, there were two sport narratives compared featuring tons of anecdotal and scientific studies and then expanded to apply to all walks of life. The first is the Tiger Woods narrative: a young child is plugged into one activity at a very young age and stays with it for hours a day, constantly ahead of others who started later and becomes the best in the world. The second is the Roger Federer narrative: a young athlete tries out multiple different sports, not specializing in any of them until his late teen years, before finding the activity that best suits him and focusing on it, becoming the best in the world.
The author suspects that most people believe the Tiger Woods path is how one attains greatness, but spends the rest of the book explaining how the more likely path to success is the Roger Federer one. The premise makes a lot of sense when you begin to think about it. Somebody who has multiple activities/jobs/hobbies will develop a wide variety of skills, both mental and physical, compared to just developing those same things in one arena. Also, bouncing around is likely to prevent burning out the one focused activity.
Consider a scientist who only focuses on one thing; he’s completely specialized and knows more about that one thing than anybody. Compare him to somebody that knows a lot about several different areas of science but isn’t completely specialized in one thing. Who is more likely to draw a connection that wasn’t previously considered and make a scientific breakthrough. Epstein looks at Nobel prize winners and inventors and basically had me questioning the entire educational system afterwards. Every section of the book is supplemented with studies, some of which are more interesting that the specific individuals highlighted. For instance, when a scientific study would cite two articles that had never been cited in the same paper before more than once in the same study, research shows that study will generally be ignored upon release but by ten years later will be cited more than any of its contemporaries.
That was a general trend in the book, that the payoff for the Range approach is typically far reaching but sometimes slow to see. Teachers that got high review scores from their students would often be the ones who produced immediate improvement in test scores, but those teachers that required students to figure things out on their own would see lower immediate results but much higher retention months or years later. Among the numerous individuals highlighted in the book is a woman who got her “first professional” job becoming CEO of a major company when she was in her 60’s. (If the payoff doesn’t come until everybody is 60, I don’t think many of us will be excited about taking this advice for our careers.)
The concepts I read about in this book really stuck with me, and as an idea this was a five star book. Ultimately, the idea is repeated enough throughout the book that it could get a bit redundant to read. In particular the format of giving a description of some person who meandered through life before changing the course of the world and revealing who that person was got a bit tiresome. If you’re interested in the idea of the book but don’t want to read a whole book on it, just listening to Epstein on the Bill Simmons Podcast will get you the concept effectively.