13 min read ⌚
How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Have you ever heard that old adage “Jack of all trades, master of none”?
Well, David Epstein begs to differ. If you want to succeed in this wicked modern world of ours, he says, you need to have something much more than a certain specialty.
You need to have:
Who Should Read “Range”? And Why?
On the face of it, the time of polymaths is long gone: there are very few Da Vincis, Michelangelos, and Galileos around, and even fewer of them command the same respect these people did back in their own days.
However, the author of Range, David Epstein, believes the opposite: the ones who succeed are actually the ones who’ve refused to specialize and are able to see things from a broader perspective.
Regardless of what you think, read Epstein’s Range and face his arguments. Especially if you are young and/or clueless as to what your next career move should be. Perhaps, Epstein would argue, you’ve already made your life far easier—precisely by procrastinating and dabbling around.
Commenting upon this, Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World, adds a few further recommendations:
“I want to give Range to any kid who is being forced to take violin lessons—but really wants to learn the drums; to any programmer who secretly dreams of becoming a psychologist; to everyone who wants humans to thrive in an age of robots.”
About David Epstein
David Epstein is a bestselling American author.
Epstein graduated from Columbia University in environmental science and astronomy and earned master’s degrees from the same university in both environmental science and journalism.
Before working as an investigative reporter at ProPublica, Epstein was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, where he co-authored (with Selena Roberts) the story which first broke to the public that Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003.
In addition to Range, he is also the author of The Sports Gene.
Find out more at https://www.davidepstein.com/david-epstein-about/.
“Range PDF Summary”
Even if you don’t know a lot about Malcolm Gladwell, you’ve probably already heard a lot about one concept he made quite popular in his third book, Outliers: the “10,000-Hour Rule.”
The basic idea behind it is quite simple: if you want to become an expert in something, you need about 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice.”
That’s how the Beatles became the Beatles, how Bill Gates became a computer whizz and how Mozart became one of the greatest composers in history.
It doesn’t matter how old you are: what matters is the number of hours you have put into the discipline you want to excel at!
Mozart, for example, started playing the piano from a very early age, and that is the main reason why he was considered a prodigy at the age of 6. In reality, however, by that age, he had already played the piano as many hours as most professionals manage well in their 20s, so, in terms of skill practice, he was much older than he actually was.
According to David Epstein, however, this is not the smartest way to go through life nowadays. Though he too believes that getting a head start and specializing in something works from time to time, most of the time, he says, it actually has detrimental effects.
And, believe it or not, Malcolm Gladwell (of all people) seems to agree!
“For reasons I cannot explain,” he says, “David Epstein manages to make me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong.
Yup, it’s time we make you question your old belief system once again, via the highlights from David Epstein’s marvelous Range!
A Story of Two Exceptional Boys
Just like Epstein, we’ll start our text with a couple of stories from the world of sports. It’s quite possible that you know them both—the first one much more than the second one.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list “kicks a ball” and “stands on tiptoe” as physical developmental milestones for a 2-year-old child.
However, the child from our first story, at that very same age, was already able to use “a club tall enough to reach his shoulder to drive a ball past an admiring Bob Hope” on national TV! That same year, he entered his first tournament and won against children much older than him.
The very next year, this boy was capable of playing out of a “sand trap” and already boasted a score that many people (including the writer of this article) can only dream of: 48, 11 over par, for 9 holes at a course in California.
Only a few years later (at the age of 8), the boy beat his father for the first time, even though his father had been an outstanding athlete himself, playing baseball in college as the only black player in the entire conference.
The father didn’t mind: he was already aware that his son was “the Chosen One.” Not only he did have the talent, but he also had the father to guide him toward greatness.
The second story concerns a very different kind of boy.
This one’s mother was a coach, but she never coached him. In fact, for all intents and purposes, he had a pretty regular childhood, playing everything from basketball and handball to soccer and table tennis. He also dabbled in skiing, swimming, wrestling, and skateboarding.
One day he discovered that he liked more sports that included a ball, and, nearing his teens, he started gravitating toward one particular kind of sport played with a ball: tennis. He still liked playing soccer, though, and by the time he had given up that sport as well, most of the other kids at his age had long since been working with strength coaches, sports psychologists, and nutritionists.
It didn’t matter in the long run: just like the kid from the first story, he too became the greatest.
Boy #1 Meets Boy #2
In 2006, the boys whose stories we related to you above met for the first time and immediately connected. “I’ve never spoken with anybody who was so familiar with the feeling of being invincible,” boy #2 would later describe this encounter.
However, he was aware of the differences between the two as well.
“His story is completely different from mine,” he added later on for a biographer. “Even as a kid, his goal was to break the record for winning the most majors. I was just dreaming of just once meeting Boris Becker or being able to play at Wimbledon some time.”
And, indeed—though the success of Boy #2 was all but inevitable considering his upbringing, it seems pretty unusual that Boy #2 was at least as dominant in his sport at the time of this meeting as Boy #1.
How did he do it? Was it against the odds? Or there’s something more to it?
Tiger vs Roger, aka Specialists vs Generalists
By now, you almost certainly know the identities of the two exceptional boys from the section above: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.
For David Epstein, they are much more than just household names, much more than dominant sportsmen, much more than the most dominant athletes of the 20th century. Namely, they are symbols, real-life embodiments of two very different philosophies of life and two very different approaches toward education.
Tiger Woods is, of course, the Archetypal Specialist, the undeniable proof of the veracity of Gladwell’s 10,000-hours rule. He has “come to symbolize the idea that the quantity of deliberate practice determines success—and its corollary, that the practice must start as early as possible.”
Roger Federer, on the other hand, is the Typical Generalist. He chose to focus on tennis only after he was well into his teens. Unlike Tiger, thousands of kids had a head start on Roger, but, for some reason, none of them managed to become the #1 tennis player in the world.
No one would blame you for thinking that Roger’s story is the exception, but, believe it or not, it is Tiger’s! As Epstein writes:
The professed necessity of hyperspecialization forms the core of a vast, successful, and sometimes well-meaning marketing machine, in sports and beyond. In reality, the Roger path to sports stardom is far more prevalent than the Tiger path, but those athletes’ stories are much more quietly told if they are told at all. Some of their names you know, but their backgrounds you probably don’t.
For example, if you are a sports fan, you certainly know the name of Vasyl Lomachenko (the current #1 pound-for-pound boxer in the world), but did you know that he took four years off boxing as a kid to learn traditional Ukrainian dance?
What about Ester Ledecká, the first woman ever to win gold in two different sports (skiing and snowboarding) at the same Winter Olympics?
What about LeBron James, Tom Brady or Nick Foles—all of them exceptionally successful in at least one other sport?
Finally, what about the entire German national soccer team which won the World Cup in 2014? As a team of scientists demonstrated, it almost exclusively comprised late specializers who didn’t play more organized soccer than amateur-league players until age twenty-two or later!
What’s the catch? And does it apply outside sports as well?
Klein vs Kahneman, aka Experience vs Performance
To answer these questions, maybe we should turn to the findings of Gary Klein and Daniel Kahneman, two pioneers in the study of human decision making.
Both of them had spent years studying the connection between experience and performance, but, strangely enough, they had reached quite different conclusions.
Klein studied firefighting and naval commandeers and realized that between 80 and 95 percent of their decisions are made “instinctively and in seconds,” or, to use the title of another Malcolm Gladwell book, in a blink.
His investigations discovered why and how this happens: whether firefighters or naval commanders, these people are experienced enough to recognize repeating patterns and, thus, capable, to choose a common course of action—usually the first one to come to mind.
So, something like chess players. “I see a move, a combination, almost instantly,” said Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest chess player in history, to the author of this book, betting that most grandmasters “usually make the move that springs to mind in the first few seconds of thought.”
Daniel Kahneman, however, discovered something far more peculiar than this. Working as a young lieutenant in the psychology unit of the Israel Defense Forces, he noticed that neither he nor his colleagues were able to guess correctly assess an officer candidate, no matter how many times they tried.
Even after years of assessing, they were still barely better than an average human blind guessing. The experience didn’t make them any better than beginners; there was a “complete lack of connection between the statistical information and the compelling experience of insight.”
So, who was right: Klein or Kahneman? Does experience inevitably make one better in his field or does it have no effect after a certain point?
Kind vs Wicked Learning Environments
The answer to both of the questions posited above is both.
And we discovered this because a decade ago, in 2009, Kahneman and Klein decided to collaborate on a paper and find common ground.
And they did find it, agreeing that:
Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise… depended entirely on the domain in question. Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform.
And the reason for that?
The learning environment inherent to the field in question!
In essence, specialists get better with experience only in learning environments where “patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid.” These (after Robin Hogarth) are called “kind working environments” and are perfect for trial-and-error “deliberate” learners.
Think of golf or chess or playing the guitar or programming. When you make a mistake, in all of these disciplines, you know that you’ve made a mistake, and you try to correct it on your second attempt. Repeat this for years and you’re bound to become an expert.
However, this doesn’t work as well in the so-called “wicked learning environments,” where “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.”
Think of the arts now, or of political trends or of doctors. How do you know if a verse is good or not, or whether you’ve made the right prediction? Even better, when do you realize your mistake? Are there patterns in accordance to which you can correct it easily?
A Brief Manual for Becoming a Generalist
All of the above are, of course, rhetorical questions, and they all form the basis of David Epstein’s main argument.
Namely, that specialization is all but outdated, because it mostly works in fields where humans will probably be replaced by robots in the near future.
A much better way to achieve something in the world of tomorrow is by allowing yourself to become a Jack-of-all-trades before you naturally start investing your time and attention into one particular discipline.
David Epstein’s main bits of advice to help you on this journey are the following ones:
Sample everything from math and physics to dancing and playing the guitar! The disorderly path of experimentation pays off in the long run.
It’s not a coincidence that Nobel laureates in science are 22 times more likely to have artistic pursuits outside their field than their less-recognized peers!
As Epstein says, “experimentation is not a tidy prescription, but it is common, and it has advantages, and it requires more than the typical motivational-poster lip service to a tolerance for failure. Breakthroughs are high variance.”
So, test and try out new and different things, constantly creating, manufacturing, and generating artifacts. The more work you produce, the higher the chances you’ll churn out a dud, but also the higher the chances of a supernova success!
#2. Don’t feel behind
Two letters make so much difference, don’t they?
Usually people advise other people to not fall behind, but Epstein says quite the opposite: don’t feel behind no matter where you are in your life.
Don’t be Julius Caesar who broke down in tears upon seeing a statue of Alexander the Great when he was a young man. “Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable,” he supposedly said.
Pretty soon, he ruled an empire even greater than that of Alexander and this concern was a distant memory.
“Compare yourself to yourself yesterday,” suggests Epstein, “not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.”
#3. Remember that there is nothing wrong with specialization
Though head starts are overrated and “mental meandering and personal experimentation” are exceptional sources of power, don’t forget that there is nothing inherently wrong with specialization.
And don’t forget to start specializing in some area, at some point or the other, to one degree or another.
We all do it, after all.
Key Lessons from “Range”
1. Tiger the Specialist vs Roger the Generalist
2. Kind vs Wicked Learning Environments
3. How and Why to Become a Generalist
Tiger the Specialist vs Roger the Generalist
When it comes to mastering a certain sphere, there are two kinds of people in this world: Tigers and Rogers.
The first ones are very much like Tiger Woods: they are guided from a very early age toward a certain type of success, and through thousands of hours of deliberate practice, they inevitably achieve it.
The latter ones are not unlike Roger Federer: they take up a certain profession late in their lives after spending years dabbling between many different professions. However, they too achieve immense success eventually.
Interestingly, David Epstein argues, the Rogers are much more common than the Tigers—and, no matter what all those books say, in many cases, the head start doesn’t matter.
Kind vs Wicked Learning Environments
The reason why a head start matters in golf is that the game offers a kind learning environment. In other words, it is repetitive and the feedback is extremely accurate. Hit it this hard and the ball doesn’t reach the hole; consequently, you should hit the ball with less force the next time.
This, however, doesn’t work if you are a surgeon, a psychologist, or a poet. There are no discernible repetitive patterns, and the feedback is slow. Practice and experience help little in these cases. Because these are all wicked learning environments.
How and Why to Become a Generalist
As a rule of thumb, kind learning environments, due to their repetitive nature, are great for computers to excel in: a computer can learn how to play chess better than any human, but it has difficulties learning how to write a beautiful poem.
This is why you should become a generalist: robots can replace humans in kind working environments, but wicked learning environments are for humans only.
So, become a generalist!
To do that, experiment as much as you can, and never feel behind. However, never forget that there is nothing wrong with a little specialization from time to time.
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“Range Quotes”We learn who we are in practice, not in theory. Click To Tweet You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it. We don’t train people in thinking or reasoning. Click To Tweet Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same. Click To Tweet The precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been. That feels like the most unexpected result, but it is also the most well documented. Click To Tweet Overspecialization can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Dubbed “groundbreaking” by many authors, Range challenges a notion not many believe can be challenged—namely, that specialization is the only path to excellence.
And Epstein does this in such a compelling manner that even the main advocates of the opposite are sufficiently convinced and have wholeheartedly endorsed this book (we already quoted Malcolm Gladwell above).
“Range is an urgent and important book, an essential read for bosses, parents, coaches, and anyone who cares about improving performance,” writes Daniel H. Pink, amidst commending Epstein on his writing and ability to make the complex comprehensive.
“In a world that’s increasingly obsessed with specialization,” adds Adam Grant, “star science writer David Epstein is here to convince you that the future may belong to generalists. It’s a captivating read that will leave you questioning the next steps in your career—and the way you raise your children.”
And, to be frank, this doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to us.