Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein – here are my five lessons and takeaways – (This is one of the year’s best books)

Range (verb) — to roam at large or freely
Generalist — a person whose knowledge, aptitudes, and skills are applied to a field as a whole or to a variety of different fields (opposed to specialist).


epstein-5-19I presented my synopsis of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David J. Epstein at the July First Friday Book Synopsis.  It is quite a book!

Let me give you the big insight right away.  If you function in a “kind” learning and functioning environment, then deep expertise, the 10,000 hour rule, and grit will serve you well. This is an environment where, if you learn how to do this, and then that, and then this, it will definitely lead to success.  Become a world-class specialist for success in such an environment.

But, if you function in a “wicked” learning and functioning environment, learn much more widely, sample a lot (try a bunch of different things; pursue different possible paths) before you take your deeper dive.  This is an environment where the issues are more complex, the targets are moving targets, and you’re not sure what to learn next to succeed at this moment.  You’ve got some experimenting, and learning, and trial-and-erroring to do.  Become a world-class generalist for success in such an environment.

To be honest, reading this book made me glad that my business card reads:  “Randy Mayeux, Broad-based knowledge consultant.”  (Now…to fully live up to that claim).

In my synopsis, I ask: What is the point? Narrow expertise is great – until it isn’t. The breakthroughs may come from a group with greater diversity – a generalists group.And, people who are generalists may be a little bit happier.

• And I ask, Why is this book worth our time? Here are my three reasons:

#1 – This book gives quite a counterpoint to the grit/10,000 hour rule viewpoint.  It is a counterpoint worth pondering.
#2 – This book is filled with great history and insight.  You will learn from this book.
#3 – This book is about business and personal success and effectiveness. It is a broad book – useful for budding and accomplished generalists.

Here are a number of my highlighted passages from the book:

Elite athletes at the peak of their abilities do spend more time on focused, deliberate practice than their near-elite peers. But when scientists examine the entire developmental path of athletes, from early childhood, it looks like this:
Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a “sampling period.” They play a variety of sports, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area.
The research pertains to every stage of life, from the development of children in math, music, and sports, to students fresh out of college trying to find their way, to midcareer professionals in need of a change and would-be retirees looking for a new vocation after moving on from their previous one.
The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.
Do specialists get better with experience, or not?
Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise, they agreed, 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.
Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.
But it is certainly true that modern life requires range, making connections across far-flung domains and ideas.
One good tool is rarely enough in a complex, interconnected, rapidly changing world.
That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.
“What you want is to make it easy to make it hard.” Kornell was explaining the concept of “desirable difficulties,” obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower, and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long term.
One of those desirable difficulties is known as the “generation effect.” Struggling to generate an answer on your own, even a wrong one, enhances subsequent learning.
“Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do some things, but it also makes you blind to other things that you could do.”
“In product development,” Taylor and Greve concluded, “specialization can be costly.”
Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable. Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient.
The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.
The most science-curious folk always chose to look at new evidence, whether or not it agreed with their current beliefs. Their foxy hunt for information was like a literal fox’s hunt for prey: roam freely, listen carefully, and consume omnivorously. — They are extremely curious, and don’t merely consider contrary ideas, they proactively cross disciplines looking for them. “Depth can be inadequate without breadth,” wrote Jonathan Baron, the psychologist who developed measurements of active open-mindedness.
“I always advise my people to read outside your field, everyday something.”
So, about that one sentence of advice: Don’t feel behind. Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Don’t let anyone else make you feel behind.

The following were included in my synopsis handout:

  • What is this book?
  • This is a career path book
  • This is a parenting book
  • This is a book about educating children (and adults) – note: slow learning is the best learning
  • This is a book on how to get better at decision-making
  • This is a book about how to get better at coming up with breakthrough innovations
  • This is a book about how to get better at problem-identification and problem-solving
  • This is a book about the pluses of narrow expertise; AND… the minuses of narrow expertise
  • That “big” observation:
  • kind-learning environments need experts with narrow expertise
  • “kind” learning environments. Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. — That is the very definition of deliberate practice,
  • wicked-learning environments need much broader input; narrow expertise actually hurts the outcomes…
  • Here are a number of my observations from the book:
  • Do not treat the wicked world as kind; it is not kind!Chris Argyris, who helped create the Yale School of Management, noted the danger of treating the wicked world as if it is kind.
  • you won’t know what you want to do until you discover what you want to do – and then, your deliberate practice and building of expertise kicks in, and matters…  Prominent sports scientist Ross Tucker summed up research in the field simply: “We know that early sampling is key, as is diversity.”
  • in other words, work ethic matters; but only after you finish your sampling
  • savants are great – but they do not CREATE “breakthroughs”
  • train broadlyThe ability to apply knowledge broadly comes from broad training.
  • learn slowly – “The slowest growth,” the researchers wrote, occurs “for the most complex skills.”
  • analogies matter;they really help people learn…
  • diversity in groups really matters– different experiences; different expertise
  • outsiders have an advantage
  • beware of the “missed data” – But it’s often the case in group meetings where the person who made the PowerPoint slides puts data in front of you, and we often just use the data people put in front of us. I would argue we don’t do a good job of saying, ‘Is this the data that we want to make the decision we need to make?’”

And here are my five lesson and takeaways:

#1 – Read broadly – and read very widely; many things. — Frances Hasselbein devoured management books. (Ed Catmull of Pixar did the same).
#2 – Maybe do more testing and learning(rather than just planning and implementing).
#3 – Identify whether or not you are in a “kind” arena or a “wicked” arena.  Then, act accordingly.
#4 – Surround yourself with a more diverse group of people.
#5 – In other words, get serious about becoming an accomplished generalist.

When the great film critic Roger Ebert would review a movie that was the best of the best in his view, he would end his review with this line:  This is one of the year’s best films.”

I read a fair number of books.  I present synopses of close to 40 books a year.  About 26-28 of those synopses are business books.  I’m ready to say this about RangeThis is one of the year’s best books.


I do highly recommend that you read this book. My synopsis, with my multi-page, comprehensive handout, and the audio recording of my presentation, will be available soon at the buy synopses tab at the top of this page.  Click here for the newest additions.

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