Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein
Riverhead Books, New York, 2019
I didn’t finish Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World for the same reason I don’t eat chicken wings: too much effort for too little reward.
I’ll give an author 100 pages. If they haven’t captured my interest by then, I stop reading. I rarely invoke my 100 Page Rule, but I did with Range after the first four chapters.
It’s too bad really. I had high hopes for the book because I figured it was about … me! At least, I see myself as something of a generalist, and I do have a wide range of interests.
Range was written by David Epstein, a journalist who has written for ProPublica and Sports Illustrated.
Epstein’s main idea in Range is this: to be successful in today’s world it seems like you have to be a specialist, focusing in on a narrow field, and you have to start from a very young age. Yet in reality, the most successful people in any field, Nobel Prize winners for example, demonstrate breadth of knowledge, diverse experiences, interdisciplinary thinking and delayed specialization.
And those characteristics are becoming increasingly important in today’s world.
Epstein distinguishes between “kind” and “wicked” learning environments. In kind environments, the rules are well understood, patterns repeat frequently and feedback is fast and accurate. In wicked environments the rules are not understood or even defined, patterns might not repeat and feedback is often delayed and/or unreliable.
Early specialization and deliberate, intense practice might help someone succeed in kind environments like chess or golf or piano playing, but they are wholly inadequate strategies for coping in wicked ones like a hospital emergency room. Increasingly, we live and work in wicked environments where abstract thinking, the ability to make inferences based on incomplete data and to make connections across different knowledge domains are key. These are environments where range is critical and generalists succeed.
So what’s so bad about all that?
It’s not that there were no interesting ideas in Range, just not enough to earn my time and attention. I was especially put off by long digressions into historical details — like the story of some 17th Century orphan girls who became famous musicians — that just didn’t add very much to the overall thrust of the book.
As an aside, a digression of my own I suppose, I see many authors these days trying to imitate Malcolm Gladwell’s narrative style. Gladwell is a terrific storyteller and he can go off an a tangent and usually make it work, or at least make it entertaining. Few authors can match Gladwell’s ability and I wish they wouldn’t try. It just gets annoying.
Anyway, the specialist-generalist debate is really a false choice. Both are needed. Teams cannot succeed without some people who have deep expertise and others who can make connections across diverse areas. In your own work you will probably need to be both too. Early in your career or even in a new job, you typically need to specialize in order to learn and contribute and build credibility. Later, especially if you move into a leadership or management role, you won’t succeed unless you can generalize and take a broader, long term view.
I think this post by Thomas Oppong on Medium captures it well: The T-Shaped Approach To Building a 21st Century Career. And it’s only a four minute read.