This is a book summary of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein (Amazon).
In Range, David Epstein utilizes a writing style that’s primarily focused on sharing a wide variety of stories, interviews, research studies, and anecdotes. The key takeaways seem to be summed up at the end of each example and/or chapter. This book summary is focused on just the key takeaways without the storytelling.
If you’re looking for a video introduction to David Epstein, this TED Talk gives you the gist of the book in a fraction of the time:
- All quotes are from the author unless otherwise stated.
- I’ve added emphasis in bold to the original quotes.
- I’ve organized quotes into my own themes (vs the author’s chapters).
Book Summary Contents: Click a link to jump to a section below
- About the book Range
- Kind problems & wicked problems
- Specialization still plays a role
- Generalists in a hyper-specialized world
- We need both generalists and specialists
- Characteristics of creative achievers / serial innovators
- Learn how to think
- Deep learning is slow
- The ability to integrate broadly
- ‘Interleaving’ to match a strategy to a problem
- Find your match quality
10 Insights to Inspire Your Inner Generalist from “Range” by David Epstein (Book Summary)
About the book Range:
- “The question I set out to explore was how to capture and cultivate the power of breadth, diverse experience, and interdisciplinary exploration, within systems that increasingly demand hyper-specialization, and would have you decide what you should be before first figuring out who you are.”
1. The world has kind problems & wicked problems.
Kind problems (better for specialists): Certain environments, specific challenges, rigid rules, unchanging, etc.
Wicked problems (better for generalists): Uncertain environments, ill-defined challenges, few rules, rapidly changing, etc.
- “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 hyper-specialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.”
- “When we know the rules and answers, and they don’t change over time—chess, golf, playing classical music (kind world)—an argument can be made for savant-like hyper-specialized practice from day one. But those are poor models of most things humans want to learn.”
- “In the wicked world, with ill-defined challenges and few rigid rules, range can be a life hack.”
- “They were perfectly capable of learning from experience, but failed at learning without experience. And that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands—conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts. Faced with any problem they had not directly experienced before, the remote villagers were completely lost. That is not an option for us. The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.”
2. Specialization still plays a role & creates opportunities.
“Remember that there is nothing inherently wrong with specialization.”
- “We all specialize to one degree or another, at some point or other. My initial spark of interest in this topic came from reading viral articles and watching conference keynotes that offered early hyper-specialization as some sort of life hack, a prescription that will save you the wasted time of diverse experience and experimentation. I hope I have added ideas to that discussion, because research in myriad areas suggests that mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power, and head starts are overrated.”
- “At its core, all hyper-specialization is a well-meaning drive for efficiency—the most efficient way to develop a sports skill, assemble a product, learn to play an instrument, or work on a new technology … efficient development is limited to narrowly constructed, kind learning environments.”
- “The more information specialists create, the more opportunity exists for curious dilettantes to contribute by merging strands of widely available but disparate information—undiscovered public knowledge, as Don Swanson called it. The larger and more easily accessible the library of human knowledge, the more chances for inquisitive patrons to make connections at the cutting edge.”
- “It isn’t just the increase in new knowledge that generates opportunities for nonspecialists, though. In a race to the forefront, a lot of useful knowledge is simply left behind to molder. That presents another kind of opportunity for those who want to create and invent but who cannot or simply do not want to work at the cutting edge. They can push forward by looking back; they can excavate old knowledge but wield it in a new way.“
3. You can be a generalist with range in a hyper-specialized world.
“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, hyper-specialization.”
- “While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s (Tiger Woods) precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases—as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part—we also need more Rogers (Roger Federer): people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.“
- “Even now, even in endeavors that engender specialization unprecedented in history, there are beacons of breadth. Individuals who live by historian Arnold Toynbee’s words that ‘no tool is omnicompetent. There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors.’ Rather than wielding a single tool, they have managed to collect and protect an entire toolshed, and they show the power of range in a hyper-specialized world.“
- “At some point or other, we all specialize to one degree or another, so the rush to get there can seem logical. Fortunately, there are pioneers who are working to balance the cult of the head start. They want to have it all—the mental meandering along with the wisdom of deep experience; the broad conceptual skills that make use of Flynn’s scientific spectacles even within training programs for specialists; and the creative power of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. They want to reverse the Tiger trend, not just for themselves, but for everyone, and even in domains synonymous with hyper-specialization. The future of discovery, they argue, depends on it.“
4. We need both generalists and specialists: T-shaped & I-shaped / birds & frogs / foxes & hedgehogs.
Generalists: T-shaped, birds, foxes.
Specialists: I-shaped, frogs, hedgehogs.
- “Eminent physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson styled it this way: we need both focused frogs and visionary birds. ‘Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon,’ Dyson wrote in 2009. ‘They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.’ As a mathematician, Dyson labeled himself a frog, but contended, ‘It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper.’ The world, he wrote, is both broad and deep. ‘We need birds and frogs working together to explore it.’ Dyson’s concern was that science is increasingly overflowing with frogs, trained only in a narrow specialty and unable to change as science itself does. ‘This is a hazardous situation,’ he warned, ‘for the young people and also for the future of science.'”
- “Seeing small pieces of a larger jigsaw puzzle in isolation, no matter how hi-def the picture, is insufficient to grapple with humanity’s greatest challenges. We have long known the laws of thermodynamics, but struggle to predict the spread of a forest fire. We know how cells work, but can’t predict the poetry that will be written by a human made up of them. The frog’s-eye view of individual parts is not enough. A healthy ecosystem needs biodiversity.“
- “She is a ‘T-shaped person,’ she said, one who has breadth, compared to an ‘I-shaped person,’ who only goes deep, an analog to Dyson’s birds and frogs. ‘T-people like myself can happily go to the I-people with questions to create the trunk for the T,’ she told me. ‘My inclination is to attack a problem by building a narrative. I figure out the fundamental questions to ask, and if you ask those questions of the people who actually do know their stuff, you are still exactly where you would be if you had all this other knowledge inherently. It’s mosaic building. I just keep putting those tiles together. Imagine me in a network where I didn’t have the ability to access all these people. That really wouldn’t work well.'”
- “Beneath complexity, hedgehogs tend to see simple, deterministic rules of cause and effect framed by their area of expertise, like repeating patterns on a chessboard. Foxes see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect. They understand that most cause-and-effect relationships are probabilistic, not deterministic. There are unknowns, and luck, and even when history apparently repeats, it does not do so precisely. They recognize that they are operating in the very definition of a wicked learning environment, where it can be very hard to learn, from either wins or losses.”
- “Tetlock described the very best forecasters as foxes with dragonfly eyes. Dragonfly eyes are composed of tens of thousands of lenses, each with a different perspective, which are then synthesized in the dragonfly’s brain.”
5. Foster the characteristics of creative achievers and serial innovators.
Characteristics like: broad curiosity/interests, love of reading/learning, ability to think in systems, proactively cross domains/disciplines, integrate/synthesize knowledge, willingness to embrace ambiguity, etc.
- “As psychologist and prominent creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton observed, ‘rather than obsessively focus[ing] on a narrow topic,’ creative achievers tend to have broad interests. ‘This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.'”
- “That’s how it goes on the disorderly path of experimentation. Original creators tend to strike out a lot, but they also hit mega grand slams, and a baseball analogy doesn’t really do it justice.”
- “University of Utah professor Abbie Griffin has made it her work to study modern Thomas Edisons—‘serial innovators,’ she and two colleagues termed them. Their findings about who these people are should sound familiar by now: ‘high tolerance for ambiguity’; ‘systems thinkers‘; ‘additional technical knowledge from peripheral domains’; ‘repurposing what is already available‘; ‘adept at using analogous domains for finding inputs to the invention process’; ‘ability to connect disparate pieces of information in new ways’; ‘synthesizing information from many different sources‘; ‘they appear to flit among ideas’; ‘broad range of interests’; ‘they read more (and more broadly) than other technologists and have a wider range of outside interests’; ‘need to learn significantly across multiple domains‘; ‘Serial innovators also need to communicate with various individuals with technical expertise outside of their own domain.’ Get the picture?”
6. Learn how to think, use analogical thinking, and avoid cognitive entrenchment.
“They must be taught to think before being taught what to think about.”
- “It is not what they think, but how they think. The best forecasters are high in active open-mindedness. They are also extremely curious, and don’t merely consider contrary ideas, they proactively cross disciplines looking for them.”
- “Deep analogical thinking is the practice of recognizing conceptual similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that may seem to have little in common on the surface.”
- “The successful adapters were excellent at taking knowledge from one pursuit and applying it creatively to another, and at avoiding cognitive entrenchment. They employed what Hogarth called a ‘circuit breaker.’ They drew on outside experiences and analogies to interrupt their inclination toward a previous solution that may no longer work. Their skill was in avoiding the same old patterns.“
7. Learning deeply means learning slowly.
“Deep learning is slow. ‘The slowest growth,’ the researchers wrote, occurs ‘for the most complex skills.'”
- “I was stunned when cognitive psychologists I spoke with led me to an enormous and too often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.”
- “As with the making-connections questions Richland studied, it is difficult to accept that the best learning road is slow, and that doing poorly now is essential for better performance later. It is so deeply counterintuitive that it fools the learners themselves, both about their own progress and their teachers’ skill.”
- “There is often no entrenched interest fighting on the side of range, or of knowledge that must be slowly acquired. All forces align to incentivize a head start and early, narrow specialization, even if that is a poor long-term strategy. That is a problem, because another kind of knowledge, perhaps the most important of all, is necessarily slowly acquired—the kind that helps you match yourself to the right challenge in the first place.”
8. Our greatest strength is the ability to integrate broadly—breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer.
Be a “lateral-thinking integrator.”
- “The bigger the picture, the more unique the potential human contribution. Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.“
- “They added value by integrating domains, taking technology from one area and applying it in others.”
- “Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines.”
- “Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. 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.“
- “The ability to apply knowledge broadly comes from broad training.”
- “When a knowledge structure is so flexible that it can be applied effectively even in new domains or extremely novel situations, it is called ‘far transfer.’“
- “Knowledge with enduring utility must be very flexible, composed of mental schemes that can be matched to new problems.”
9. ‘Interleaving’ improves the ability to match the right strategy to a problem.
“Whether the task is mental or physical, interleaving improves the ability to match the right strategy to a problem.”
- “That happens to be a hallmark of expert problem solving. Whether chemists, physicists, or political scientists, the most successful problem solvers spend mental energy figuring out what type of problem they are facing before matching a strategy to it, rather than jumping in with memorized procedures. In that way, they are just about the precise opposite of experts who develop in kind learning environments, like chess masters, who rely heavily on intuition. Kind learning environment experts choose a strategy and then evaluate; experts in less repetitive environments evaluate and then choose.”
- “Desirable difficulties like testing and spacing make knowledge stick. It becomes durable. Desirable difficulties like making connections and interleaving make knowledge flexible, useful for problems that never appeared in training. All slow down learning and make performance suffer, in the short term.”
- “In one of the most cited studies of expert problem solving ever conducted, an interdisciplinary team of scientists came to a pretty simple conclusion: successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it. Less successful problem solvers are more like most students in the Ambiguous Sorting Task: they mentally classify problems only by superficial, overtly stated features, like the domain context. For the best performers, they wrote, problem solving ‘begins with the typing of the problem.’“
10. Find your own ‘match quality’ over the course of your life.
“‘Match quality’ is a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are—their abilities and proclivities.”
- “Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous, to use Darwin’s adjective, when examined in the light of more self-knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.”
- “Because personality changes more than we expect with time, experience, and different contexts, we are ill-equipped to make ironclad long-term goals when our past consists of little time, few experiences, and a narrow range of contexts. Each ‘story of me’ continues to evolve.”
- “Like anyone eager to raise their match quality prospects, Michelangelo learned who he was—and whom he was carving—in practice, not in theory. He started with an idea, tested it, changed it, and readily abandoned it for a better project fit. Michelangelo might have fit well in Silicon Valley; he was a relentless iterator. He worked according to Ibarra’s new aphorism: ‘I know who I am when I see what I do.'”
- “Approach your own personal voyage and projects like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise. Research on creators in domains from technological innovation to comic books shows that a diverse group of specialists cannot fully replace the contributions of broad individuals. Even when you move on from an area of work or an entire domain, that experience is not wasted.“
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