This New York Times number one bestseller explains how specialization limits understanding and why the world needs generalists.
Range author David Epstein also wrote the New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene. His realm is sports, but as befits a winner of awards from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Epstein credibly addresses more complex realms. To his credit, he opens this Times number one bestseller with examples from the world of sports and then abandons that world entirely for more revealing examples and analogies, including scientific inquiry. This speaks to Epstein’s wide-ranging curiosity and passionate research.
Knowledge increasingly needs not merely to be durable, but also flexible – both sticky and capable of broad application.David Epstein
Bill Gates said of Epstein’s insights, “Fascinating…If you’re a generalist who has ever felt overshadowed by your specialist colleagues, this book is for you.” Forbes called this, “The most important business – and parenting – book of the year.” And Range made the shortlist for The Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award.
Epstein reports that champion golfer Tiger Woods held his first golf club at the age of 18 months. Conversely, Roger Federer sampled various sports before settling on tennis in his teens. Both became world champions.
Both athletes, Epstein point outs, engaged in deliberative practice – following explicit instructions on the best methods known – to become standout stars. While early specialists have an advantage at the start of their careers, the author notes that late specialists typically find employment that better matches their skills and abilities.
Certain areas of expertise, such as sports, chess and firefighting, suit hyperspecialists, the author suggests, because the clear rules in such fields reward intense concentration and repetition. Practitioners can memorize patterns and chunk information for easy retrieval. However, ambiguous situations, with unclear rules and unreliable feedback – wicked domains – Epstein reveals, require a range of skills and experience.
In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous. David Epstein
Learning slowly and making mistakes improves retention and broad application. You need to perform badly in the short term, the author assures you, to perform well in the long term.
Specialists, according to Epstein, focus on internal details that distort their thinking. Their experience makes them overly confident that they can apply the same procedures even to novel problems.
Overspecialization can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action.David Epstein
In the past, the author suggests, employers had more control over their employees’ career trajectories. In today’s knowledge economy, employees, Epstein asserts, have the advantage, and can take high-risk, high-reward jobs when they are young. This idea provides a useful broader conceptual framework for such people when they specialize later in their careers. Many authors make the point today that employees have the advantage in the job market. But any job seeker will tell you that may be an ivory-tower fantasy.
Hyperspecialization is more of a problem in today’s world, because, as the author explains, the quantity of human knowledge is more vast than ever. Public knowledge expands rapidly, allowing curious dilettantes to contribute to solving problems that once only specialists handled.
Messy and Inefficient
Epstein cites how an evocative simple problem – for instance, discovering how the body responds to a paper cut, for example – becomes complex because a hematologist and an immunologist study only their parts of the puzzle, and not the overall picture.
The most successful experts also belong to the wider world.David Epstein
Specialists stay in parallel trenches the author says, which means that they seldom learn what people in other trenches are doing or discovering.
Complexity Presented Simply
Because Epstein also writes for Sports Illustrated, his usual mode is addressing a broad audience. Here that experience works both for and against him. Epstein presents complex scientific histories in simple terms, which makes them easy to understand. There are brief moments, however, when his simplifying might leave you yearning for a more multilayered approach. Still, for a book aimed at a general audience, Epstein never dumbs down too much – and how many broad-market science/social-trend/business writers can make that claim?
Epstein’s own The Sports Gene, Think Again by Adam Grant and Loonshots by Safi Bahcall all make worthy ancillary reading and all will shape your further insights into his thesis.