Book cover of Range by David Epstein.

Book review: Range by David Epstein

*Imagery of this title has been used with permission from the publisher.

 

We live in a world of specialists—or so we think. The prevailing wisdom has been to double-down in a narrow specialty, and we’ve all heard it from a teacher, parent, professor, or mentor.

But why?

  1. Specialty is supposed to provide a competitive edge.
  2. Specialty is supposed to make you harder to replace.
  3. Specialty is supposed to insulate you from redundancy or automation.

Yet these benefits don’t always materialize—and even then, we couldn’t all be specialists even if we wanted to be. Our world knows it needs specialists, which is where the “specialize early” rhetoric comes from—but it doesn’t really know how the rest of us succeed.

That is exactly the question that Range answers, and it does so brilliantly, like a prism refracting light into a dozen individual rays.

I have to be honest with you: this became one of my all-time favourite books before I even finished it.

 

 

If you have a background in the humanities or liberal arts, then you need to read this book. If you’ve ever wondered how to build a career without a deep STEM specialization, then you also need to read this book. If you thrive connecting ideas and constantly learning new things every day, then you need to read this book.

Here’s what it’s about.

 

Early specialization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

David Epstein’s previous book investigated why some athletes succeed where others don’t, so it’s no surprise that his book starts with famous figures in sports.

It’s not about athletic genes, though—it’s about “the cult of the head start.” He examines several icons in sports, chess, and a few activities in between to figure out why they succeeded and if that method is suited for anything other than sports.

In a fascinating series of interviews and case studies, Epstein unravels this myth of over-achieving prodigies who form their 10,000 hours of practice before the age of 21. Even better, he has an excellent explanation for why that approach works in some scenarios but not others.

 

 

The key difference? Sports and games like chess are closed environments with set-in-stone rules and instant feedback loops. They have clearly defined boundaries and they can be won through rigorous practice. Most important of all, specialists succeed in those environments by identifying repetitive patterns.

But the world isn’t made up solely of predictable, closed-loop environments. Many situations—perhaps most of them—are open-ended and even vague, where you don’t get instant feedback on success or failure.

That’s why you can train a child to be a tennis prodigy from the age of 5 to become a world-class tennis player, but that same child probably wouldn’t be able to compete in soccer or golf, which have different structures and rules. Nor would that athlete have the ability to coach or manage a tennis player, which are more open-ended challenges.

People who take a generalist’s approach might actually have the upper-hand in the long run, though.

According to Epstein’s research, people who try a variety of sports (or games, hobbies, jobs, etc.) actually have a solid chance to outperform those “early specialists” as the years go by. These “late bloomer” specialists are those who experimented with different types of sports, businesses, or career paths before settling into their current path. In turn, that range of experience lets late bloomers lean on additional knowledge, insights, and techniques that early specialists lack.

Here’s why that’s important: this dynamic doesn’t apply just to sports. It applies to education, careers, hobbies, and side hustles. Epstein makes the excellent case for the generalist’s approach here, and it has me convinced.

 

Broad pattern recognition is the secret sauce

Another major theme in the book is pattern recognition. There is a key difference in the patterns that specialists and generalists see, though.

  • Specialists succeed by identifying repeating patterns in closed-loop (or “kind”) environments.
  • Generalists see conceptual and structural patterns between seemingly unrelated ideas and environments

The book argues that while specialists and their in-the-trenches knowledge will be forever valuable, generalists can solve problems by drawing on experiences from outside the scope of the current problem—and that’s part of what makes them so formidable.

Epstein illustrates this by drawing on Kepler’s approach in deciphering patterns in astronomy (not to be confused with astrology), but he uses much more down-to-earth examples for this, too.

 

 

He found that generalists are able to thrive by understanding new and novel concepts through analogies—just like Kepler did to create new hypotheses. Understanding the core mechanics of an idea is how generalists can move between disciplines and contribute to solutions in all of them, whereas highly specialized professionals rely on repeating patterns (with repeating solutions) in a proverbial “small pond.”

What do those patterns look like? Abstraction.

Take this example: what do marketing and training a dog have to do with each other? Nothing, at a glance—but at a high level, both come down to earning trust, offering something valuable, and keeping a consistent tone to persuade someone else into taking action, whether to the dog or to consumers.

Both are about building rapport to convince someone else to do something you want, even if the tools and tactics are different. The generalist can see the parallel pattern and might draw the insight that repetition and patience are crucial ingredients if you want to see results in either scenario.

As someone who works in digital marketing and who has an 18-month-old puppy, I can tell you that the education and tools required for those things are wildly different. However, the structure behind both are quite similar.

Here’s how that plays out in practice: Dog trainers will dive into the importance of hand signals and using the right dog treats. Similarly, marketers will go on about conversion rates, copywriting, and lead capture mechanisms—but a generalist with range would be able to see the parallel pattern, understanding that perhaps the pet owner might not be training on a daily basis, or that the marketer isn’t running a campaign long enough for people to feel comfortable buying anything.

 

 

Here’s another example: For ages people have given me weird looks when I said that blogging is kind of like investing: at their core, both require you to put your capital into a range of assets that generate an overall return on investment, even if you don’t know exactly which assets will perform the best (the returns are traffic and money, respectively).

One is about investing money into a wide range of stocks or mutual funds so that, overall, your money grows with the market and has an active stake in the market’s big-time winners. Blogging involves putting your time and effort into creating a wide range of content, with the website owner banking on a few of those posts gaining traction and generating plenty of website traffic (which can be monetized).

It’s the same pattern in different environments. It turns out that this is an important skill for generalists to succeed, and Epstein shows readers that it’s not just some unconventional “outlier” approach to success.

Range has given me the vocabulary and models to understand my own thought process much more effectively. I found myself constantly setting down the book (briefly) so that I could think back on similar experiences I’d had, finally able to articulate them after years of not being able to explain it.

 

Generalists can see the big picture

Specialists tend to have a narrower view of life compared to generalists, understanding the world through their own lens.

People with range, on the other hand, can see the world through multiple lenses, in turn letting them see the underlying problems—and opportunities—that aren’t obvious to everyone else. It’s tied to the generalist’s ability to understand the world through analogies

 

 

That outside view can take many forms, but it’s often crucial in solving the “big” challenges out there.

  • It’s when someone who switches from chemistry to biology sees what nobody else does.
  • It’s when a salesperson becomes an excellent manager because they know how to get people invested in a product.
  • It’s when somebody makes a career transition from accounting to Medieval history and explores the financial side of history that others didn’t know was even there.

What Epstein touches on here is that it’s not just okay to have a broad range of experiences, but that it’s also an excellent way to complement teams made up of specialists—often as managers, strategists, and analysts.

Specialists can carry out the specialty work, but generalists can tease out new solutions from those specialists and lead them to think differently, ultimately developing new solutions that neither would find on their own. They can also synthesize information and learn the languages of multiple specialties.

 

Bridging disciplines is the new black

Even if you don’t have a generalist on the team, the next best thing is a team of specialists from different backgrounds.

The winning case study here involved a team of scientists who were all biologists. They took months to solve a problem that another team of grad students with a mixed background in chemistry, biology, and a half-dozen other disciplines solved in a day.

 

 

Looking at the scientific community, Epstein notes that many of the most ground-breaking discoveries often come from people who practice in multiple disciplines over the course of their lives. He interviewed Oliver Smithies, who won a Nobel Prize in 2007 for his works in genetics—but that work came after pursuing a career in chemistry, biology, and then becoming a pioneer in biochemistry (which hadn’t really been invented yet).

And that’s just a look at scientific disciplines. The point is that you can unify your knowledge and experiences from different disciplines, jobs, or other facets of life to bring something unique to the table. Seemingly fragmented experiences might end up becoming your competitive advantage.

 

So why should you read Range? It shows that you don’t need to subscribe to the cult of specialization to succeed. In fact, generalization is a viable and effective way to reach success, particularly in your career.

If you’ve graduated with a degree in the humanities or liberal arts, then you need to read this book. It will show you how to make your education work for you instead of against you.

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Founder of the Employed Historian, Andrew entered the working world with two history degrees and zero technical knowledge. Then he worked on those technical skills and discovered something profound about the liberal arts. By day he's a professional search engine optimization specialist and content marketer at Webb Content.

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