Range is not your usual business book. It spans so many domains of human knowledge that it is difficult to classify it. But this is probably on purpose, as for a book that tries to fight over-specialisation, the fact of being difficult to classify is a value in itself. And so is the story of its author, David Epstein, a former science and investigative reporter, and former sports journalist.
The book highlights the investigative roots of the author. It starts with checking if what so many experts have argued for a long time: that to be successful in a specific domain or topic you need to start early, focus intensively, and rack up as many hours as possible of deliberate practice. What he discovered, however, is that by giving a closer look at what happens, from athletes to Nobel laureate, from scientists to artists, doesn’t’; reflect this theory. Early specialisation is an exception, not the rule. And many of the most known names in most domains can be genuinely defined as Late Bloomers.
But there is a second element that is important to his discovery, and that appears clear from the subtitle of the book. Why generalists triumph in a specialised world. By analysing concrete cases from many different fields, athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters, scientists, he discovered that in most of these fields – and especially in those where complexity and uncertainty reign – generalists, not specialists excel.
The issue with hyperspecialisation
The one key message that the books bring is that specialisation is not the issue. Instead, what he defines as “hyperspecialisation”, i.e. the narrowing focus on one field without any deepening knowledge of what surrounds it. This is particularly clear in Science, where today people become so much specialised into a detailed feature of a sub-domain, that this is currently hindering our capacity to make new scientific discoveries. But this extends to all domains and is particularly dangerous when hyperspecialisation is pursued from a very young age.
highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident—a dangerous combination.David Epstein, Range, page 9
The problem with early starters is that even the most current education models, don’t develop “critical intelligence”. Everyone needs a “habit of mind” to go and explore other disciplines. We have been preparing for so long a scientific spectacle, whereas people would need to carry along a scientific-reasoning Swiss Army knife.
The case for Breadth
Epstein quickly mentions Artificial Intelligence in chapter 1, and he immediately expresses one argument we have already found in Luciano Floridi’s book The Fourth Revolution. The focus of AI research is on narrow specialisation in simple fields. But as Humans, our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialisation. It is the ability to integrate broadly. A key argument for Breadth.
The need for a different education
The ability to apply knowledge broadly comes from broad training. Epstein dedicates much space to this concept, particularly in chapter 3, but also in various other sections of the book. He mainly introduces the idea of sampling period as a critical element to allow the development of Breadth. Using his musical analogy, there should be a period where a musician should be able to practice multiple instruments, not just one. Even if this goes against many of the current “methods” to learn an instrument. This also extends to other areas and should be a key focus strategy for education. And again from music, a concept we have already seen: Improvisation. Improv masters learn like babies: dive in and imitate and improvise first, learn the formal rules later.
Breadth of Training predicts Breadth of transfer. 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.
He introduces in chapter 4 the concept of “Desirable Difficulties”, coined in 1994 by Prof. Robert Bjork. The key idea here is that we must avoid interpreting current performance (for example of a test immediately after training) as Learning. What is needed is “spacing”, or distributed practice over time. We will be able to identify the value of Learning, only when that information is accessed and used after time. For knowledge to be flexible, it needs to be learned after varied conditions; an approach called interleaving.
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.David Epstein, Range, page 96
But this alone is not sufficient. The entire chapter 5 is focused on the usage of Analogy and of analogical thinking. Deep analogical reasoning is the practice of recognising conceptual similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that may seem to have little in common on the surface. And it is this capability of thinking in terms of relationships that makes the human brain so unique. Even if we would tend to grasp from experience continuously. That’s why analogical reasoning needs to be practised: it is the best way to avoid the limits of the inside-view, which would be our natural inclination.
Avoiding too much Grit.
Chapter 6 is eye-opening. It analyses the issue that we can incur in when we have too much “grit”. I have quickly mentioned this when talking about Resilience and made clear the difference between the two concepts. But Epstein dives more in-depth on the idea of Grit from a different angle. He looks at the story of late bloomers, people that have excelled in their domain despite their new start. Something – he argues – that was key for their success.
A critical concept is introduced in this chapter, that of “Match Quality“. It is a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are—their abilities and proclivities. This underlines a critical feature each education system should have: allowing people to invest time not only to learn stuff but learning about oneself, which is why all the suggestion about Never Quitting become in many situation really poor advice as they can hinder the discovery of your true self. Interesting to notice also how some of the most important psychological research that seemed to support Grit, has been misunderstood and abused. The truth is that each person should be able to balance the perseverance through difficulty with knowing when to quit.
In the wider world of work, finding a goal with high match quality in the first place is the greater challenge, and persistence for the sake of persistence can get in the way.David Epstein, Range, page 143
The links with the works of Start with Why by Simon Sinek or Drive by Daniel Pink are immediately visible. The issue that often we are afraid of changing course because of how much we have already invested. And think that persisting will solve every problem. Something detrimental to our potential.
Expanding your Mind
One of the most exciting discoveries of Epstein is that a lot of successful people, in various domains, have had unusual career paths. And this is a natural process he observes. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same. Which also leads to an observation about too much focus on personality traits (and the related tests) in work environments. Reality is that personality tends to change over time.
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.David Epstein, Range, page 159
Which then links to another piece of true wisdom: we maximise match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives.
The idea of opening your mind can also be seen from another angle, introduced in chapter 8. Here Epstein covers the so many situations in which innovation or solutions come from outsiders of that specific domain. Accepting this often does not come easy, but it is a demonstration of the capability of building connections between areas. It is the concept of Outside-in thinking: finding solutions in experiences that are far outside of the focused training for the problem itself. What’s interesting is that recent years have shown more and more cases of dilettantes contributing to important scientific discoveries. And Epstein sees this as the result of scientific domains narrowing continuously to more and more specialisation. Only outsiders can connect the dots as it appears (a concept further expanded in the last chapter on amateurs).
Experts tend to build their narrow domain of experience. Using Tetlock famous nicknames, we can have two types of experts: the narrow-view hedgehogs, who “know one big thing,” and the integrator foxes, who “know many little things.” Looking at the success of forecaster, it is interesting to notice how repeated experiments have shown that there is not much difference in the predictions of experts vs predictions of amateurs with access to information. The longer-term the forecast goes, in reality, the less the expert predictions are valid. Why? Because there is there si tendency to form an idea and look for clues that validate it.
“Active Open-mindedness” is what good forecasters do, and is also an essential aspect for team performance. What’s interesting is the link discovered not to scientific knowledge, but science curiosity. It is curiosity, ultimately, the critical skill needed to enable becoming open-minded.
A role for HR
There are various aspects of the book that are of interest for HR. The key one is that HR policies at mature companies have such well-defined, specialised slots for employees that potential serial innovators will look like “round pegs to the square holes” and get screened out. The problem is that skills and experience-based recruiting tends to discourage non-linear careers, and as we build an AI algorithm, this bias risks to be embedded even further into the process. Not only, professions then tend to be consolidated into functions and job families, also here with the risk of cutting off innovation potential.
A quest for Learning
Chapter 11 is entirely focusing on reassessing the concept of Learning. Epstein does so by using the metaphor of “dropping the tools”, i.e. abandoning usual practices when facing novel situations. Again we find a Jazz analogy. There are fundamentals—scales and chords—that every member must overlearn, but those are just tools for sensemaking in a dynamic environment. There are no tools that cannot be dropped, reimagined, or repurposed to navigate an unfamiliar challenge. We’ve seen this in detail when reviewing the book Yes to the Mess.
If it is easy to understand the concept at an individual level, it is a bit more complicated at an organisational one. The author spends some time in analysing the critique of the Congruence model of the organisation, showing that the reality is that to thrive, organisations need to maintain a level of ambiguity. An interesting concept I will be touching upon, but that we have already seen when discussing Collaboration. The fact that an informal organisation exists is an advantage vs the overarching structure. An organisation needs a differentiated chain of command and chain of communication that produced incongruence, and thus a healthy tension.
How can we define a person that has “Range”? Epstein does not suggest its term, but across the book, various definitions are deriving from different authors. “Creative-Achievers” according to Dean Keith Simonton, “Polymaths” according to Andrew Ouderkirk, “T-Shaped Person” according to Jayshree Seth, “π-shaped people” according to Abbie Griffin. I think that the “T-Shaped Person” is the one most common, and will probably stick to it, as I have already mentioned in my post about multipotential.
The book poses a serious question about how to ensure we can go back from a culture that focuses too much on specialisation.
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.David Epstein, Range, page 13
There is no one answer because we would need to rethink the entire educational model we apply from schools to universities, and the personal development mode that companies tend to use, and the career discussions we tend to continue to make consistently.
A first step can be to check how to apply the concept of Range to your personal life? Epstein delivers one suggestion.
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.David Epstein, Range, page 289
Overall I found Range by David Epstein truly eye-opening on many points of view. I have already shown how I consider myself “eclectic”, Knowmad, Multipotentialite. In a way different than the expectation most people give to me and my role. This book comes at comforting that this is an added value, not a detriment. And we should engage in ensuring we value this concept even more in the way we do our work as HR professionals.
Range in a Nutshell
An eye-opening tribute to the role of Generalists in success, versus traditional focus on hyper-specialisation.