Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World – Book Notes and Summary

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

One-sentence summary: Range makes a case for generalists in an increasingly specialized world.

Rating: 7/10

Author: David Epstein

Date Completed: March 2020

Tags: Mental Models, Career Strategy, Life Strategy, Quitting, Learning, Optionality

Hot take: As someone who’s frequently been described as “well-rounded” but never exceptional in any single area, Range speaks to me. Still, I was a bit frustrated how few and far between the insights are here. Not all that much is unique, but what is unique is quite good.

Big Ideas

On kind and unkind systems.

  • Many games – like Chess – are kind systems, where there are a defined number of potential moves and outcomes, and the information about each action and result is fully known.
  • Then you have unkind systems like, say, entrepreneurship. If you make a mistake in business and your company fails, it might be for any one of hundreds of potential reasons. You might think you have a reason for the failure, but you don’t know for sure.
  • Since you know all the possible moves in advance in kind systems, specializing early can give players a head start. Chess prodigies start young and can begin memorizing moves and learning strategies at a young age. Because the game doesn’t change, a player who started at age 3 has a tangible advantage over a player who learned at 23.
  • In unkind systems, specialization doesn’t help you. In fact, it can hurt you – it’s better instead to have a breadth of skills and knowledge to help solve complex problems.
  • Much of the world is more like an unkind system than golf, tennis, or chess. Robin Hogarth calls it “Martian tennis.” “You can see the players on the court with balls and rackets, but nobody has shared the rules. It is up to you to derive them, and they are subject to change without notice.”
  • Because we lead with stories about prodigies and savants and their extraordinary skills at a young age, we’re encouraging the wrong behavior, prioritizing technical skill over innovative behavior. Note that no savant has ever innovated enough to change their field.
  • Instead, if you want to succeed in your field, try doing something else entirely: bonus points if it’s unrelated to your day job. “Compared to other scientists, Nobel Laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer.”

Critical thinking is an under-represented skill among highly-trained professionals and top graduates.

  • Students with high GPAs and test scores don’t perform any better in applying the concepts covered on those tests to real-life situations than those with poor GPAs. Those who succeed in school don’t necessarily have more critical thinking ability – that’s not what the grading and testing infrastructure is optimizing for.
  • Stunningly, one London School of Economics professor suggested that students “were no better at thinking critically when they came out of university than when they went in.”
  • As scientists, academics, and university students are encouraged to specialize, they become better at dealing with things they’ve experienced before – but don’t learn how to deal with things they haven’t seen before. In Epstein’s words: “They were perfectly capable of learning from experience, but failed at learning without experience.”
  • In other words, they absorbed the facts of their fields without learning how to apply them to other areas.

“Frustration is not a sign you’re not learning, but ease is.”

  • When a child is struggling to answer a math problem, they might ask for a hint. After a while of floundering, you might be tempted to give them the answer. “Oh! They’ll say. I see it now.”
  • To make learning fun, you might also design a game or supply possible answers to increase the ease of learning. This might make learning easy and fun for the learner and reduce frustration.
  • Both of these strategies will make memorization easier and increase short-term performance but hurt long-term performance.
  • Frustration and difficulty are critical for learning due to what researchers call the generation effect. Struggling to generate an answer enhances long-run understanding. Teachers who give hints or provide solutions truncate the learning process and improve short-term performance at the expense of long-term results.
  • This even works if the answer you generate turns out to be wrong. “The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.”
  • Three strategies for learning backed up by science:
    • Spaced repetition
    • Testing
    • Using making-connection questions
  • All of these learning strategies take time. A slow learning process improves future performance.
  • Sticking to the curriculum – can cost students an opportunity to learn critical context. For example, my favorite biographer, Robert Caro, is constantly weaving in context on the places in which his subjects lived and worked. Because of that breadth, I 1) remember the lives of the people he writes about much more vividly and 2) learned more about the times they lived through.

“If we treated careers more like dating, nobody would settle down so quickly.”

  • Van Gogh tried several styles of painting before he settled on the one that made him famous. J.K. Rowling viewed herself as a spectacular failure before she published the Harry Potter series. Many people who succeed dabbled in (and failed at) many different things before they eventually succeeded.
  • If grit suggests that deliberate practice and sticking it out when things get tough are the keys to success, then the generalist crew wouldn’t have made much of a dent. Instead, the skills a generalist learns in one area can be brought to bear on another, even if they’re a relative newcomer.
  • Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, invited people who were considering a life change to flip a digital coin. If you got heads, you should make the change; if you flipped tails, you’d stay where you were. Of 2,186 people considering a job change, those who flipped heads were happier six months later than those who stayed in their jobs. Levitt said the study suggested that “admonitions such as ‘winners never quit and quitters never win,’ while well-meaning, may actually be extremely poor advice.”
  • That means before undertaking any big task – a career change, a new relationship, moving to a new city, you should outline the conditions under which you should quit. As Seth Godin writes, “We fail at tasks we don’t have the guts to quit.”
  • Changing your interests or focus isn’t a failure and shouldn’t be considered a bad thing.
  • “No one in their right mind would argue that passion and perseverance are unimportant, or that a bad day is a cue to quit. But the idea that a change of interest, or a recalibration of focus, is an imperfection and competitive disadvantage leads to a simple, one-size-fits-all story: pick and stick, as soon as possible. Responding to lived experience with a change of direction…is less tidy but no less important.” 

Replace long-term planning with optionality

  • “Where do you see yourself in five years?” is a common question in interviews and on dates. But long-term planning is rarely effective.
  • Instead of setting a distant goal like “Become a CEO” and working backward from there, it may make more sense to use effectuation
  • “Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations.” -Paul Graham
  • You generate a set of opportunities based on your current skills, connections, and interests, then choose the most promising one among them. You do that for a while, generating some more options with your expanded network and skillset, and choose the most promising one of those. Repeat over and over. That’s a career. Career Strategy Career
  • That’s not to say you can’t have long-term goals, but instead that you must shop around and review your options before setting one. That’s why we have so many PhDs, lawyers, and doctors who struggle to find fulfillment – those things are difficult choices to make before you know how they suit you.
  • Daniel Gilbert calls this the “end of history illusion.” We believe that we changed a lot in the past, but we’ve now arrived at a point from which we’ll change way less. We think we’re finished products when in fact, we are works in progress. Personality change slows with age, but it never stops. 

Beware of overlearned behaviors.

  • We all learn to rely on things in making decisions. Some of us focus on data and numbers, while others trust intuition and gut instinct or the advice of a respected colleague. These tools become victims of their success – because they work well in many domains, we try to apply them in all disciplines to disastrous effect.
  • If we hope to solve problems in unkind systems, we must learn to drop our familiar tools when applicable and embrace something else – a heuristic or qualitative assessment rather than data, for example.
  • Experts, however, have real trouble doing this – called an overlearned behavior. They find a move that works and spam it, even when it stops working:

    “They have done the same thing in response to the same challenges over and over until the behavior has become so automatic that they no longer even recognize it as a situation-specific tool.”
  • A terrifying example of how this causes worse results: “Research on aviation accidents, for example, found that a common pattern was the crew’s decision to continue with their original plan even when conditions changed dramatically.” 
  • Pilots aren’t the only ones who suffer from this. Wildfire firefighters often struggle to drop their tools and run, which can cost them their lives.
  • Wildfire firefighter Paul Gleason has had to learn not to make his decisions part of his identity. Instead of making decisions, Gleason tries to make sense.
  • “If I make a decision, it is a possession, I take pride in it, I tend to defend it, and not listen to those who question it. If I make sense, then this is more dynamic and I listen and I can change it.” 
  • “No tool is omnicompetent. There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors.”

The head start is overrated.

  • “Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know exactly where you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.” 
  • Instead of comparing yourself against others, dedicate some time to “Saturday morning experiments” in which you allow yourself to be creative but don’t worry about productivity or the direct applicability of results to your main thing.
  • “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.”

Bits and Pieces

  • When the rules of a stable field change, experts often perform worse than novices due to cognitive entrenchment. To avoid falling into this trap, develop a breadth of knowledge outside your field. People who successfully adapt to changing circumstances are skilled at taking knowledge from one domain and applying it to another.
  • To learn more effectively, use mixed practice rather than blocked practice – that is, tackle problems of several different types in one sitting rather than endless repetitions of one kind of problem. Blocked practice yields better immediate results but causes people to struggle in the long term – mixed practice, or interleaving, has been shown to allow students to apply what they learned to other problems they haven’t seen before.
  • Pulling analogies from different fields increases the likelihood of solving problems. We don’t do this enough, and the analogies we do use are too close to the original area to be helpful. Try to find analogies that are far afield of the original problem but contain deep structural similarities. “In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting. It can be dangerous.”
  • At the beginning of your career, you can afford to take more career risks. “Attempting to be a professional athlete or actor or to found a lucrative start-up is unlikely to succeed, but the potential reward is extremely high. Thanks to constant feedback and an unforgiving weed-out process, those who try will learn quickly if they might be a match, at least compared to jobs with less constant feedback. If they aren’t, they go test something else, and continue to gain information about their options and themselves.” 
  • “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” We shouldn’t try to think up many different career possibilities or traits we want in a potential partner and then pick the one we think we’ll like best – instead, we must accumulate life experience and learn from it what we like and dislike. “Test-and-learn, not plan-and-implement.” -Herminia Ibarra 
  • Experimentation in business or science has a different outcome distribution than other areas. We tend to think of creators as striking out a lot or hitting home runs, but baseball doesn’t do this justice. “Baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four…every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs.” -Michael Simmons

The library will loan you a copy of Range for free. If you’d like to buy it (and support the site), click here.

Related reading:

Pmarca Guide to Career Planning – Marc Andreessen

Average is Over – Tyler Cowen

Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Gilbert

The Dip – Seth Godin (Amazon link, book notes coming soon)

Life as a Grand Strategy – Ryan Holiday

Optionality: How to Survive and Thrive in a Volatile World – Richard Meadows