Instant Book Reaction — Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

A summary and explanation of how to succeed in this ‘wicked’ world

What is the most effective way to make yourself the best at something? Conventional wisdom and modern culture tells us that we need to specialize early and spend at least 10,000 hours doing that same thing before we can hit breakout success and be considered an expert or professional.

David Epstein seeks to disprove this notion in Range by using a series of case-studies and examples to show why the notion of specialization is so very wrong. While there are popular examples of people focusing on one field and becoming truly brilliant in it (Tiger Woods, Polgár sisters) there are many more examples of individuals who do the exact opposite. The notion of being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none sounds reasonable at first. Yet, if we think a little harder about it, common intuition shows us that being a jack-of-all-trades means having a broad range of experiences and knowledge across many disciplines.

In a world that continues to become more and more intertwined through globalization — and is what Epstein calls a ‘wicked’ learning environment, or one in which there are few repetitive patterns and delayed feedback loops — any one field is bound to be tied to others. When direct knowledge from one area cannot be applied to another, the same solutions and patterns can still be used many times. Through the use of analogies and metaphors, people who are able to connect the dots from one field to another are often the ones who solve the hardest problems in this world.

The book reads very similar to a Malcolm Gladwell novel, and in fact Gladwell is quoted on the cover exclaiming his delight for Range. Similar to Gladwell, Epstein pounds his main thesis home through examples upon examples.

From showing how Roger Federer was never much of a tennis player or pushed like many athletes are at a young age, to how the best musicians often tinker around with many instruments before finding their fit, to Vincent van Gogh who pin-balled from pastor, teacher, bookseller to eventually artist just a few years prior to his death. Epstein tells interesting story after story about the pros of being a generalist and its vast superiority to thinking with blinders on.

The Secret Sauce

So why do generalists succeed where specialists fail? Epstein offers three main reasons:

  1. Wicked Environment — We live in a wicked learning environment where abstract and lateral thinking are required. Those that can shift from one category to the next most easily, will succeed.
  2. Match Quality — Epstein continually preaches how important it is to test out different career paths, instruments, or sports before finding the one that is right for you. Those that specialize early lose out on the ability to find their true match and therefore what they may be best at and/or most passionate about.
  3. Struggle > Rehearsal We often look for whatever is fast and easy in life and when we are learning something, we do not want to struggle. Yet, Epstein shows that students that struggle in the short-term often score poorly now, but do the best in the future. Struggling makes our learning more sticky, durable, and flexible.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed David Epstein’s style of writing and how he illustrated his point in so many different ways, across a diverse set of fields. This is important because it shows that his point does not just hold true in one category, but for all.

He takes a generalist’s approach to showing how generalization is better than specialization. Which is an ironic idea I didn’t quite comprehend until just now.

Anyways, I hope you give this book a chance, as it will greatly change the way you think about learning and your career trajectory.

If you have read the book, disagree, or strongly agree with any of the above, then please comment below!!

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Jonathan Kendall

Jonathan Kendall

Startups & VC with a ~dash~ of philosophy