Lessons from “Range” by David Epstein
The age of the generalist is upon us…
How many of us can say we’ve dedicated our lives, or a large part of a life, to the pursuit of a singular skill?
I expect the answer of yes, to be few and far between. It’s not that I don’t believe in you, it’s that, like myself, I believe you have a range of experiences under your belt.
David Epstein recently published the profound book (and article) Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
The book’s mission: to redefine how we think about achieving expertise, reached its goal.
This book provides case studies from how teams of humans continue to beat out artificial intelligence systems in different games, to how some of the greatest athletes, scientists, and artists reached the pinnacle of their concentration. Epstein also dives into the science of diverse experience, which contradicts the idea of “10,000 hours” as the sole route to achieve mastery of a skill.
It’s safe to say: the time of the specialist is over — the age of the generalist is here.
This can be hard to believe when numerous experts have proclaimed that achieving mastery over a skill means committing your life to one thing.
Against my own history, I used to believe this — ruminating on the idea that I could never catch up to the individuals who devoted their lives to a single pursuit. Yet, time after time, I’ve noticed myself keeping pace with those devotees. How could this be?
Well, let’s dive right in.
A Kind World vs The Wicked World
“Tactics are short combinations of moves that players use to get an immediate advantage on the board. When players study all those patterns, they are mastering tactics. Bigger-picture planning in chess — how to manage the little battles to win the war — is called strategy.”
A kind world is an environment in which there are repeating patterns. In these kind worlds, feedback is provided almost instantly and exactly.
Chess is a kind world. You move a piece on the chess board and your opponent makes their move in direct relation to your own. You’re thinking ahead and have set up a series of moves to lead them into a trap. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
Golf is a kind world. You whack the ball and immediately know if the wind has played a factor on your hit. You’ve made a good wind call and have landed on the green. It’s a birdie on this hole.
Wrestling is a kind world. Your opponent moves their weight into a particular direction and you immediately feel the pull of their arms. Good thing you know that move, anticipated it, and have redirected their strength against them, winning the match.
Studying patterns in these kind worlds improves the pattern recognition in an individual and gives them a leg up on the competition.
However, the reality of our world is not kind. Most things are not solely patterns repeating over and over. Our world is a wicked world, where things are not so clear. The rules of this game are not known ahead of time, and patterns are harder to see, if they’re there at all. And did you want feedback on your action? It may take a long time to receive, and likely the feedback will not be what you need to make your next move.
In our technological age, where machines continue to beat out the human capacity for specialization, memorizing singular moves and patterns, our future lies in the broader ability to integrate different ideas.
Prime Yourself for Integration
“…breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example.”
When Epstein discusses musicians, he points out that improv musicians learn a musical instrument like babies learn to speak. They dive into the thing they want to learn by imitation and improvisation, and later learn the formalities. On the opposite end, it is more difficult for a musician who has studied formal classical music to let loose and improvise in a song.
Part of embarking on the path of the generalist is keeping an enthusiastic and playful attitude when learning new things. This attitude is a recurring theme in research on creative thinkers.
When you think about the greatest musicians of all time, most knew how to play multiple instruments, and they could play them exceptionally well. It was their breadth of musical abilities which provided them with more avenues of musical expression and creativity. By making mistakes, both big and numerous, these artists created difficulties in their learning, which made it more challenging and slowed the pace of mastering a singular ability, but created a flexible knowledge in the long term.
This ability, to transfer knowledge effectively into new areas or situations is called ‘far transfer.’
Analogies are a great way to utilize ‘far transfer’ in your own life. An analogy helps you recognize conceptual similarities in a novel situation from the knowledge you hold in a different context.
“Successful problem solvers,” Epstein explains, “are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it.”
In our wicked world, a range of analogies assist in solving unfamiliar problems. The more diverse your experiences and tools, the more likely you’ll recognize the hidden and underlying problem.
Use Change to Your Advantage
“‘End of history illusion’ [is that] we recognize that our desires and motivations sure changed a lot in the past, but believe they will not change much in the future.”
When it comes to specialists and generalists, an analogy we can use is that of a lake and a river. A lake holds a large amount of water, which we can equate to knowledge. A lake has depth yet can be isolated from the ocean. In contrast, a river moves and surges through the landscape, flowing across multiple domains. A river can also change the topography of an environment with large swells of rainfall or connect the melting of snow from on top a mountain to an ocean.
If the environment around a lake changes, the lake may wither and evaporate. If the environment around a river changes, there is less of a chance for that same slow and agonizing death.
The only assurance we can hold to life is that it will change.
When we look back at our teenage years, it is obvious we have changed in a variety of ways: style, priority, or ambition. Yet looking forward in the future, we believe our current self will live on as we are now. This is called the ‘end of history illusion,’ a psychological fallacy in which we are works in progress claiming to be finished.
Believing our environment will remain the same limits our capacity to thrive. If we want to persevere in the future, we too must flow like a river — gathering skills from contrasting domains and adapting to our environment before it buries us.
Adapt, Improvise, and Overcome
“Lateral thinking is a term coined in the 1960's for the re-imagining of information in new contexts, including the drawing together of seemingly disparate concepts or domains that can give old ideas new uses.”
When I was serving in the Marine Corps, we were often told that because we were a smaller branch in the military (compared to the Army, Navy, or Air Force), the equipment we used was handed down and never state-of-the-art.
The motto of adapt, improvise, and overcome, became an axiom for life. If you were in a shitty circumstance; if your gear was faulty; if you were in an unfamiliar location; if you were given more responsibilities than you’ve ever had before; if you hadn’t slept in two days — adapt, improvise, and overcome.
The Marine Corps applies a generalist’s mindset: use all the knowledge in your repertoire to face and solve this new problem, or, be killed.
Epstein reminds us, “knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do something, but also makes you blind to other things that you could do.”
The Einstellung effect is a psychological term for the predisposition of an individual to employ only familiar methods to solve a problem even if there are better methods available. Generalists, as much as specialists, can fall prey to this negative effect. Though, with a breadth of experiences, it becomes less likely.
There is always another use for a tool, another way to employ a strategy, another perspective to view the problem from, and when this adapt, improvise, and overcome mindset is employed, research shows positive results.
Epstein makes a wonderful and robust case for becoming generalists.
I used to believe I could never catch up to the child prodigy, yet was dumbfounded how my experiences from the military, technology, and communication fields all gathered together to propel me onto a path of success. It’s a path built upon a foundation of strange twists and lessons — for if I’m going where no one has before, it will be a wicked world, requiring adaptation and improvisation.
We will end this review with a reminder from the book.
“Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you… you probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.”
After all, we’re all navigating this wicked world, together.
All quotes have been pulled from David Epstein in his book Range.