Review and Summary: Range

Review and Summary: Range

Some of us firmly believe that we live in an intensely competitive era, where having a deep understanding of a narrow subject and specializing in our chosen domains is crucial. Parents are busy identifying their child’s talent and eager for them to start exploring it at an early age so they can become the youngest achievers in their respective fields. We overlook the fact that our modern lives demand a broader perspective, emphasizing the need for connections across diverse domains and the ability to generate innovative ideas.

In his book “Range,” David Epstein presents numerous real-life narratives that illustrate how elite athletes, professionals, and even Nobel Prize winners have undergone a phase known as the sampling period. During this time, individuals engage in various activities and acquire diverse knowledge, enabling them to develop a wide range of physical and intellectual proficiencies. By reflecting on their experiences, they can make informed decisions about which area to focus on, eventually reaching a level where their varied background helps them become creative problem-solvers with an interdisciplinary approach.

Of course, specialization is not inherently wrong; at some point, we all specialize in our pursuits. However, we must remember that the life we are live in consists of uncertain and unique environments, making the breadth of our experiences immensely valuable. Therefore, embracing a diverse range of domains can serve as a valuable strategy or “life hack.”

Approach your own personal voyage and projects, willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise. Even when you move on from an area of work or an entire domain, that experience is not wasted.

David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World


The Cult of the Head Start

  • Experience simply did not create skill in a wide range of real-world scenarios.
  • Human behavior and where patterns did not clearly repeat, repetition did not cause learning.
  • Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein as psychologists:
    • Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise depended entirely on the domain in question. Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform.
  • Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist and prominent creativity researcher:
    • Rather than obsessively focusing on a narrow topic, creative achievers tend to have broad interests. This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.
  • Christopher Conolly, a psychology consultant:
    • Early in their careers, those who later made successful transitions had broader training and kept multiple “career streams” open even as they pursued a primary specialty. They traveled on an eight-lane highway, rather than down a single-lane-one-way street.

How the wicked world was made

  • Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. Our most fundamental thought processes have changed to accommodate increasing complexity and the need to derive new patterns rather than rely only on familiar ones. Our conceptual classification schemes provide a scaffolding for connecting knowledge, making it accessible and flexible.
  • Modern life requires range, making connections across far-flung domains and ideas.

The traits that earn good grades at (the university) do not include critical ability of any broad significance. Even the best universities aren’t developing critical intelligence. They aren’t giving students the tools to analyze the modern world, except in their area of specialization. Their education is too narrow.

James Flynn, a professor of political studies
  • Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines.

When Less of the Same is More

  • Ian Yates, a British sport scientist and coach;
    • Parent increasingly come and want their kids doing what the Olympian are doing right now, not what the Olympians were doing when they were 12 or 13 which included a wider variety of activities that developed their general athleticism and allowed them to probe their talents and interests before they focused narrowly on technical skills.

Learning, Fast and Slow

Learning is most efficient in the long run when it is really inefficient in the short run. If you are doing too well when you test yourself, the simple antidote is to wait longer before practicing the same material again, so that the test will be more difficult when you do. Frustration is not a sign you are not learning, but ease is.

The best learning road is slow, and that doing poorly now is essential for better performance later.

Desirable Difficulties

  • Meaning: obstacles that make learning more challenging and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long term.
  • Generation effect
    • Struggling to generate an answer on your own, even a wrong one, enhance subsequent learning.
    • Requires the learner to intentionally sacrifice current performance for future benefit.
    • Being forced to generate answers → improves subsequent learning even if the generated answer is wrong.
  • Hypercorrection effect
    • 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.

A study was performed on professors taught calculus for over a decade. The result showed that:

  • The professor who caused short-term struggle but long-term gains were facilitating “deep learning” by making connections. They “broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding if the material.”
  • Students evaluated their instructors based on how they performed on test right nowa poor measure of how well the teachers set them up for later developmentso they gave the best marks to professors who provided them with the least long-term benefit.

Robert Bjork, a psychologist:

  • Teachers and students must avoid interpreting current performance as learning. Good performance on a test during the learning process can indicate mastery, but learners and teachers need to be aware that such performance will often index, instead fast but fleeting progress.

Greg Duncan, an education economist, together with Drew Bailey, a psychologist, and colleagues:

  • Finding: a pervasive “fadeout” effect, where a temporary academic advantage quickly diminished and often completely vanished
  • Recommendation: if programs want to impart lasting academic benefits they should focus instead on “open” skills that scaffold later knowledge. Teaching kids to read a little early is not a lasting advantage. Teaching them how to hunt for and connect contextual clues to understand what they read can be.

Thinking Outside Experience

Analogical thinking

  • Allows human to reason through problems they have never seen in unfamiliar contexts.
  • Allows us to understand that which we cannot see at all.

Psychologist Kevin Dunbar began documenting how productive labs work in the 1990s:

  • In the face of the unexpected, the range of available analogies helped determine who learned something new. In the lone lab that did not make any new findings during Dunbar’s project, everyone had similar and highly specialized backgrounds, and analogies were almost never used.
  • Conclusion:
    • When all the members of the laboratory have the same knowledge at their disposal, then when a problem arises, a group of similar minded individuals will not provide more information to make analogies than a single individual.
    • It’s sort of like the stock market. You need a mixture of strategies.

The Trouble with Too Much Grit

Winston Churchill’s “never give in, never, never, never” is an oft-quoted trope. The end of the sentence is always left out: “except to conviction of honor and good sense.”


Psychologist Angela Duckworth conducted the most famous study of quitting. She had been talking to high performers across domains, and decided to study passion and perseverance, a combination she formulated as “grit”.

Grit has 2 components:

  1. work ethic and resilience
  2. consistency of interestdirection, knowing exactly what one wants

The results of the study was:

  • Of the small number of cadets who left during experiment, rather than failing of persistence, some of them were simply responding to match quality informationthey weren’t a good fit.

Match quality

  • A term economist use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they arethe abilities and proclivities.
  • Ofer Malamud, an economist:
    • “The benefits to increased match quality […] outweigh the greater loss in skills.”
    • Learning stuff was less important than learning about oneself. Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.
    • For professional who did switch, whether they specialized early or late, switching was a good idea. “You lose a good fraction of your skills, so there’s hit, but you do actually have higher growth rates after switching.” Regardless of when specialization occurred, switchers capitalized on experience to identify better matches.

Carnegie Mellon economist and statistic professor Robert A. Miller modeled career matching:

  • 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.

No one in their right mind would argue that passion and perseverance are unimportant, or that a bad day is 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 successful story of pick and stick, as soon as possible. Responding to lived experience with a change of direction is less tidy but no less important.

Flirting with Your Possible Selves

Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous when examined in the light of more self-knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.

Psychologist Dan Gilbert called it the “end of history illusion”:

  • Qualities that feel immutable changed immensely. Core valuespleasure, security, success, and honestytransformed. Preferences for vacations, music, hobbies, and even friends were transfigured.

We are works in progress claiming to be finished.

Dan Gilbert, a psychologist.

Herminia Ibarra, a professional of organizational behavior at London Business School:

  • We maximize match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and the reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives. And repeat. If that sounds facile, consider that it is precisely the opposite of a vast marketing crusade that assures customers they can alight on their perfect matches via introspection alone.

Test and learn, not plan-and-implement.

Herminia Ibarra, a professional of organizational behavior.

Some career changes got richer, others poorer; all felt temporarily behind, but as in the Freakonomics coin-flip study, they were happier with a change.

The Outsider Advantage

Outside-in thinking

  • Finding solutions in experiences far outside of focused training for the problem itself
  • For example, when a problem NASA worked on for 30 years gets solved:
    • Solar physicists were understandably skeptical that outsiders could help, but after 3 decades of being stuck, there was nothing to lose; NASA posted through InnoCentive in 2009. Within 6 months, Bruce Cragin, an engineer retired from Sprint Nextel solved the challenge using radio waves picked up by telescopes. Pre-retirement, Cragin had collaborated with scientists, and found that those specialists teams often got mired in working out small details at the expense of practical solutions.

Karim Lakhani, co-director of the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard:

  • Our intuition might be that only hyperspecialized experts can drive modern innovation, but increasing specialization actually creates new opportunities for outsiders.
  • A key to creative problem solving is tapping outsiders who use different approaches “so that the ‘home field’ for the problem does not end up constraining the solution.” Sometimes, the home field can be so constrained that a curious outsider is truly the only who can see the solution.

The further the problem from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.

Karim Lakhani, co-director of the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard.

Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology

Andy Ouderkirk, the inventor of 3M:

  • When information became more widely disseminated, it became a lot easier to be broader than a specialist, to start combining things in new ways.

Dartmouth business professor Alva Taylor and Norwegian School of Management Professor Henrich Greve examined the creative impact of individual breadth, just in a slightly less technical domain: comic books.

  • A high-repetition workload negatively impact performance. Years of experience had no impact at all.
  • What actually helped creators make better comics on average and innovate:
    • How many of the 22 different genres a creator had worked in, from comedy and crime, to fantasy, adult, and nonfiction, and sci-fi. Where length of experience did not differentiate creators, breadth of experience did. Broad genre experience made creators better on average and more likely to innovate.

Deliberate Amateurs

Oliver Smithies, a geneticist and physical biochemist who was known for introducing starch as a medium for gel electrophoresis, encouraged students to think laterally, broaden their experience, and forge their own path in search of match quality.

Take your skills to a place that’s not doing the same sort of thing. Take your skills and apply them to a new problem and try completely new skills.

Oliver Smithies, The Nobel Prize awardee in Physiology or Medicine

Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist and immunologist:

  • “Do we really need to go through courses with very specialized knowledge that often provides a huge amount of stuff that is very detailed, very specialized, very arcane, and will be totally forgotten in a couple of weeks? Especially now, when all the information is on your phone. You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it. We don’t train people in thinking or reasoning.”
  • Part of the problem is that young scientist are rushed to specialize before they learn how to think; they end up unable to produce good work themselves and unequipped to spot bad (or fraudulent) work by their colleagues.

Study conducted by sociologist Brian Uzzi and team:

  • More successful teams tended to have more far-flung members. Teams that included members from different institutions were more likely to be successful than those that did not, and teams that included members based in different countries had an advantage as well.
  • Scientist who have worked abroadwhether or not they returnedare more likely to make greater scientific impact than those who have not.
    • Trend suggested one reason could be migrants “arbitrage” opportunities, the chance to take an idea from one market and bring it to another where it is more rare and valued.
  • The “hit” papers, those that over the next decade were used by huge number of other scientists, featured ample conventional combinations, but also added an injection of unusual knowledge combinations.

Author: David Epstein

Publication date: 28 May 2019

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Number of pages: 352 pages


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