Book Review: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein 

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A high school improv troop riffs on the classic TV show, Whose Line Is It Anyway. They perform an unscripted show using random prompts and whatever crazy thing their team members just said. Driven by “yes, and…” Few props. Lightning quick. No guarantee of laughs (although there are many). The show is unlikely to impact the students’ grades or careers, except that improv is excellent training for thinking on your feet. This improv club allows a range of exploration for these young people, many of whom are being trained to be specialists as adults. Specializing has its place, but generalists may be what the world needs more. While it sometimes looks like silly nonsense, being a good generalist is a super power, according to my latest read, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. (affiliate link)

Range Why Generalists triumph in a specialized world by David Epstein- Book Review

Book Review: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

If you’ve heard (or felt) that to be a high performer, you needed to start early and specialize in your craft, profession, sport, or games like chess, you aren’t alone. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, (affiliate link) popularized the idea that experts acquire 10,000 hours of focused practice, and anything less results in amateurs. You and I are probably amateurs. Amateur (meaning one who does something for love or enjoyment rather than money, from the Latin root for love) is not usually meant as a compliment. The world tells professionals: specialize to get great…or go home. 

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Is Range Better Than Specialization?

Range is the literary counter-argument to Outliers. It explores the science behind examples of those who seemed to meander through their education and professional path, sampling many hobbies and amateur pursuits, to arrive at a position of leadership that they could not have planned decades earlier. Musicians who started in their twenties or older, “too late” by many standards. Executives who only took their first professional jobs or started a business in their fifties. Writers who only published for the first time in the second half of their life (like me). 

My husband and I often ask our teens to “gut check” their statements or assumptions. We love “back of the envelope” calculations. The kids hate it, of course. In Range, I learned that this kind of analysis is called a Fermi problem, after Enrico Fermi. He was a twentieth century physicist and creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor. A Fermi problem uses what little you do know to start investigating and shaping the answer to something you don’t know much about. Epstein shares an example, “How many piano tuners are there in New York City?” Assume for a moment that you can’t just Google the answer, or that if you do, you get inconsistent answers. A Fermi problem has you investigate what inputs might be helpful in defining the answer. A specialist often will get fatally locked into a certain line of thinking, like my kids did: How many music stores are there in the city? But generalists come at the problem from different angles, not tied to the music industry: How many homes are in a typical NYC block? How many blocks are there in the city? Are there more pianos in certain districts, by schools or concert halls? How often does a piano need tuning? How many pianos can a professional tune each day? Fermi problems are cool because they teach the art of questioning, not how to solve for a single number in a prescribed way. As Epstein says, “The ultimate lesson of the (Fermi) question was that detailed prior knowledge was less important than a way of thinking.” (p. 52)

I’ve always admired those people who seem to be at ease in most situations. Stars like Tom Cruise, who always seem to have a swagger and a twinkle in his eye, even though the truth is that he works like a dog to do those stunts, build that confidence, and look that charming. Actors like Hugh Laurie and Tony Shaloub seem doubly blessed to be actors and also talented musicians. These stars have range that go far beyond just memorizing lines. Colleagues of mine are talented photographers or computer coders, specialties I wish I had formal training in. I notice these talented people not because of their singular specialization, but, as Epstein says on page 29, “Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.” These high performers developed range over decades, and then leverage that range across specialties. 

Why does dabbling pay off? On page 77, Epstein reminds us, “Learners become better at applying their knowledge to the situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.” He provides studies to back up that premise documented in studies of military recruits, scientific communities, even the venerated Mischel Marshmallow Test research that I included in my own book, SORT and Succeed. 

Can You Learn to Have Range?

It’s hard to square the benefits of learning broadly with our western education system, with its mostly linear teach-to-test model. In fact, Epstein makes the case that our standard education system leans in too soon towards early specialization, causing anxiety and poor performance in young people, when most may do better with an alternate approach to short term and life goals. “Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situation. This is what most successful people actually do anyway.” (p. 163) This is why my kids get anxious when we ask them for back of the envelope answers. They are much more comfortable with an answer…THE answer.

Does cultivating range often lead to wrong answers? As a parent of teens, I struggle with the task of getting my kids through their education gauntlet with good grades. I know (and remind my employees often) that we actually learn the most from mistakes, but we still need to end up with finished projects. The kids need good marks to progress to their next level. It takes a curious teacher and a curious learner to leverage “‘desirable difficulties,’ obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower and more frustrating in the short term but better in the long term.” (P 85) Young people of all times, not just this generation, struggle with learning to do hard things, what we used to call “paying your dues” or “building character.” The good news from Range, the book, is that what looks like meandering or lack of focus is more probably experiential learning leading to future opportunities that not only can’t we see, but that don’t even exist yet. Right this minute, technology and culture are creating jobs and skills for our kids that don’t even exist today. 

Why is Range Good for Business?

I like to think range is why my business has been successful for nearly two decades. While there are professional organizers who just play with plastic containers in pantries, my team prefers to have a range of services that covers organizing spaces, organizing time, organizing data, organizing photos of all types, organizing finances, decorating spaces, helping families through times of transition like moving homes, and coaching executives with organizing their business strategies and personal development. Our range covers related topics, but my team members bring a wide range specialty training to bear. My employees have backgrounds in business, chemistry, photography, communications, dance, counseling, nursing, and many others. Our range is our strength.

***It’s why we are always trying new ways to help clients to organize, like our Organizing Game Nights, scheduled for July 18 and August 8, 2023. Register here for either night. There’s more than one way to learn and do.

Organizing Game Night with HeartWork Organizing and DeclutterGo!

I have the honor of coaching executives in diverse fields such as entrepreneurship, legal, medical, government work, and many others. You’d be surprised how many of these wildly talented and outwardly successful people struggle with feelings of inadequacy, outside of their area of expertise, but also inside of it. They are specialists, but they inherently sense the value of learning broadly, learning for a lifetime, outside of a single specialty. 

Too old. Too generalized. Not professional/educated/degreed/famous enough. That’s how many of my colleagues think of themselves. They’ll be glad to know that Range turns all of those potential negatives into strong positives, where the generalist ultimately triumphs. 

Instead of pegging ourselves as creative versus analytical, tech-savvy or not, I prefer to remain a curious amateur, dabbling at many things. Not everything, of course. I’m still trying to warm up to the concept of quantum physics and the intricacies of anime pop culture, which interest me not in the least. I suspect there might be a terrifying improv night somewhere in my future, which I would feel wildly ill-prepared for. But since I do agree with the author that, “the core trait of the best forecasters as genuinely curious about well really everything” (P 224), I’ll remain open, and I hope you do, too. 

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You can purchase Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein on Amazon, at your local independent bookstore, or borrow it from your local library. 

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