Do you believe in order to succeed you have to focus on one area and try to be the best, to specialize?
Most of us do but it’s a myth. David Epstein tells you why in his new book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
This book will give you a better understanding of the benefits to both specialization and generalization, and more specifically how components of being a generalist like curiosity, patience and active open-mindedness help you excel.
Here are some of my notes and big takeaways from each chapter:
Specialization and the push to get ahead early are overrated.
We can’t always rely on familiar patterns to answer our questions. Complex problems often present themselves without rules and structure and therefore we must rely on trial and error.
People who have range, a broad breadth of education and experience, are skilled at taking knowledge from one domain and applying to a different one.
Specialization is still important, especially as it aids us in the ability to recognize patterns. But in environments that lack consistency and simplicity having a wide range of skills and knowledge is optimal.
The Flynn effect. You’ve thought about it but probably didn’t know it has a name. The Flynn effect refers to the observation that we as a species are getting smarter, or at least better at cognitive tests like the IQ test. Flynn observed an average increase of 3 points per decade. Notably, these gains were made in abstract constructs, not taught in school.
There are likely several reasons for this effect. Epstein explains this progression is a reflection of the demands placed on thinking and problem solving in an increasing complex world.
Understanding specifics is important but the value of focused learning increases exponentially when one can see the big picture. Experience is what allows us to do this.
Experience allows us to make connections over different domains thereby asking better questions and potentially finding new patterns.
Generalists with a broader knowledge base are able to be cognitively flexible and better at self-directed problem solving.
One way to go about self-directed problem solving is to take advice from the renowned Italian physicist Fermi and break down a problem into smaller parts.
The most important lesson from this chapter is that a head start is not a prerequisite to mastery. Several gifted musicians, like Yo Yo Ma and Django Reinhart, went through a “sampling period”, playing multiple instruments early in their careers.
In addition to experimenting with a variety of instruments, many of the greats were self-taught.
“When you are self-taught you experiment more, trying to find the same sound in different places, you learn how to solve problems.” - Jack Cecchini
“The more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example.“
They then get better at applying knowledge to different scenarios.
The best road for learning is slow, inefficient and frustrating. That’s right, the struggle is real and you should embrace the suck.
“Desirable difficulties” is a concept that refers to hurdles that make learning more challenging in the short term but more rewarding in the long term.
Long term learning goals will result in the best outcomes. This requires a different type of learning than most of us are used to.
When we struggle to generate an answer independently, even if it’s wrong, subsequent learning is enhanced.
Self-testing is important even if you get the answer wrong. When we struggle to retrieve information by early self-testing we prime the brain for subsequent learning.
“Spacing”, the term for distributed practice (having space in between practices) is another desirable difficulty that fosters durable learning. This may seem inefficient to most but results in the long term are better.
Performance and learning are not the same thing. Grades, scores, certifications are not a reflection of your ability to think.
For knowledge to be flexible it should be learned in a variety of conditions. This is called interleaving.
The more details an individual considers on a given topic, the more discriminating our judgments become.
Thinking in analogies “allows us to understand that which we cannot see at all.” It allows us to think conceptually, to connect the dots.
Successful problem solvers identify the deep structure of a problem before strategizing to solve it.
We think of science as the holy grail of objectivity but bias exists in labs where scientists have similar backgrounds. In labs composed of scientists from different backgrounds, alternative patterns are more apt to be identified and it is more likely one is not missed.
People leave out the best part of Winston Churchill’s famous quote “Never give in, never, never, never ….except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
Angela Duckworth, the grit expert, popularized grit as a psychological construct. What I didn’t realize until reading Range was that her grit assessment has two components. One measures work ethic and resilience and the other measures “consistency of interests” and knowing what one wants. If your interests change year to year you will score lower on the grit scale.
The important point that is brought up in this chapter (with multiple shout-outs to my #mancrush Seth Godin) is that in many instances the more prudent decision to make is whether dropping out is the best choice.
“We fail when we stick to the tasks we don’t have the guts to quit” Seth Godin
Long-term strategy for success can benefit more from focusing on short-term goals rather than long-term. Your goals might change. Be flexible.
Grit has its place in long-term success but it is right next to adaptability.
Instead of asking if someone is gritty, we should ask when they are. Context matters. Personalities change in different environments, over time with different experiences.
“We learn who we are in practice, not in theory” - Herminia Ibarra
Instead of asking big questions like who do I want to become ask smaller questions that can be tested.
“Outside-in thinking: finding solutions in experiences far outside of focused training for the problem itself.”
Synthesis of information requires you collaborate with people outside of your circle. Even experts looking for answers benefit from outsourcing their inquiry.
People that you view as outsiders may have a different perspective that will prove to be valuable to you. The key to creative problem solving is tapping info from outsiders.
“Push forward by looking back” –old knowledge may be even more beneficial when employed in a different way.
Time dedicated to thinking and assimilating information is important. But ideas can pop up “out of nowhere.”
Specialists are most efficacious when they work in a familiar environment with less uncertainty. Generalists who have experimented more and have a greater breadth of knowledge are better able to think laterally.
Polymaths are the exceptional people that exhibit a depth of knowledge in a core area but also have expertise is many other areas. Polymaths consistently take expertise gained in one area and apply it to another.
One of my favorite anecdotes from this book was of a great lateral thinker, the one and only Charles Darwin. Darwin left journals with evidence of his correspondence with 231 scientific pen pals from all around the world. Parts of these letters, cut and pasted in his journals, reflect his curiosity as he sought the opinions of others in broad areas of study.
Arguments can be much more productive when we attempt to appreciate and learn from the other side. Everyone has blind spots. We need to be willing to learn ours and adjust as needed.
Sometimes learning requires putting experience aside entirely.
The people who are best at prediction and forecasting demonstrate 3 distinct qualities. They practice active open mindedness, are curious about everything and view their ideas as hypotheses in need of testing.
Don’t agree and conform at the expense of critical thinking. Often when pondering big questions and making important decisions there will be missing information. Do the work to ask better questions and find out what information is missing.
“When you don’t have any data, you have to use reason.” - Richard Feynman
“No tool is omnicompetent. There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors.” -Arnold Toynbee
“Truly original discoveries in science are often triggered by unpredictable and unforeseen small findings" - Yoshinori Ohsumi (winner of Nobel Prize)
We are obsessed with efficiency, potentially at the cost of missing important information. We need to slow down and allow time for inquisitive reflection.
The importance of play has a role in life not just athletic development. Creativity and innovation benefit from unstructured time and environments.
Having more range inherently means having more experiences, wins and losses.
We shouldn’t worry as much about who we think we should be. We can learn along the way.
Experimentation can be a struggle. The main point is that you must work towards a certain direction, not a fixed point, having wiggle room for change of course.
Realize there is value in each experience and you never know when the knowledge gained may be applied to create something new.
Advice: Don’t feel behind
“Compare yourself to yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at different rates so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind.”
Epstein makes a point of noting that there is nothing inherently wrong with specialization. "We all specialize to one degree or another at some point or another. “
But as Wendell Holmes said “All life is an experiment.”
If you read these notes and want to hear more from David Epstein check out the awesome podcast he did with Doug Kechijian from Resilient Performance Systems.