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Range - How Generalists Triumph in a Specialzed World - by David Epstein

A book review by Paul Tyack, Thinking Matters Consultant

How can I develop excellence in sports, music or science? You might advise me to specialise, and do it early: If I don’t, others will have a head start on me in the 10,000 hours of Deliberate Practice necessary for outstanding achievement proposed by Anders Ericsson and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell. If I don’t develop this specialism and practice, practice, practice, I may have broader experiences, but am likely to end up a well-rounded ‘jack-of-all-trades, master of none’.

This is the common guidance and belief that David Epstein seeks to challenge in ‘Range’. Epstein argues strongly that becoming a champion, a virtuoso or a Nobel laureate does not require early and narrow specialisation. In many cases, quite the opposite. In the most rewarding domains of life, generalists are better positioned than specialists to excel.

The opening comparison of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer frames the theme for the whole book. Woods began training as a golfer before he was one year old whereas Federer tried a wide range of sports before he began to focus on tennis. Although he started later than many other players, a late start clearly did not impede his development.

Early and later starters ...

Here Epstein considers the nature of the two sports. Golf is an example of a ‘kind’ learning environment - less dynamic, with a narrower set of patterns, and hence more rewarding of repetitive practice. Specialists flourish in such ‘kind’ learning environments, where patterns recur and feedback is quick and accurate. Golf, chess and classical-music are examples of ‘kind’ learning environments.

By contrast, generalists flourish in ‘wicked’ learning environments, where patterns are harder to discern and feedback is delayed and/or inaccurate. Tennis and Jazz are initial examples of such environments. Domains such as Emergency medicine in a hospital, technological innovation and political forecasting are extremely wicked — as is much of the rest of modern life in the rapidly changing, interconnected world we inhabit.

To further illustrate his contention that the advantage is increasingly held by generalists who have broad integrative skills, Epstein calls upon examples from a broad range of fields including art, classical music, jazz, science, technology and sports. Drawing on studies by cognitive psychologists and educators, Epstein examines how knowledge develops and is assessed. He distinguishes between teaching strategies that focus upon;

  • Repeated Practice - leading to “excellent immediate performance” on tests
  • Interleaving - in which students learn to create abstract generalisations though inductive reasoning that enable them to apply what they have learned to situations they have never encountered before.

As well as navigating ‘wicked’ learning environments more effectively, Epstein provides a wealth of evidence that generalists end up with better ‘match quality’ due to their periods of sampling. Generalists juggle many interests rather than focusing on one, meaning they are more agile, more creative and are able to make connections more meaningfully.

Range is a refreshing and appealing read as it makes a compelling case for focusing on the learning over the performance, the journey over the product. As experts build their silos and go deep while Artificial forms of Intelligence masters more of the skills exemplified by highly specialised humans, people who think broadly, embracing different perspectives and ideas, will increasingly thrive.

View the book here

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