Range: Why Generalists Triumph in A Specialized World: Summary and Notes

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in A Specialized World answers a very pertinent question: do you specialize or do you generalize? Specialists like surgeons, pilots, engineers, and the like seem to make the most money but if the arguments by Epstein are to be believed, it is the generalists who take the day. As he points out, generalists are able to traverse a wide body of knowledge and come up with unique solutions by virtue of their great insight. On the other hand, specialists, while needed, lack the ‘view from the mountaintop’.

If you are like me and will make an argument for specialization, you will find the book refreshing. You will even question some of your hardcore beliefs on the matter.

My favorite quote from Epstein is: “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” It stresses the fact that without lots of experimentation, you will never know what you are good at. The quote kind of drives home the entire point of the book and it is what Epstein refers to as range.

The following are my main takeaways from this fascinating read.
#1 Generalists settle more naturally
“If we treated careers more like dating, nobody would settle down so quickly.”

Epstein doesn't say this outrightly but he implies that generalists make better career decisions because they take their time before settling down. Once in their careers, they are also more innovative because their broad experiences bring synergy. This reminds me of something I read in the Exclusive Autobiography of Steve Jobs. It points out that while other students attended classes, Steve would hop between them and this was the reason his thinking was so dynamic. In particular, the arts and design classes made him the product designer we have all come to admire.

The same is true with Elon Musk who is known to read hundreds of books a year. It broadens his mind and makes him the visionary behind Tesla and SpaceX. This does not mean you shouldn't be good at anything because, in the end, you have to apply your knowledge somewhere. It just means you must be willing to explore especially during your early career days.
Here is an excellent quote that drives the point home:

“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.”
#2 You don't have to start early
In his book, Kindergarten Is Too Late! Masaru Ibuka — the founder of Sony — argues the age of five is the final chance you get to shape the destiny of a child because beyond that, the environment holds too much sway. It is something that Epstein would have a hard time believing.

He cites studies showing that you don't have to start early; teenagers, as well as adults, can embrace something new and still be very good at it. Most importantly, he makes the case that you don't have to specialize.

The examples that he uses in the book may not be familiar to you but you definitely know the names — Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Tiger Woods was introduced to golf by his father at the age of two and he grew up with the sport. His early introduction must have helped him become perhaps the greatest golf player of all times but do you who else is a champion but did not start early?

Roger Federer.

The GOAT of tennis only started playing during his teens, a fact which helps Epstein hammer his point. By the time Federer gave up on soccer, to pursue tennis full time, many of his peers had been drilled for years in the style of Tiger Woods but none of that mattered when they met on the court — Federer triumphed anyway. The main takeaway here is if you think you are too late, you probably aren’t.
#3 Relying on experience from a single domain is limiting
According to Epstein, the more repetitive a task is, the easier it is to automate. There is some truth to this because a recent report by McKinsey notes that machines will transform the nature of work by performing more tasks done by humans, complement humans, and even perform tasks that no human can currently do. As a result, millions of people will be rendered jobless, and guess who will suffer the most? Specialists.

Epstein says that the modern workplace requires dynamic thinking of the sort that cross-pollinates ideas across different disciplines. Such people are going to be extremely valuable in the future because the skill is not only rare but also transformative.
The following quote captures this sentiment perfectly:

“Like chess masters and firefighters, premodern villagers relied on things being the same tomorrow as they were yesterday. They were extremely well prepared for what they had experienced before, and extremely poorly equipped for everything else. Their very thinking was highly specialized in a manner that the modern world has been telling us is increasingly obsolete. They were perfectly capable of learning from experience, but failed at learning without experience. And that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands—conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts. Faced with any problem they had not directly experienced before, the remote villagers were completely lost. That is not an option for us. The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.”
#4 It is okay to quit
“We fail...tasks we don't have the guts to quit."...knowing when to quit is such a strategic advantage that every single person, before undertaking an endeavor should enumerate conditions under which they should quit.”

I have read about quitting in a few books and like Range: Why Generalists Triumph in A Specialized World, they all say the same thing — it is okay to quit but you have to do it strategically. When you quit strategically, you are essentially giving way to better opportunities and keeping an open mind.

Epstein advises that as you traverse through life, explore and switch as much as you can, and only when you find a good match should you consider specializing. In other words, be like Roger Federer and remember that for every star athlete who made it because of early training, there are a dozen more who took their time to explore their other selves.

Lots of books including Traction, Hacking Growth, and The Lean Startup all say that the best strategy for staying on top of your game is to learn and adapt as fast as possible. This means failing fast and moving to your next venture ASAP.

“Who do I really want to become?,” their work indicated that it is better to be a scientist of yourself, asking smaller questions that can actually be tested—“Which among my various possible selves should I start to explore now? How can I do that?” Be a flirt with your possible selves.* Rather than a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly. “Test-and-learn,” Ibarra told me, “not plan-and-implement.”
#5 Learning should not be easy
Epstein spends a lot of words on learning and education because he worries that people are not being educated in the right way. He starts by noting that the modern workplace demands knowledge transfer across different knowledge domains but laments that such is not happening at the rate it should. People will lose jobs and not learning in a manner that allows for cross-pollination of ideas is dangerous.

He says education should foster general intelligence and stop the obsession with overspecialization. To counter over-specialization, he advocates for a sampling period during the early years of talent development, and only later should deliberate practice and specialization be incorporated.

He also advises schools to allow students to fail because when later they are presented with the right lessons, they are more likely to stick in what he terms as “Hypercorrection effect”. Epstein also makes the point of saying that when you are not learning, things come easy, and to foster great learning, you have to make them difficult. On this he writes:

“it is difficult to accept that the best learning road is slow, and that doing poorly now is essential for better performance later. It is so deeply counterintuitive that it fools the learners themselves,”

Finally, he advises that students should learn the same thing in different contexts because the more contexts something is learned, the easier it is for students to build abstract models.
Want to develop range? Here are a few actionable tips and strategies:

  1. Don’t worry about the headstart. Research shows that even if your three-year-old learns to read and write, others will catch on with time. In other words, a headstart is hardly a lifelong benefit.
  2. Perform a wide sampling of ideas for creativity.
  3. Reflect on past situations when you should have quit faster
  4. Learn who you are through practice. To better understand your strengths, weaknesses, and interests, try different stuff. Epstein says trying different stuff may feel like wasted time but in reality, it maximizes what economists call ‘match quality’. Your growth rate will be higher if the match quality is good.
  5. Be a deliberate amateur. When learning, wander off in ways and pretend as if you have just begun. Being a deliberate amateur also means reading outside your field in search of new connections.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in A Specialized World by David Epstein is one of those books that forever changes your worldview. Like Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Sucess he cites study after study to drive his point which makes his case all the more convincing.