Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Range by David Epstein

Prefer to listen? Here’s a link to the Planet Agora Podcast where you can listen to my review of Range.

In Range, David Epstein argues that the modern emphasis on specialization is misguided. He gives many examples of people throughout history who have succeeded and thrived despite -or because- they were generalists who sampled a wide variety of interests before finding their true calling.

The book starts with a comparison of Tiger Woods -whose father guided him almost since birth to be a great golfer- and tennis great Roger Federer, who sampled a variety of activities before settling on the sport that would ultimately define him. It’s worth noting that observing these two sports legends side by side implies that both the very specialized and the more generalized approach can work.¬†Epstein goes on to explore another kind of “tiger,” the tiger mother model that was introduced by Amy Chua in her 2011 book Battle Hym of the Tiger Mother.

As much as I enjoyed Range, there are a couple of easy criticisms of Epstein’s approach. One is that it’s simple to cherry pick examples that back your point of view. Secondly, using the tiger parenting model as the paradigm of specialization is something of a straw man. Long before Range, a substantial backlash against this type of parenting was well in place. A great deal of research has shown that children who are brought up by tiger parents are prone to anxiety and a whole host of psychological problems.

Kind vs Wicked Environments

Epstein discusses the distinction between “kind” and “wicked” domains. In a kind world, the rules are predictable and recurring. He uses chess as an example, specifically the Polgar sisters from Hungary, whose father Laszlo Polgar basically raised them as a lab experiment to produce chess grandmasters. The experiment was successful, as the sisters became great players in a time when there were few female chess masters. Epstein points out that chess is the perfect example of a kind environment, where the pieces move in a predictable fashion and the best players memorize positions.

In wicked environments, rules and patterns may change at any point. Examples of wicked environments include politics, economics, emergency medicine, and putting out wildfires. In other words, most real world situations tend to be wicked as the rules and players are constantly changing. Epstein argues that specialists often approach tasks using rules from the “kind” environment in which they were trained.

Amateurs vs Experts

I find it particularly interesting how amateurs are often able to outthink experts. The chapter “Deliberate Amateurs” has examples such as Nobel Prize winner Oliver Smithies, who achieved many of his greatest discoveries in casual “Saturday morning” sessions where he abandoned his rigorous specialized training and conducted more random experiments.

Epstein argues that experts can be blinded by their very knowledge while amateurs and outsiders can look at problems from a fresh point of view. This is related to what the Zen teacher Suzuki called Beginner’s Mind. Of course, Epstein also realizes that it’s not a simple case of amateurs being smarter than experts. After all, scientists such as Einstein and Smithies had plenty of specialized training while also incorporating the wisdom of open-ended research more characteristic of amateurs. Range doesn’t argue against specialization, but points out its limitations.

Specialists vs Generalists: The Eternal Conflict?

Some critics of Range complain that Epstein doesn’t really prove his point, relying mostly on anecdotes. However, it’s probably impossible to reach any kind of definitive conclusion when comparing two broad approaches such as specialization vs generalization. For one thing, hardly anyone fits perfectly into either camp. There’s also the question of defining success. Are we measuring strictly on the basis of professional and financial milestones or by more nebulous criteria such as personal satisfaction?

This is the type of discussion that is inevitably going to be based largely on anecdotal evidence. Put another way, it’s difficult to quantify the debate between specializing vs generalizing. This is as it should be. Many of the most fascinating and important questions of life can’t be quantified or answered definitively.

Epstein provides examples from diverse fields, including sports (his background is sports journalism), music, business, and science, citing both well known and lesser known cases of generalists who made it to the top. As he points out, these examples are meant to inspire everyone, even if you aren’t likely to break any sports records or win a Nobel Prize in science.

More Resources For Generalists

While I enjoyed Range and appreciate Epstein’s perspective, it’s worth pointing out that the generalist model has never really gone out of style. If you’re in academia or the hard sciences (or if you have/had tiger parents), your perspective is probably a bit skewed. The real world is still full of people who appreciate a diverse, multi-disciplinary approach to life.

To illustrate this, I’d suggest checking out the work of the late Barbara Sher. Her book, Refuse to Choose, has a similar viewpoint as Range, but from a much more casual, self-help rather than data-heavy perspective.

Still another perspective that favors the generalist approach is the Great Books tradition. This approach has faced criticism, with some justification, for its focus on white, European male authors, thinkers, and artists. However, the philosophical foundation of the Great Books tradition, as personified by programs such as the St. John’s College program, is to give students/readers a varied and multifaceted view of culture.

Looking at it from a wider historical perspective, the contemporary tendency towards specialization is the anomaly. I suspect that the Age of Specialization peaked some years ago as people are realizing the need to look at life and culture more holistically.

Range is a worthy and very readable contribution to the idea that over-specialization ultimately limits your perspective and problem-solving abilities.

 

 

 

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