Dec 14, 2020
Range is a book that I saw in a bookshop and called out to me like little else can. Subtitled "Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World", I felt as though it were written for me personally. It seems as though the way to "get ahead" is to specialise early and specialise hard, drilling deeply into a single topic until you become a world expert. Get your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in before the competition gets there first. And yet I find myself always moving from topic to topic, weaving a wider web of apparently unrelated experience and knowledge. This very podcast is a testament to that. Could I be wasting my time?
David Epstein says no. As the author of the bestselling book The Sports Gene, he is no stranger to criticising the prevailing view, based originally on the work of K. Anders Ericsson (and subsequently reinterpreted, or distorted, by journalist Malcolm Gladwell), about the primacy of deliberate practice within a single domain. In Range, he shows that there is another, more common path to deep expertise that is not as well known - that of Roger Federer, among others. As children, they try out multiple sports (or musical instruments) in order to build up a more general sense of athleticism (musicality). After many years, they tend to gravitate to one sport (instrument) more than others, and really put their heart into practice because they made their own choice when they were ready. At that point, they catch up with the early specialisers with a new laser focus on their target field.
Sport and music aren't the only fields that seem to reward an early "sampling period". The author discusses scientists and inventors, who often make breakthroughs precisely because they use knowledge from a domain outside of that in which they are working. Their advantage is from what they know that other scientists (inventors) don't - and that could be something from a completely different field of science (technology), or even from history, economics, literature, or art.
Overall, Epstein's book is so rich and eclectic in findings concerning the value of breadth of knowledge and skills that it is hard to summarise in a blurb like this. In the audio, I do the best I can to organise his key points into a kind of theory with big take-home ideas, but it's just not possible to fit everything in. Whether you've read the book already or not, I hope my attempt to consolidate his writing into some key points will help you understand the thrust of the work.
Enjoy the episode.