If you’re a young person who hasn’t yet figured out what to do with your life, or the parent of one, you’ll likely hear that the most important thing for a young person to do is to find at least one area of interest and practice it endlessly — think “Tiger Moms” like Amy Chua — to become an incredibly talented X, where X is, well, whatever. Oboist. Snowboarder. Speller. You need to be great at something if you’re to have any hope of standing out and succeeding in an increasingly competitive world.
In a new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World, the science writer David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, comes out hard against what he sees as a recent cultural trend toward obsessive training and narrow expertise. In our present, “10,000-hours”-obsessed age, generalist approaches to problem solving and personal growth are getting short shrift. Epstein argues that for individuals to thrive and society to solve pressing problems, we all need to move a step or two away from Chua and her ilk and more toward the sort of wisdom that prevails in Silicon Valley: “Move fast and break stuff.” Try a bunch of different things and if something doesn’t work, don’t cling too tightly to it — move on to the next thing and learn from your mistakes. While Range occasionally get mired in its overreliance on anecdotes and what is actually not all that provocative a thesis, overall it works as an impressive collection of insights from art, history, and (most of all) social science.
Epstein opens with the very different stories of Tiger Woods, who was an uncannily talented golfer from toddlerhood, and his friend Roger Federer, whose path to tennis greatness was very different, and involved a significant amount of early-life flitting between sports and other interests. As Epstein explains, a lot more elite athletes follow a Federian path than one might think, and he soon expands this argument into a wide variety of different domains. Often, it isn’t the obsessive nerds with encyclopedia knowledge solving difficult problems and helping human society to advance; it’s the bigger-picture thinkers who might not be bona fide experts in any particular area, but who are adept at drawing surprising connections and discerning hard-to-see patterns.
Much of Epstein’s argument hinges on the difference between kind and wicked problems. Kind problems are predictable. If your goal is to become good at shooting free throws, for example, you will benefit from the fact that the task you are performing is more or less the same whether you are performing it on an otherwise empty summertime blacktop or during an NBA playoff game. You can practice the same routine over and over again, with instant feedback along the way, and expect fairly consistent process toward expertise. But our trickiest problems and most impressive feats are different. “In wicked domains,” Epstein writes, “the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.” This is where obsessively focusing on a narrow set of skills often isn’t the best approach.
Epstein is an expert collector and synthesizer of miniature case-studies — he rolls out story after story covering various facets of the generalization-versus-specialization debate. They have a really high hit rate, in that they are mostly interesting or add some important bit of fodder to the book’s overarching argument. I was particularly fond of his explanation of groundbreaking research conducted on peasant farmers in the Soviet Union comparing those who had already been connected, via the Soviet Union’s ambitious development agenda during the socialist revolution, to modern society, with those who hadn’t yet. When it came to basic cognitive tasks many of us take for granted — tasks along the lines of “Put all the circular objects in that pile off to the side, in their own pile” — the premodern farmers genuinely couldn’t understand what they were being asked to do. They often didn’t seem able to grasp that objects had properties unless those properties tied directly into their everyday uses in the farmers’ lives. But as soon as people were exposed to modern society, the ability to think in more abstract, creative ways seemed to come with it. “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,” Epstein writes. The best parts of the book, like this one, reveal surprising aspects of human cognition, or some field of expertise (cardiologists are obsessed with stents, it turns out, despite a horrifying dearth of evidence for their overall efficacy in many situations), or some real-world problem (an important advance in cleaning up oil spills was inspired by convenience-store slushy machines, it turns out).
But the book falters at times, too, and that’s mostly because the underlying thesis isn’t actually that surprising. If you sit and think about it for a moment, it probably won’t surprise you that the most imposing challenges facing humans, or the most jaw-dropping works of art our species has produced, require a certain degree of borrowing from various domains, of understanding the universe’s hidden connections. So, that high anecdotal hit rate notwithstanding, there are times when it feels like rather than advance or refine his argument, Epstein is just piling anecdote atop anecdote, occasionally giving the book a slightly saggy feel.
An easy way to address this would have been for Epstein to connect his book more to the contemporary world. Modern-day America is strangely absent from Range. That’s unfortunate, because the themes Epstein discusses — dabbling in different areas before choosing a vocation, debating whether it’s worth it to invest in narrowly specialized educational training, and the aforementioned child-rearing questions — matter a great deal given the country’s current economic situation.
In short, the incentives for young workers are a lot different these days. It used to be, for a fairly large swath of the U.S. workforce, that if you found one thing you were decent-enough at — or even just had a cousin who worked at a factory who could get you an entry-level job there — you could build a decent life for yourself on the basis of that work. A large part of the story of the last half-century or so of American life has been the gradual unraveling of this arrangement as work has become more piecemeal and less likely to come with generous benefits. These days, we’re in an increasingly gig-economy-obsessed society in which it’s harder and harder for people to carve out decades-long careers at a single firm the way they used to (I’m sure by now more than one Generation Z kid has asked “Daddy, what’s a ‘pension’?”).
How do the changing economic incentives affect the specialization-versus-generalization debate? What does it mean to encourage people to dabble and perambulate around different career possibilities at a time when economic insecurity is creeping up the American income latter and so many people are afraid of sliding down it, or of their kids doing the same? It’s interesting to imagine how the new, less settled landscape has forced people in exactly the direction Epstein thinks is best, toward lateral thinking, exploration, a willingness to fail and move on, and so forth. It wouldn’t be much of a silver lining to the many people languishing during these epochal shifts, but still: the economy is foisting upon people entirely new, rapidly changing notions of what it means to be a competitive worker, and many of those changes line up with Epstein’s argument about what leads to success.
We don’t hear much about any of this, nor about all the people who develop a wide range of skills and nonetheless falter — there’s a bit of survivor’s bias here, reminiscent of Angela Duckworth’s Grit, a book that Epstein mentions.
Whatever his answer to these questions, had Epstein connected his argument more tightly to what’s going on in the real world at the moment, rather than rattling off success story after success story of late-bloomers and polymaths with staggering intellects, it would have given Range just a bit more heft.
Another missed opportunity comes in Epstein’s otherwise brisk and entertaining recounting of the famous wager between the doomsaying environmentalist and The Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, who built a career in the 1960s and 1970s arguing that the planet was heading toward a terrifying human die-off sparked by overpopulation and subsequent famine, and Julian Simon, an economist who thought he was dead wrong (as you can likely infer, Simon won the bet). Epstein deftly explains how certain thinking errors on the part of Ehrlich helped lead him astray, while also pointing out that Simon wasn’t right about everything, either, but there’s no mention of another burgeoning ecological panic — a contemporary one that feels like it has much more evidentiary weight behind it. How should we apply the lessons of the Simon-Ehrlich wager to the current political and policy debate over how to address climate change, which, after all, also relies a great deal on long-term forecasting? The question just sits there, obvious but unasked.
Overall, though, Range works well as a broad, highly readable exploration of some fascinating questions. Anyone with an interest in the peaks and valleys of human achievement and folly will gain some valuable insights from it, and there’s definitely a subset of high-achiever types who could use its core message, which is that it’s okay to dabble and to explore, and that doing so won’t necessarily cause you to fall behind in the long run — even if that message isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Epstein would like it to be.
Jesse Singal is a contributing writer at New York Magazine who is working on a book for Farrar, Straus and Giroux about why half-baked psychological ideas go viral.
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