This is a comprehensive summary of the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get access to an actionable worksheet.
Often people say that we should specialize in one specific field if we want to succeed – “Find your niche,” they say. However, life is not that simple. Laser focusing on one domain will get you to a certain point but if you want to thrive in this “wicked” world, you should have a range of skills. Packed with a lot of supporting case studies, Range by David Epstein explains that true success comes only after a long period of sampling. Or in other words, introducing yourself to new concepts and broadening your arsenal of skills.
The Core Idea:
Bouncing around in life, trying different things, is mainly considered a negative trait. But in Range, the author says otherwise. You get to find your true calling and reach the desired state of success only by continuously exposing yourself to new topics, thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. You can be a bit late for the party by following this approach, but at least you’ll find your place in the world.
- Go through a sampling period. This means trying different things until you find your one thing.
- We live in a wicked world where things constantly change. Having a wide variety of skills is necessary to adjust and thrive.
- While it’s important to be an expert in a specific field, constantly exposing yourself to new experiences is the key to long-lasting success.
5 Key Lessons from Range:
Lesson #1: Go Through a Sampling Period
When we see world-class athletes and exceptional musicians, we often categorize them as child prodigies.
We think that these folks started practicing the moment the sperm cell fertilizes the egg.
However, this is rarely true for all high-achievers. Even if you’re a teenager and if you have never played soccer, you can still reach exceptional results in this specific field.
There are a lot of examples of people who played different sports when they were young till they’ve found the one that later made them world-famous. A good example is the story of Roger Federer. A guy who started taking tennis seriously later in his teens.
This sampling period, as described in the book, is something popular among go-getters. And actually quite normal.
After all, there is no way of knowing if you would enjoy playing football if you haven’t played it before. You need to expose yourself to a variety of things, first, to find your true place in life.
And this is true for everybody. Regardless of the experience or the age.
There are a lot of career opportunities in life, especially nowadays. Don’t feel bad about yourself if you’re 20, 30, even 50 and if you still haven’t found your place.
Try a lot of things. A lot of different things. This way you’ll be able to spot the activity that interests you most so you can then focus all of your attention towards this specific domain.
“The sampling period is not incidental to the development of great performers—something to be excised in the interest of a head start—it is integral.” David Epstein
Lesson #2: We Live In a Wicked World
Having a wide range of skills is necessary for today’s times.
If you’re a designer, for example, it will be unlikely for someone to hire you if you know only a limited amount of design trends. That’s why creatives around the world continuously learn new things about their field and also fill their time with tasks that are not directly related to what they are doing. They know that having a broad range of skill set will help them tackle situations with a fresh perspective.
Or in other words, knowing a lot about a wide range of things is the differentiating factor between winners and losers.
With this in mind, in the book, David Epstein categorizes our current playground as “Martian tennis.”
People kind of know how to play the game but they are not absolutely sure about all the specifics involved. Actually, no one really knows the rules because they constantly change. That’s why you need to continuously adapt.
And how you can do this?
That’s right, by reading about different ideas, concepts and trying out different things.
That’s why online gurus constantly nag about going outside of your comfort zone. And it makes sense. When you’re more often in fields you don’t know anything about, you’ll get better at playing Martian tennis.
“Pretending the world is like golf and chess is comforting. It makes for a tidy kind-world message, and some very compelling books.” David Epstein
Lesson #3: Relying Only On Skills From a Single Field Can Be Catastrophic
If you have a problem to solve, quite naturally, you’ll use the skills and the experiences you’ve gathered through the years.
If you’re a sailor, for example, and if you know a lot about boats, you’ll approach every situation as if you were in the sea.
But life is not only saltwater and fish. There are a lot of other things to consider when tackling a specific problem or task.
As the author states in the book, “In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.”
Sometimes even overlooking a simple graph can cause a huge disaster. As it happened with the space shuttle Challenger.
In 1986, NASA launched a shuttle with the intention to deploy a satellite and also to observe Halley’s comet. Unfortunately, only after 73 seconds into the flight, the space shuttle broke apart killing everybody on board.
The cold temperature on the day of the lunch caused a malfunction in the two rubber O-rings holding the fuel tanks.
The information was available for the NASA guys but they simply didn’t have it in front of them when deciding whether or not to lunch the rocket.
What a shame.
While a wide variety of info can often make you feel obnoxious, on a lot of occasions it is helpful, even necessary. Look at problems from different angles. Don’t limit yourself. This way you’ll make the right decisions when handling difficult situations.
Lesson #4: The Way You Think is More Important Than Knowledge
With the rise of AI, a lot of people ask themselves what will happen to their jobs in the future. According to David Epstein, the broader your knowledge the less likely you are to be replaced by a machine learning algorithm.
Computers, machines, AI, or the algorithm these things are using are really fascinating – there’s no doubt about that. These filled with code, CPU-consuming systems can outperform humans in a lot of tasks. That’s why many complex calculations are left for the machines to handle. But worry not. There is still room for you in the world.
While machine learning becomes better with each passing day, we’re still better than them.
Computers are great at executing tasks when certain rules are set by the programmer. However, life is not linear. Leave a program to handle a problem that’s not included in their software and they’ll immediately flash with errors. Or as the author writes in the book, “the bigger the picture, the more unique the potential human contribution.”
Our superior way of thinking that can continuously adapt depending on the situation is, still, way more advanced than the most complicated AI in the world. We can adjust immediately depending on the situation and apply long-term strategies.
And since knowledge is widely available, to improve and ensure our salary, we should focus on upgrading the way we think, not so much focusing on remembering facts.
What you know currently – the amount of knowledge you have – is not so important. Thanks to current technologies, we already have access to everything.
Instead, we can focus our mental energy to become better at finding different ways to solve the problems we daily face. That happens only when we broaden our knowledge, not through narrow specialization.
“The ultimate lesson of the question was that detailed prior knowledge was less important than a way of thinking.” David Epstein
Lesson #5: You Need Both Narrow Specialization and Broad Experience
In the book, the author shares an interesting view of how a famous mathematician thinks about the world. Freeman Dyson, an American theoretical physicist and mathematician, imagines the skill humans need to become great at what they do as frogs and birds.
At first glance, the main difference between these two creatures is obvious: birds are high in the sky and can scan the horizon. Frogs, on the other hand, are stuck on the ground, have limited world-view but are experts in the stuff they do.
And while being a bird can seem like the right thing to wish for, there are advantages to acquiring the best from both.
You can be a bird and have a great vision for your future life. You can set a goal to be the next president or to resolve the climate change problem, for example. However, if you lack the skills needed to transition from a regular dude to an appreciated head of the country, your statement will be just a self-delusional fantasy.
“It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper,” says Freeman Dyson and later adds, “We need birds and frogs working together to explore it.”
So, honing your craft and becoming better at your daily tasks is surely important. But there’s more to life if you really want to kick-ass. You need to continuously learn new skills and expand your worldview. Only by doing these two things, you’ll become better on average, more likely to innovate, and find new solutions to current and new problems.
“I always advise my people to read outside your field, everyday something. And most people say, ‘Well, I don’t have time to read outside my field.’ I say, ‘No, you do have time, it’s far more important.’ Your world becomes a bigger world, and maybe there’s a moment in which you make connections.” Arturo Casadevall
- Go through a sampling period: Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM once said, “The way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” When you fail fast, you learn faster. This is the so-called sampling period. Musicians, famous athletes, artists find their place in the world by trying different games and styles first. So, don’t be afraid to start things and later abandon them if they don’t “feel” right. That’s the only way you can find your ONE thing.
- Learn more tactics: In chess, to win, you need to study the most famous tactics. These short combinations of moves give players an advantage on the board. The more tactics you know, the better you will be at crushing the opponent. Apply this same principle in the most important areas of your life. Continuously learn new tactics that will help you handle situations better.
- Study different things: Sometimes the things you do might not be directly related to the problems you’re trying to solve but they can give you that special component you were missing all along. This approach is called “outside-in” thinking. Alph Bingham defines this the following way: “Finding solutions in experiences far outside of focused training for the problem itself.”
- Expand your range: While there is nothing wrong with being good at doing one specific thing – I mean, we all need to specialize in something – acquiring new knowledge and working on new ideas is something you should definitely do, and keep doing. It might seem like a waste of time at first, but through experimentation, you’ll find solutions to problems you thought are unsolvable.
- Great things still don’t exist: Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, said the following: “Most of the work I’ve done in the last ten years didn’t exist when I was in high school. . . . In such a world it’s not a good idea to have fixed plans.” Decide where you want to be in the twenty years, for example, and then ask yourself: What should I do to get there? Once you start going towards the direction you want, always keep in mind that the solution to all of your problems is probably still not invented. This thought will inspire you to keep an open mind.
Commentary and My Personal Takeaway
Plenty of experts talk only about specializing in one specific field but that’s not what David Epstein thinks.
When you specialize, you become better at doing one thing, yes. However, life is more complicated than what we tell ourselves. Executing well only one simple task won’t get you far.
After all, we’re all different people at different times of the day. We might be parents, teachers, managers, creators, investors, and all kinds of other things. It’s stupid to think that learning one specific set of skills will prepare you for this sophisticated dance called life. That’s why I’m really glad that this book exists.
It’s surely different from what you’ll find out there in terms of improving your life, business, and the way you tackle problems. Surely creatives who are early in their career should study the lessons and the case studies provided by the author.
The only downside I found is that at times the books becomes a bit tiring. There are simply way too many facts and sophisticated words that you’ll find hard to understand – or at least I did.
Nonetheless, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein is definitely worth taking the time to read.
My key takeaway?
Specialists do a great job when the rules of the game are clear and they can easily measure their performance. Generalists, on the other hand, are the ones that thrive in the “wicked” world. The place we live in. When nothing is clear and the boundaries are vague, the generalist are the ones that will find a way to innovate and push the limits further.
“Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind.” David Epstein
“You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it. We don’t train people in thinking or reasoning.” David Epstein
“The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization. While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases—as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part—we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.” David Epstein