Book Summary - Range

Author: David Epstein

Synopsis: Range challenges the long-held orthodoxy that the path to excellence is through specialization. Recent success stories in the public sphere have lopsidedly put the spotlight on the “quantity of singular effort/focus” and further literature by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell (the 10,000-hour rule) have turned specialization into a success mantra. Range presents strong evidence that tells a different story — that the world tends to reward those who sample and experiment with multiple disciplines early on.

The 5 big ideas in the book:

  1. Success through early specialization is more an exception and not a rule.

  2. Environments today are not “kinder” but are “wicked” and hence overspecialization is not going to help us succeed. Modern work demands applying knowledge in new situations and domains.

  3. We need to experiment early as much as we can so that it builds in the right muscles of thinking and skills — systems thinking, big-picture, connecting the dots, creativity, pattern recognition, sense-making, navigating ambiguity etc.

  4. Learning needs to be difficult and messy, for it to be truly effective. We learn who we are when we try new things, in practice, not in theory.

  5. Never ‘feel’ (not fall) behind. We need to compare ourselves with how we were yesterday. There is nothing wrong with specialization but augment it, early on if possible, with enough experimentation.

Key Insights:

  1. Range provides a strong antithesis to the 10,000-hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. With increasing focus on early specialization, everyone digs deeper into their own specialization areas (trenches) and rarely perch their neck over to get a rudimentary understanding of other domains and disciplines, even though the solution to their problems reside there or in the bridges that connect them.

  2. The comparison of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, which the book’s opening pivots, is quite a compelling observation. When Tiger Woods was swinging a golf club soon after he started to walk, his dad called him the ‘Chosen One’. Woods followed a training manual written by his Dad, conforming largely to the 10,000 hours of practice. Federer on the other hand, took a more experimental path to fame, dabbling in swimming, wrestling, skiing, basketball, badminton, and skateboarding. The book argues that the success stories of hyper-specialization form the core of a vast marketing machine at work in multiple disciplines such as sports, science, arts etc. In reality, the Federer path to success is far more prevalent than the Tiger path. But those stories are much more buried or quietly told. We might know many names but we are not aware of their backgrounds or the highly experimental routes they took to success and fame.

  3. Many success stories we hear are from domains characterized by “kind” learning environments. These are domains in which instinctive pattern recognition is rewarded — like Golf and Chess, where calculative moves preordain results. Specialists are those who get better with experience and excel in these environments and domains where patterns repeat and feedback loops are accurate and timely. In short, these are domains which will be perfected by computers soon. After all, a computer today can play better Chess than a human. But it might not be able to write a more beautiful poem than a human.

  4. But today, we see complex environments, in economies, jobs, fields, disciplines etc. These “wicked” domains are characterized by unclear rules, unpredictable patterns, inaccurate or delayed feedback loops. Modern work today demands the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. Constrained and repetitive problems are being automated today. Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is our ability to integrate broadly.

  5. Specialists who amass more information for their own kind and view tend to become more dogmatic and develop blind spots. They find it harder to unlearn and adapt, thereby developing a narrow lens to view the world. 

  6. A careful study of some of the successes in sports, business, art, science etc. shows that the ones who succeed are actually the ones who’ve refused to specialize and can see things from a broader perspective. There is a great need for critical intelligence today and instead of obsessing over specialization, we need to focus more on developing Range. The world in the future needs more Federers - people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress, than Tigers - people who see only a small part of the whole. People with range are more likely to succeed more.

  7. We must learn how to think before we learn what to think about. We must learn things in different contexts so that we build the ability to create abstract models, that could be applied to new situations.

  8. How do we develop Range? We need to experiment and practice. We need to invest in learning by doing things as testing and learning is a better strategy. We need to cross-pollinate ideas. We also must never “feel” behind and become comfortable with quitting something. Exploration and switching are necessary to find a good match and we always take something away from every experience. Research in multiple disciplines shows that experimentation and mental meandering are sources of power. It is a good idea to sample everything — be it physics, economics, music etc. Experimentation pays off in the long run. Nobel laureates in science are 22 times more likely to have artistic pursuits outside their field than their less-recognized peers.

Best Quotes:

The world needs both vertical-thinking specialists AND lateral-thinking generalists.

Over specialisation can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action.

The most successful problem solvers spend mental energy figuring out what type of problem they are facing before matching a strategy to it, rather than jumping in with memorized procedures.

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.

We learn who we are, more in practice, not in theory.

My Take: Range backs its arguments with some strong data-points from various studies coming from multiple disciplines. Mozart, Federer, Tiger Woods, Kepler, Van Gogh, NASA engineers, Edison — the examples and research is thorough. The author convinces that sampling multiple disciplines early one brings in tremendous advantages to careers and that — being a Jack of all trades, can lead to Mastery in unique ways. Range is a very important book that dismantles popular beliefs about success and I think it is a must-read for anyone, no matter what you are — a boss, a student, a teacher, a parent, or an artist.