The Mihir Chronicles

Range | How Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World by David Epstein

May 15, 2023

I. Brief Summary

The underlying argument of the book is that having a broad spectrum of skills and interests is better than specializing in just one area. David Epstein encourages his readers to expand their range before becoming specializers. This allows individuals to be creative problem solvers. The book is filled with examples to support the underlying message. Perhaps too many examples which can distract readers from remembering the key lessons.

II. Big Ideas

  • An early sampling period is sometimes better than a focused head start.
    • The core thesis of the books is captured neatly by a comparison between Tiger Woods and Roger Federer in the introduction of the book.
      • Woods started young. His father saw that the young boy was a prodigy at age two, and made it his life mission to mold Tiger into the greatest golf player the world had ever seen.
      • Federer started late. When he was younger, he dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming, skateboarding. He was interested in basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, badminton, and soccer. He was also enormously talented in tennis. He eventually gave up soccer at age 12 to focus on tennis, and remains today one of the best players in the world. What is the point of this anecdote? The point is that some athletes start late and succeed. Epstein uses this story as a way of arguing for his main thesis which is to consider many ranges of possibilities.
    • Often people say to “find your niche,” but 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.
    • Bouncing around in life, trying different things, is mainly considered a negative trait. But 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 will show up late to the party but following this approach will help you find your place in the world.
  • Go through a sampling period to try different things until you find your one thing.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Roger Federer started taking tennis seriously later in his teens after he was done exploring his options.
  • 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.
    • Knowing a lot about a wide range of things is the differentiating factor between winners and losers.
    • 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.
  • Relying only on skills from a single field can be a disaster.
    • 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.
    • 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 reason? 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.
    • Look at problems from different angles. Don’t limit yourself. This way you’ll make the right decisions when handling difficult situations.
  • Learn more tactics to expand your thinking and skills.
    • 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.
    • We learn who we are when we try new things. We learn in practice, not in theory.
    • Don’t do the same scenario in repetition. Look for outside analogies. Find deep structural similarities to the current problem in different ones.
    • 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.
  • Thinking 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 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.
    • The bigger the picture, the more unique the potential human contribution.
    • We should focus on upgrading the way we think, not so much focusing on remembering facts. Instead, we can focus our mental energy to become better at finding different ways to solve the problems we face daily which happens only when we broaden our knowledge, not through narrow specialization.
  • Narrow specialization and broad thinking are equally important.
    • 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.”
  • The idea that ‘slow’ learning is what is valuable when it comes to developing foundational skills.
    • Persevering through difficulty is a competitive advantage for any traveler of a long road, but he suggested that knowing when to quit is equally a big strategic advantage. The important trick is staying attuned to whether switching is simply a failure of perseverance, or astute recognition that better matches are available.
    • Match quality as a counterpoint to grit.

III. Quotes

  • We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.
  • 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.
  • Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. 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. Our conceptual classification schemes provide a scaffolding for connecting knowledge, making it accessible and flexible.
  • 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.
  • The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.
  • Whether chemists, physicists, or political scientists, 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.
  • 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.
  • Pretending the world is like golf and chess is comforting. It makes for a tidy kind-world message, and some very compelling books.
  • In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.
  • ...the bigger the picture, the more unique the potential human contribution.
  • The ultimate lesson of the question was that detailed prior knowledge was less important than a way of thinking.
  • 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
  • A paradox of innovation and mastery is that breakthroughs often occur when you start down a road, but wander off for a ways and pretend as if you have just begun.
  • Human creativity is basically an import export business of ideas.
  • Learning stuff was less important than learning about oneself. Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.
  • Struggling to retrieve information primes the brain for subsequent learning.
  • Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous, to use Darwin’s adjective, when examined in the light of more self-knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.
  • Like chess masters and firefighters, premodern villagers relied on things being the same tomorrow as they were yesterday. They were extremely well-prepared for what they had experienced before, and extremely poorly equipped for everything else. Their very thinking was highly specialized in a manner that the modern world has been telling us is increasingly obsolete. They were perfectly capable of learning from experience, but failed at learning without experience. And that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands—conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts.
  • Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines.
  • It is difficult to accept that the best learning road is slow, and that doing poorly now is essential for better performance later. It is so deeply counterintuitive that it fools the learners themselves.
  • The same medicine should not be prescribed for every athlete. For some, less training is the right medicine.
  • Learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.
  • I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.
  • Desirable difficulties like testing and spacing make knowledge stick. It becomes durable. Desirable difficulties like making connections and interleaving make knowledge flexible, useful for problems that never appeared in training. All slow down learning and make performance suffer, in the short term.
  • The world is not golf, and most of it isn’t even tennis. As Robin Hogarth put it, much of the world is “Martian tennis.” You can see the players on a court with balls and rackets, but nobody has shared the rules. It is up to you to derive them, and they are subject to change without notice.
  • It’s easier for a jazz musician to learn to play classical literature than for a classical player to learn how to play jazz...The jazz musician is a creative artist, the classical musician is a re-creative artist.
  • 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. You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.