Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein

In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein began with a theme that resonated strongly with the liberal arts folks in our group.  Our schooling was based on the traditional notion that diverse strands of a broad education strengthen each other.  For some of us, that theme has been borne out by diverse and even checkered work histories.  We were pleased to have Epstein explain why our bias may be valid.

Epstein begins by contrasting Tiger Woods’s early specialization in golf with Roger Federer’s dabbling in many sports until he settled rather late on tennis.  Specialization and repetitive practice leads to positive results in what Epstein calls “kind” learning environments.  In these environments, patterns repeat and feedback is usually rapid and accurate.  Quick recognition and response is enhanced by practice.  Examples he cites are flight crews and surgical teams.  By contrast, “wicked” learning environments have a greater number of variables and are less predictable.  These environments value more intuition and judgment, which are developed better through a broader range of experience.

Epstein dissects the learning process, showing that our learning skills have evolved to keep up with the shifting nature of the problems we deal with.  Over generations, we have become better accustomed to abstract and conceptual problems, “wicked” learning environments, as shown by improved IQ test scores.  He shows that slower learning may be deeper learning – with implications for both kind and wicked environments.  He expands this thought through varied examples of musical and artistic development and unconventional career paths in other fields such as video game design, economic forecasting, and work team configurations.

He also shows how the accumulation of wider-ranging experiences can lead to changes in work directions and ultimately to better vocational “fit.”  Military service academies provide a well-documented basis for this discussion.  The early specialization of the academies does not lead to officers with longer service tenure, but rather produces mid-level officers ready to try other professional directions.  Other recruiting sources bring people into the officer corps with more diversity of experience and whose later choice of this career path often leads to longer tenure.  Epstein gives a related discussion of how “grit” adds or subtracts from performance.  Persistence can be a virtue, but so can jumping to a new career track which other experiences now support.  These “sampling” experiences also change problem-solving skills, with consequences in invention, incident management, and other areas.

Epstein’s writing is based on extensive review of scholarly work on learning and development, but presented in highly readable prose and laid out in engaging flow.  His conclusions are more like realizations that emerge from a review of the academic research and historical examples he marshals to demonstrate the points.  I never felt he was pushing me to agree, but simply showing me his way of view and inviting me along.  

Bill Smith

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