Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (Part I)

What type of experiences and training shape a great leader?  Is it someone who from early on studied leadership, specialized in the subject and has rarely deviated from their goal?  To be valuable as a professional and leader don’t we need to specialize?

 David Epstein does a good job of putting our common thinking to the test in, Range[:] Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York, NY:  Riverhead Books, 2019).  Epstein recaps at the end of his book what he tried to accomplish:  “The question I set out to explore was how to capture and cultivate the power of breadth, diverse experience, and interdisciplinary exploration, within systems that increasingly demand hyperspecialization, and would have you decide what you should be before first figuring out who you are.” [289]


The Value of “Range”

 In view of our current climate, “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.” [13] In other words, the head start has become sacrosanct and any perceived deviation for a career path is apparently time effectively wasted.

 Epstein is a contrarian.  Epstein endeavours to show that people have creative big picture thinking skills—not event machines can master that skill.  For example, “…the more a task shifts to an open world of big-picture strategy, the more humans have to add.” [28]  Epstein concludes that, “Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of specialization.” [29].  To emphasize the point he states, “…creative achievers tend to have broad interests.” [33]

 Epstein’s emphasis in his book is that high achievers, “…had range.  The successful adapters were excellent at taking knowledge from one pursuit and applying it creatively to another, and at avoiding cognitive retrenchment.” [34].  This makes sense but the world is calibrated in the opposite direction.  A simple example is the movement of MBA programs over the past generation towards a numbers’ focus which is then built upon further.  MBA programs formerly took on more arts graduates, but the trend has been to have more people with math, sciences and engineering backgrounds.

 Research shows, however, that college departments “rush to develop students in a narrow specialty area, while failing to sharpen the tools of thinking that can serve them in every area.” [50]  This is unfortunate as a rapidly changing world demands “conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts” [53].  Epstein notes that, “The ability to apply knowledge broadly comes from broad training.” [53]


Range & The Individual Path

 Epstein’s book has interesting implications for people on a personal basis.  Should each person maniacally pursue specialization in order to develop their marketable skill set?  If they don’t, will they fall behind?

 Epstein raises the notion of “match quality,” a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are—their abilities and proclivities [128] Epstein notes that specialization is fine if you are in the right channel.  But what if you aren’t?  He argues that, “Switchers are winners.  It seems to fly in the face of hoary adages about quitting, and of far newer concepts in modern psychology.” [132]

 He says the goal of people should be to find match quality; it’s hard to get it right on the first go-around.  Epstein states, “In the wider world of work, finding a goal with high match quality in the first place is the greater challenge, and persistence for the sake of persistence can get in the way.” [143]  Epstein senses a barrage of criticism waiting in the wings, and offers his preemptive strike.

 He argues that, “No one in their right mind would argue that passion and perseverance are unimportant, or that a bad day is a cue to quit.  But the idea that a change of interest, or a recalibration of focus, is an imperfection and competitive disadvantage leads to a simple, one-size-fits-all Tiger story:  pick and stick, as soon as possible.”  Epstein had cited the story of Tiger Woods who was a golf prodigy by age 2 when he began his training program.

 Epstein further notes that, “Responding to living experience with a change of direction, like Van Gogh did habitually, like West Point graduates have been doing since the dawn of the knowledge economy is less tidy but not less important.  It involves a particular behaviour that improves your chances of finding the best match, but that at first blush sounds like a terrible life strategy:  short-term planning.” [145]

 This will surely resonate with many people.  Some, but not many, individuals have a clear career path.  Instead, most people have a winding direction.  Epstein remarks, however, that “there is a cultural notion that it is rational to trade a winding path of self-exploration for a rigid goal with a head start because it ensures stability [155]

 This is particularly challenging for people early in their career who are attempting to chart their direction.  He argues that, “The most momentous personality changes occur between age eighteen and one’s late twenties, so specializing early is a task of predicting match quality for a person who does not yet exist.” [157]  As a result, “Because personality changes more than we expect with time, experience, and different contexts, we are ill-equipped to make ironclad long-term goals when our past consists of little time, few experiences, and a narrow range of contexts.” [160]

 Epstein argues that, ‘We learn who we are by living and not before.” [161]  He is not too impressed by many of the personality and strengths-based profiling techniques littering the marketplace.  He argues that all of the strengths finders stuff pigeon holes people that doesn’t take into account how much we grow and evolve and discover new things [161]  he recommend that rather than a “plan and implement” model that there should be more focused on the “test and learn” model. [164]

 In short, Epstein provides great food for thought.  Specialization may not be equated with expertise, excellence and superior problem-solving skills.  Instead, “range” is important.  The breadth of varied experience of individuals can lead to superior problem-solving skills and out of the box thinking.  Epstein’s insights have significant implications for people making sense of their life journey, how they function in organizations and how the lead.