Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World – David Epstein

In a world that strongly believes specialisation and starting early are the routes to achieve success, David Epstein’s book Range is a refreshing departure from prescriptive decisions and clichéd stories. His argument that having a variety of skills and interests—taking the time to sample a variety of things — is better that choosing a specialisation in one area is appealing to readers like me. The descriptive stories in the book of two world class athletes, Tiger Woods versus Roger Federer, best explains this puzzle. I guess there is no this or that answer but the point is to find an enabling environment and to allow the individual choices before jumping in to make a decision.

I have seen families packing off their children to pursue either sports or music, the two common domains, very early on in life. This leaves the child with very little opportunity to choose what the child wants; they follow what the parents want. In Malaysia, I have seen young children being enrolled in badminton and soccer academies very early on in life. In India, the desire to mould an outstanding cricketer, a tennis champion, or an officer in the Indian Administrative Service results in three-year-olds being enrolled in coaching academies. Such situations, I am sure, prevail in most if not all countries. Why do parents want their children to start early and become specialists? The belief that starting them young and getting them to excel in a specific domain will lead to success or the development of one’s full potential is the primary cause for this decision.

The development of human potential was largely based on the 10,000-hour rule hugely popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. This referred to individuals whose achievements are outside the norm. To quote Gladwell “Practice is not what you do once you are good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”  The 10,000-hour rule was a magical number introduced by psychologist K. Anders Erikson, which is based on the notion that with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, one can become an expert. While Erikson later remarked that Gladwell had not interpreted his work the way he had intended it to mean, Gladwell went on to explain that he had included within the path to greatness the opportunities available, talent and preparation. The Epstein argument is that generalising rather than only specialising can also lead to success and is often better. He says that relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting but can be disastrous.

The Federer vs Woods story explains this challenge in a very simple and easy to understand way. The story relates Tiger Woods starting early and working on golf throughout life to become not just the youngest but also the second oldest Masters Champion. This resulted in the notion that any child can become a genius with deliberate practice when coached with error free practice. The fairy tale story of Tiger Woods excites people. The Tiger Woods story was deemed to be conclusive by many when parenting kids for success. The message missed was in the remarks by Tiger’s father that while he was convinced something was special about the boy and he spotted extraordinary talent, he let him grow his interest in that field. In other words, he did not make a choice for Tiger.

The Roger Federer story is a success story too but in a different way. Roger’s mother, while a coach, never coached him. He experimented with many sports before generating an interest in tennis in his teens. Many others around his age had by then focused on strength, mental and skills training and so on. Although Federer started late, it did not hamper his success. He has gone on to become one of the legendary tennis players ever to have played the game.  Two extraordinary stories of success.

It was clear both were exceptionally talented, and they had some luck with the way opportunities and the environment presented themselves for them. Tiger’s story and the research behind such success stories suggest that deliberate practice differentiates excellence from the ordinary. Epstein argues that when one examines the developmental path of athletes, one can find that eventual champions devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity they will later excel in. Instead, he says they go through a sampling period. Usually, they do a variety of things in a unstructured way or a lightly structured way. This is when the seeds of passion are planted. They gain a range of proficiencies from which they learn and only later do they focus in and accelerate their technical practice in one area. Epstein makes a strong case that young people need to be given time to find their calling in life and they need to build connections from different fields and cultivate a wide range of skills. This gives them a wider frame of reference. He makes a persuasive case for one to take time to sample and find “match quality.” Economists use this term to describe the fit between the work someone does and who they are – their abilities and inclinations. In the human resources world and competency movement, this is often called the “job-person fit.”

Making generalisations about success in some environments like golf and chess can be attributed to what is known as kind learning environments as opposed to wicked learning environments. Epstein contends that golf and chess are kind learning environments where the rules of the game are clearly defined. Coaches are there to give feedback to correct mistakes. One can learn from the experiences gained unlike wicked learning environments where it is impossible to predict what will happen next. One example is the Covid-19 pandemic crisis that is ravaging the world or a business environment that is very unpredictable. Psychologist Thomas Gilovich says, “The world does not play fair. It does not provide us with clear information to enable us to know better. It presents us with incomplete and messy data.” Today’s decisions produce results much later. While experiences help, no coach can give us accurate information or feedback on what to do. It is often judgmental, and this is where the experimentation with a variety of things, the sampling period, and match quality helps.

Many impactful individuals, like the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, had a range of interests and hobbies. He was a poet, writer, music composer, and painter. Elon Musk had an understanding of several fields and went to create multibillion dollar companies.  Steve Jobs remarked, “When we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.  If I had never dropped in on that single [calligraphy] course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.” Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert was funny, but not in the manner of a comedian. He was a cartoonist but not an expert. He had a business background and when he combined humour, art and business, his creation Dilbert became insanely successful. While all of these famous people maybe well-known for a certain expertise, they do not have the temperament of a specialist. They have a wide range of skills and knowledge to succeed in the wicked learning environments of business and life where rules are not defined. Chaos and confusion are certain in wicked environments where one must look at the world through multiple lenses.

At the University, I often have a few students who drop out of their studies after a year or two after they find out that they just did not wish to pursue that course any further. Usually, the reason is that someone had chosen the course for them, but they often remark that they had learned quite a few skills there that they could use in something else they wish to do.

In my own experience, I have shuffled between so many different things. Probably the sampling time that I took was much longer than some of my classmates. I had wanted to become a doctor because of the perceptions of some role models. My father encouraged me to become one, but I ended up doing a Chemistry degree to become a biochemist before giving up on that and moving to the arts stream to doing a Masters in Medical Social Work, then a Masters in Psychology before settling on Management and Education.

Along the way, I gravitated to becoming a teacher and that is what I did. Entrepreneurship was a by-product. Chemistry taught me analytical thinking, psychology taught me empathy and management, the art of getting things done through people. When I stopped training adults in managerial skills and training skills, and concentrated on growing an education business, I was asked once whether I had shifted from training to education. My answer has always been ‘No’; the passion and the expertise are in helping people learn. I found my match quality after a bit of sampling time.

After many years, while I admit that it is tough to be good at multiple things, it is not impossible. When training us in sports, the Jesuit priests in my high school would always have us choose three field events and two track events or vice versa allowing us to grow naturally. While Epstein is not against specialisation, and neither do I think one should be, I think his book makes a strong case for having breadth and not just depth in a hyper-specialised world. You can achieve success not just the Tiger way; it is often better to succeed the Federer way.