Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Published: 5/28/2019
Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you'll never catch up to the people who got a head start. But a closer look at research on the world's top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the…

Range by David Epstein

Key Insights

There is no single key that will unlock every kind of door. That is due to a basic principle: when something is specialized, it's not universally useful. This is great when we’re talking about the key leading to your front door. Not so great if it's your skillset. The book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World discusses the value of having a range of skills versus a single specialization. This can be crucial, especially since:

Specialization is not the only way to excellence

Take for instance: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. They have one big thing in common: they’re both star athletes. Tiger Woods showed signs of skill with golf from the time he was a child, practiced golf exclusively, and went on to become legendary. Roger Federer had a significantly different experience. As a kid growing up, he just loved any sport with a ball. It was a while before he was introduced to tennis. Instead, he played many different sports, even refusing to move into a more advanced tennis league because he wanted to hang out with his friends. This is called sampling, and we will say more about that later. He was a “late specializer”. Meaning that he chose tennis after trying out many different sports. After his success, studies began to crop up indicating this was the pathway of many experts in different sports. They tried out a bunch of different sports, then settled on a sport to specialize in later on.

Though some areas certainly do require Tiger Wood’s level of specialization, many others benefit from people with range. Range is the ability to perform many different tasks well. Roger Federer developed this by trying out many different sports in his youth before he chose one to specialize in. Often, people feel specialization is the only way to achievement or enjoyment. If you operate on this line of thinking, you need to ask yourself:

Are chess and golf representative of all activities that matter to you?

If so, then yes, specialization is important. In chess, this is essential. Kids have to be younger than 12 when they learn to play chess or they will never be grandmasters. Talk about pressure and specialization. However, even amongst these super talented kids, specialization often creates a reliance on pattern-finding. People who specialize can get so familiar with certain patterns and problems that solving novel tasks become nearly impossible for them. People who are highly specialized can appear to be superhuman: especially chess players and golfers, but they’ve just developed the skill of recognizing patterns. This can be helpful… but not always. This is because:

Unfortunately, the world is not golf or tennis, it's martian tennis.

Meaning the rules are constantly changing, and it's up to you to figure them out. In a game of bridge, when the rules were slightly altered, experts had a harder time playing. Scientists inducted into the highest-ranked national academies tend to have hobbies outside of their domain. People who could move from career to career, like from playing in an orchestra to conducting one, are only able to do it because they can successfully apply knowledge from one pursuit to another. They weren’t getting caught in rigid patterns.

Think of a man who has lived his whole life in the desert: He can be tremendously helpful if you land there. But if he were brought back to the city, he would have no idea what to do!

So, is specialization a problem?

Yes and no. But it's an issue when our whole society becomes focused on it… and to a degree, it has. In colleges, students tend to become more knowledgeable about one specific topic, their major. In fact, it was found that students in certain majors were not able to transfer the skill sets or concepts they had learned to understand or problem-solving in other areas of study. According to Flynn, they develop a “narrow critical competence”. Student’s aren't sharpening the tools of critical thinking to aid them in mastering any area. This becomes a big problem when you realize these kids aren’t usually getting jobs centered around their major. So they’re facing new and novel problems with no way to solve them. That’s a big problem. How do you avoid this? Sampling.

Start with sampling to develop a sharpened skill:

Sampling is trying out a lot of things and seeing what you enjoy. Many parents want their kid to perform like an Olympian, but they don’t realize that in order for their kids to perform like an Olympian, they must do what the Olympians did, which was often sampling different activities and trying out different sports to build a rounded competence.

An experiment by John Sloboda supports this claim. When kids in bands were measured for skill, it was determined that the ones who had structured lessons had “average” skills, while the kids who were exceptional (you guessed it) spaced out their time amongst three instruments. According to psychologists, the best way to learn is to have a sampling period, followed by a narrowing of focus, increased structure, than an explosion of practice volume. The more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example.

Just ask Jack Cecchini. He is a master at creating and teaching both Jazz Music and classic guitar. He was also self-taught, moving from instrument to instrument and developing classes based on a conceptual understanding rather than learning songs note by note. He doesn’t think about playing: he just plays. Cecchini states, “I get a lot of students from schools that are teaching Jazz, and they all sound the same. They don’t seem to find their own voice”.

He developed his voice through struggling and teaching himself.

Now, how can these ideas help you in business? Here are some key takeaways.

Key Takeaways

Don’t let blind optimism get in the way of success:

People have a very strong tendency to be overly optimistic about how successful they will be, or how easy it will be to accomplish something. When people focus on the inside view, they are unable to see the larger picture. Therefore, their blind optimism can cause them to make decisions that aren’t ultimately beneficial. This is an issue of focus, of not being able to think outside the box about potential outcomes. Sound familiar?

It's ok if you tend towards this mistake, many people do. In fact, Scottish officials who were building the New Scottish Parliament Building in 1997, they originally estimated the cost of building to be 40 million British pounds. By the end, it had cost 430 million pounds to make. Even after recreating estimates, they were still ultimately unable to successfully estimate how much the build would cost. This was due to optimistic thinking. They had enough information to make the correct estimate: they were just absurdly unrealistic.

Instead: Consciously put energy into being realistic. Compare what you are doing to other projects. See where they are similar. Don’t assume yours is better or different.

Don’t get trapped in an unsolvable loop due to specialization

Specialization can be helpful for solving a certain kind of problem. However, it can also be tremendously unhelpful for solving unfamiliar problems. New problems require new solutions. In studies where researchers who had the same specialization were asked to solve a novel problem, they weren’t successful as quickly as other teams comprised of those who had more varied backgrounds. It makes sense: if one person can’t solve a problem with one way of thinking, why would another be able to?

Instead: Diversify. Groups with scientists from a broad range of fields were able to solve problems more quickly and effectively. Why? Because they had a variety of skills to draw from. In fact, it is suggested that businesses should look to other fields for inspiration, instead of focusing primarily on their competition. Other fields can offer insight and creative solutions. So does harboring a “growth” mindset, where the focus is on faith in development. Improve on old skills and develop new ones to avoid the rut. It doesn’t stop there: ask different departments for feedback on projects, instead of only seeking feedback from one department. It's all about allowing different skill sets and specialties to mix.

Don’t rely on rigid bureaucracy to manage your team

If there is a single leader who primarily corresponds with upper management, there’s a problem. When this was the protocol in NASA, lower level engineers were stifled because they were prevented from voicing concerns unless they had some sort of significant data to back it up. This caused multiple serious malfunctions in space launches. Another area influenced by breakdowns in protocol is hospitals: doctors often miscommunicate with regular medical staff because they only have training and experience with other doctors. A significant amount of patient deaths are due to lower-level employees feeling bullied by doctors, therefore unable to stand up to them or voice concerns.

Instead: Make communication lateral instead. This means open lines of communication between the boss and the employees, regardless of their level in the company. Integrate early in the onboarding process for new employees so communication styles can be firmly established. Allow employees to voice concerns, and take them seriously.

Don’t be afraid to change directions: People are often told “Changing directions is dangerous”. However, research shows that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually become worse with experience - even while becoming more confident. A tech founder at 50 is more likely to have a successful company than one at 30, least likely is someone at 20.

Use Analogies to Help You Think

When Henry Ford invented the assembly line, he was inspired by meatpacking plants in the south. Charles Babbage was inspired by tools he saw in the weaving industry to create the difference engine (a giant calculator considered to be one of the earliest computers). Though what they saw was not directly applicable to their industry, they saw an underlying methodology that was useful. They successfully concepts from unfamiliar industries and applied them to their own.

Don't forget, it's ok to struggle.

Struggling is important. Kids who have teachers who give them too many hints teach the kids how to read the hints, not how to do the math. And it shows on test day. Even with monkeys, they are able to perform well after requesting hints but tested poorly. Studies were done on kids who had to recite word lists: one group just go to repeat them back, the others had 15 seconds to rehearse, the others had to do math problems. Though the first group performed better initially, the last group performed better after the kids were told the experiment was over. They had to work harder to hold the words in their brain, so the word stuck. Research strongly suggests the best learning road is the slow one. Training without hints is slow and error-ridden: and it's more effective for learning.

The key takeaway? Don’t be afraid to go slow, to redirect, and to sample new ideas. Even when you move from one area to another, the skills and development gained from that experience are not lost. Don’t take it all so seriously, and remember:

“It is all an experiment, as all life is an experiment”.

Main Takeaway

Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World focuses on people who have a range of skills instead of a singular specialization, and how this range can be incredibly beneficial, especially since Specialization is not the only way to excellence. In fact, there are many reasons that specialization can be a huge problem. It creates a reliance on pattern-finding. It can prevent creative problem-solving. Unfortunately, specialization is popularized in society. College students choose majors which specialize in one field, preventing them from developing many important abstract reasoning skills.

How can you develop skills better? Use sampling to develop a sharpened skill.

Now, how can you apply these ideas in business? Don’t let blind optimism get in the way of success. Don’t get trapped in an unsolvable loop due to specialization. Don’t rely on rigid bureaucracy to manage your team. Don’t be afraid to change directions. Use Analogies to Help You Think. Don't forget, it's ok to struggle.

The key takeaway? Don’t be afraid to go slow, to redirect, and to sample new ideas. Even when you move from one area to another, the skills and development gained from that experience are not lost.


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