BOOK REVIEW: Range by David Epstein

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldRange: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


The human world has been shaped in large part by a trend toward increasing specialization. From the agricultural revolution through Adam Smith’s teachings about division of labor to thriving medical specialties such as Gerontological Podiatric Vascular Specialist, the trend has been toward knowing more and more about less and less on the way to knowing everything about nothing. However, it’s become increasingly apparent both that hyper-specialization has its downsides, and that well-rounded generalists can solve some problems and make some innovations that specialists – blinded by their silos – can’t. Epstein’s premise is not that we need to roll-back specialization, but rather that we need to recognize what it does well and where it tends to fail, and to value generalists for what they bring to the table – which is often substantial.

If Epstein’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably for his previous book, “The Sports Gene,” which examined the science of athletic excellence. This book’s introduction sets up the discussion with a pair of sports-based examples. The first is Tiger Woods, a golfing legend who is one of the dominate forces in his sport. Woods is the poster-child for obsessive specialization and the frequently-cited (if greatly misunderstood and over-applied) 10,000-hour rule. [An idea that — on average — one needs about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of an activity. It turns out to be demonstrably wrong when applied to many activities, and seems to have contributed to a lot of repetitive stress injuries, if not mental health issues, owing to fanatical parents and coaches who bought into the idea hook, line, and sinker.] From his earliest childhood, Woods’s life was built around the game. The Woods case seems to bolster the idea that children who wish to be world-class elite athletes must focus their efforts on one sport as soon as possible. Until, however, it is juxtaposed to the story of Roger Federer, an athlete who has also been at the top of his sport (tennis,) but who took a much more meandering and varied route to becoming a champion.

The book consists of twelve chapters that seek to illuminate different dimensions of the specialist-generalist divide. The first chapter doesn’t dive into the arguments for generalization and well-rounded training as one might expect, but rather it shows how the idea that specialization is essential to success gained hold. The case that Epstein takes up to explain this tendency is that of the Polgar sisters, a trio of Hungarian siblings who became globally-recognized chess masters. Their father fought to be able to homeschool the girls (this was Cold War Eastern Europe — so doing one’s own thing wasn’t something one just decided to do and then did,) arguing that he could achieve greatness, launching his girls to the top of their field. The fact that Polgar succeeded could be taken as further iron-clad evidence for the virtue of specialization, but what it really does is to set up a discussion of how we might might go about differentiating fields where intense specialization is beneficial from those where it isn’t. It is convincingly argued that chess is not universally analogous to many other activities.

Chapter two explores the topic of cognition, and the effect that a general education has had on humankind’s thinking. The discussion centers on the “Flynn Effect” a steady rise in test scores that are supposed to measure innate intelligence (e.g. IQ tests,) but the fact that there has been a steady improvement on tests suggests there is something more at play than innate intelligence. It’s the third chapter that finally explicitly delves into the case for generalization, and it does so through through the fascinating case of a Venetian Women’s musical group that became legends despite the fact that: a.) they were only allotted a quite limited amount of time for music study given the competing requirements of their chores, general education, and other obligations; b.) even within the domain of music, they were famous for being able to switch instruments mid-act, or to serve as both vocalist and instrumentalist.

Chapter four completely changed my perspective on “new math.” I’d always shared in the widespread curmudgeonly attitude towards it, as if it were purely to accommodate the laziness of the youth, but I came away thinking about the topic very differently. The argument Epstein advances is that in a rush to teach the subject as quickly as possible, students of my generation were taught to memorize a massive number of rules and strings of sequences needed to solve problems. Because of this, such students had no intuition for why said sequences of operations worked – not to mention very little love for the subject of mathematics, which seemed both difficult and pointless [a deadly combination – either one of those characteristics will meet with limited resistance, but together they spell doom.] Chapter five investigates how use of analogies from outside a discipline can open up pathways to solutions that weren’t found from within. Chapter six shares a unique view on “grit,” the ability to keep digging through all the challenges to achieve a desired goal. Grit is typically perceived as an excellent trait, but Epstein shows that too much of some types of grit can trap people in the wrong academic field or line of work. There is a fascinating discussion of the US Military Academy and the Army’s attrition problem. They kept getting high-grit people who would power through the challenging parts of selection, but who [after great investment by the Army] would leave as soon as their minimum service requirement was met. It turned out the people they were paying the most to get into service were the least likely to stay, and the process they thought would weed out those who weren’t career material didn’t work at all.

Chapter seven tells the story of Francis Hesselbein, a housewife turned CEO, and how the exploration of one’s possible selves can help one achieve great and unexpected things. Chapter eight investigates a number of cases in which outsiders with broad knowledge bases were able to achieve what experts could not. Chapter nine discusses Nintendo’s path from a middling playing card manufacturer to one of video-gaming’s top names. They hired an engineer (a self-proclaimed tinkerer) to do maintenance of their equipment and he – ultimately — developed a principle that would turn into the company’s core innovation philosophy. It was called “lateral thinking with withered technology” and it utilized existing technology for entirely new purposes with respect to game play [e.g. the technology from calculators was put to use in making handheld videogaming units – i.e. the “Gameboy.”] This approach allowed Nintendo to produce at very low cost and to dominate the market at their price point.

Chapter ten examines the fascinating phenomena whereby experts in a field are often notoriously bad at making predictions about future happenings within their area of expertise. The concept of “foxes v. hedgehogs” in forecasting is discussed at length. Specialist experts tend to be hedgehogs, they build their forecasts around a pet hypothesis and then dig in and are quite reluctant to adjust to changing information. [Foxes look at many types of information and approaches, and quickly adjust to changing information.] The penultimate chapter uncovers another common defect among specialist experts, attachment to familiar tools. The central case of this discussion involves NASA engineers disregard of evidence of a potential danger that couldn’t be put in terms of quantitative data. A secondary example is provided by firefighters who literally couldn’t drop their tools [chainsaws, axes, etc.] when they needed to run to escape advancing wildfires. [I could see another example from my training in the martial arts. In learning weapon disarms and retention, it often takes some hard lessons for martial artists to not maintain a white-knuckle grip on a weapon that they don’t control and can’t immediately put to use – all the while they are tying up their hands, they are also taking a beating. Knowing when to let go, and change one’s tactics, doesn’t come easy.]

The last chapter offers some examples of generalists who achieved greatness by applying a broader understanding than others. The people who learn less and less about more and more on the way to knowing nothing about everything have their purpose in this world. There’s a conclusion that lays out some basic ideas for applying the concepts from the book. The Kindle edition that I read had a substantial “Afterword” that was introduced with the paperback edition and which examined some different cases to clarify the generalist advantage.

I found this book to be an enlightening read. It used many fascinating cases to make clear where generalists have particular value. If you are interested in where the jack-of-all-trades will excel, this is an excellent book to give a read. Along the way, it also lends insight into learning, innovation, and creativity.

View all my reviews

The 4% Rule, Yerkes-Dodson, and Finding the Sweet Spot in Martial Arts Training

I was watching one of Michio Kaku’s Big Think videos recently that addressed American science education. The question of interest was how America continues to do so well in science and technology given that the American (primary and secondary) educational system isn’t up to par in science and mathematics with its technological competitors. The bulk of his talk (re: the H-1B visa and importation of brain power) isn’t germane to this post. It’s Kaku’s mention of a second secret weapon that caught my attention, and that’s how America is able to do a better job than many of its competitors in identifying and nurturing top talent. While math and science education is better in many Asian countries, those countries (e.g. Japan, Korea, or China) don’t excel at skimming off the cream of the crop. Dr. Kaku explains that this is because Confucian values teach students to conform, and students are loathe to stand out–even for exceptional performance. Even if a student wanted to show their talent in hopes of having it fostered, the large classes, lecture-centric teaching, and testing of memorization and standardized processes doesn’t offer much opportunity to grow one’s individual strengths.


Kaku’s statement resonated with me because I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of traditional approaches to martial arts instruction. I’m particularly interested in the gulf between the traditional approach and what martial arts teaching would look like if one took advantage of the wealth of scientific knowledge about mind and body development. Most of the martial arts instruction I’ve received over the years is consistent with Confucian thinking. All the students are doing the same practice (or faking it to the best of each’s abilities if it’s beyond one’s current capacities), and each is trying to closely emulate the teacher-presented ideal as much as possible. There’s not much consideration of the individual student’s weaknesses or strengths. Emphasis is on trying to convey as high-fidelity a replica of the techniques that have been handed down through the ages. (While this may be a laudable goal, I’ll later offer explanations as to why I think it’s both death for retention of students and ultimately counterproductive.)


Let me first say that there are a number of advantages to the traditional approach to martial arts instruction. First, it’s easy to teach many students at once. This was probably a huge advantage when there were armies of men having to learn these skills. Second, [theoretically] it helps students reduce their egotism through discipline and conformity. The highly hierarchical nature of this approach means students spend years in a lowly position, with the hope that some humility may stick. (NOTE: I’m not certain that this works out in practice.) Third, it creates a disciplined learning environment that is conducive to helping a student keep his or her head in the game.


What the traditional approach isn’t so good at is producing students who all perform at the best of their abilities. I suspect that the traditional approach doesn’t do so well for student retention either. It’s a system in which new students are forced to drink through the fire-hose; while students who’ve been around for a while often feel like they’re stagnating.  As I’ll get to below, there’s good reason to believe that a proper match between the challenge of a task and the performer’s skill level is critical to creating an intrinsically rewarding activity and to helping students perform at their best.


My thoughts on this topic have been heavily influenced by learning and teaching yoga. While one’s vision of a yoga class may be rows of students doing the exact same posture (and huge classes and / or poor instructors may result in that condition),  but there’s often a degree of variation in a class. This variation results from two concepts that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately, namely modifications and capacity building.


Modifications are a two-way street. If the task at hand is beyond the student’s current abilities, he or she may be given an easier variant that allows him or her to work toward the fundamental form. On the other hand, if the task of the moment is old hat, a student might be offered a more challenging version on occasion. I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t drill the basics throughout one’s martial arts career. Repetition of fundamentals is key to drilling them down into one’s nervous system. However, the brain loves novelty and hates drudgery, and it will become harder and harder to remain engaged if the overall challenge level doesn’t rise. The science suggests that one needs to keep upping one’s game if one wants to perform at one’s best.


The nature of modifications in martial arts may not seem as clear as it is with respect to yoga postures. For randori, sparring, and other free-form training, it’s easy to envision how one can adapt the practice to reduce or increase the challenge to a level more apropos of the student’s skill level. One can practice a restricted form. For example, one may work only on sparring with boxing rules to kicks or grappling out of the equation until a student builds up his or her confidence and abilities with recognizing and responding to punches. Alternatively, an advanced student might be presented with armed or multiple attackers. There are some practices, such as specific techniques, for which modifications may not be an option, but that doesn’t necessarily let a teacher off the hook for helping a student who’s challenged by the technique. That may be where capacity building exercises come into play.


Capacity building goes beyond offering an easier modification to suggesting exercises to help the student build the physical capacity to do the technique repetitively WITHOUT INJURY. I emphasized those last two words for a reason. In some martial arts, the need for capacity building exercises maybe clear because of the acrobatic insanity involved. However, practitioners of more pragmatic martial arts may say, “We don’t do all those fancy spinning back kicks, so we don’t need capacity building. Anybody can do our techniques because they’re simple and direct.” Maybe that’s true, but if multiple members of your school have the same (or similar) repetitive stress injuries, it’s not true at all.


What kind of capacity building are we talking about?  If the technique involves jumping or leaping and the individual is gravitationally-challenged, then plyometrics might be the prescription. On the other hand, if the problem is the inability of the student’s joints to withstand the technique, there might be need for exercises that build up stabilizing muscles, help him / her to cut weight, or both. If a student can’t do a throw without risk of injury, maybe that individual needs to spend time practicing with elastic bands or inner tubes or working on their balance.


RiseOfSupermanWhat is this 4% rule? I read about it in Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman. As background, there’s a state of mind called “Flow” that’s associated with performing at one’s best. In this state of mind, which some call “the zone” and others probably once called satori or samadhi, one’s concentration on the task at hand is at its greatest, unnecessary features like sense of time and sense of self fall away, one’s inner critic shuts the hell up, and–at least afterwards–there’s a blissful state. Flow can be described as the shutting down of specific elements of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC)–largely involved with the consciousness mind. It can also be defined neuro-chemically by the hormones released (i.e. Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, Anandamide, and Norepinephrine) and neuro-electrically in terms of one’s brainwaves (around 8 Hz.)


There are conditions that favor achievement of Flow, notably: 1.) clear goals, 2.) immediate feedback, and 3.) a good match between the level of the challenge and the level of one’s skill. Flow is a key factor in why some activities are intrinsically rewarding (whether or not they are rewarding in other ways) and why almost any activity can be intrinsically rewarding if it’s sufficiently challenging relative to one’s abilities. What’s sufficiently challenging? That’s where 4% comes into the picture. While it’s by no means an exact or universal value, it turns out that when a task presents a challenge that is roughly 4% above one’s present skill-level is when this state of mind is most accessible. This is why one may see students drop out if they find the level of challenge stagnant. On the other hand, one may not keep new students either if the challenge is constantly beyond their abilities.


How about that Yerkes-Dodson? The two early 20th century scientists for whom the Yerkes-Dodson Law are named discovered that performance increases with arousal (one might do best to think of this as anxiety level rather than the colloquial use of that word) up to a certain point, beyond which performance either levels off or plummets–depending upon the nature of the objective.  The point is that keeping the training environment too sterile has it’s disadvantages. In free-form practices like sparring, a little nerves can be a good thing, but being overwhelmed can be detrimental.

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Adjusting one’s instruction to the abilities of one’s students is challenging. Traditionalists may hold that it’s far more important to keep the tradition intact than it is to cater to the individual needs of students.  That is, said teachers may prefer to focus on the aforementioned high-fidelity transmission of the teachings of the lineage. There was a time during which I probably would have echoed that sentiment. However, it increasingly occurs to me that producing the best and most engaged students is the best way to keep a tradition alive.