Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World


Epstein discusses the pros and cons of specialization vs. generalization and which environments/tasks/situations each is helpful in and why

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Key Takeaways

  1. Tiger vs. Roger
    1. Begins with a comparison of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Tiger singularly focused and was hell-bent on breaking all records and being the best in the world whereas Roger played every sport and his highest aspiration in tennis was to some day, maybe, playing Wimbledon.  
    2. There has been increasing evidence that a broader range of experiences and sports which delays specializing in any one field or sport actually improves performance.  It takes time and delays initial success but developing a broader range of expertise makes you better off in the long run.
    3. The most effective learning is in fact slow and seems inefficient but it helps you make connections and deeply ingrain the lessons. 
    4. The danger with becoming too specialized is that you become a man with a hammer where everything looks like a nail. Rather, all you need to do is stand up and look at the field right next to you to find your solution 
    5. The challenge is maintaining an interdisciplinary mindset breath and range in a world that demands and rewards high specialization. However, in our ever increasingly complex and fast-moving world, there is an increased need for people with "range" - those who are multidisciplinary and can see problems and solutions from many different angles 
  2. Kind vs. Unkind Environments
    1. Early specialization is effective in what is called kind environments - those in which feedback loops are quick or instantaneous, the results are quite binary, and it is easy to pick up on patterns. Golf or chess are two examples of kind environments
    2. Unkind environments represent most of the world - the rules are unclear, feedback is slow or nonexistent, and it is hard to find the connections or patterns. In these domains, a broad range of experiences help with making connections and improving your pattern recognition 
  3. Flow & Deep learning
    1. A desirable difficulty is a scenario in which you don’t feel confident that you’re learning anything but you actually are interweaving different scenarios and options. It’s more effective than studying in blocks. You may not feel as confident, but when it comes to show time, you’ll be more prepared.  
    2. Deep learning is difficult and takes time and often very frustrating but it is the most effective form of learning. We should focus on these interwoven skills which are flexible and serve as scaffolding for later knowledge and skills.  
    3. The most complex skills take time and it is not easy to see or judge your rate of improvement or learning 
    4. The best problem solvers first spend time trying to figure out what type of problem they are even looking to solve and only then develop the strategy and tactics to solve it 
    5. Transfer is a mode of broad thinking which allows you to take the skills and knowledge you already have and efficiently and effectively apply it to new scenarios. This type of skill and knowledge takes a long time to build but it compounds on itself as it allows you to progress in many more domains.  Johannes Kepler was a master at this since there was no previous knowledge for him to build off of so he used analogies from far-flung domains in order to think through the forces acting on the planets and why they seem to move and act the way they do. He used the ideas of spirits, force, motion, magnetism, attraction, movement, light, smells, and more in order to finally arrive at his final conclusion. This reasoning by analogy to make the new familiar or the familiar new by combining it and thinking about it in a new light. It allows us to think through things we’ve never experienced before or see things which are invisible.  In today’s increasingly complex and fast-moving world, thinking by analogy is increasingly important as we are facing more novel situations than we ever have.
    6. Match quality - the match between what you do and your talents and proclivities. Switching is difficult and a short term sacrifice but over time it is the best route as you improve your match quality. Switchers are winners and too much grit is harmful in this way if you stay too long in an area which doesn’t suit you. It is amazing how often people who excel don’t have long-term plans but instead take each opportunity to learn about themselves, grow, add value, and make the most of each opportunity as it comes. They switch often and over time this increases their match quality and gets them in a position to learn a lot quickly and excel. Rather than a grand plan find little experiments that you can test and iterate and learn from rapidly. This is how people learn from practice rather than theory and is far more effective than trying to think your way into who you think you are - do and then think. Don’t promise or plan anything for the future. instead, live in the moment and make the most of the opportunities given you 
  4. Lateral Thinking With Withered Technology
    1. Shigeru Miyamoto, the brains behind Nintendo's smash hits, used an idea called "lateral thinking with withered technology." He combined cheap, simple, readily accessible, reliable technology rather than be in an arms race with having games and gadgets that only used the newest tech. This allowed them to produce things cheaply, making their goods very popular and allowed them to combine disparate technologies and ideas into something new and innovative.  He purposefully retreated from the cutting edge and found new innovative uses for old cheap ideas which had been proven and we’re familiar to people 
  5. Experts
    1. Knowledge is a double-edged sword since it could help you do some things but it can also make you blind to certain solutions. This is where outside-in thinking really helps - where you take solutions, ideas, processes, etc. from other disciplines and apply it to your own 
    2. Expertise can become dangerous when you see every problem as a nail. A broad range of knowledge across several people who can collaborate makes for the best teams and predictors. Specialized experts can be an invaluable resource but you must recognize that they can have blinders on. Use them for facts, not opinion. The best teams exhibit active open mindedness. They view their own thoughts and beliefs as hypotheses to be tested and not facts which they must use to convince others. Instead, They seek to disconfirm their beliefs and prove themselves wrong. This is not a natural mindset for people but it is far more effective. Science curious rather than science knowledge. Not what you think but how you think
    3. Hedgehogs see things linearly and causally relative to the field in which they are experts in but foxes see the world for what it is - complex and messy and interwoven. Being a fox isn't as satisfying, doesn't make headlines, causes for much doubt, but it is more correct
    4. The most effective leaders and thinkers are paradoxical. They acknowledge the complexity of the situation and how little they know simply doing the best that they can as new information becomes available and dropping tools that are no longer helpful rather than sticking to something simply because they are comfortable or familiar with it. "The old man knows the rules the wise man knows the exceptions," and you have to know when you’re dealing with an exception 
    5. The best teams have porous boundaries so that people with different skills can easily communicate, learn from one another, and break their own ideas.  Make sure to schedule in free time in order to let people's imaginations run free. Give them time to pursue their own interests, even if the immediate benefit isn’t clear 

What I got out of it

  1. "Kind" vs. "Unkind" environments has a huge impact on how you approach a field. Most of the world is "unkind" where feedback loops are slow (or nonexistent), learning is tedious and unclear, and pattern recognition is very difficult. Since most of the world operates in this fashion, it makes sense to have "range" - to be a broad based, multi-disciplinary thinker. Look to find ways to get out of your own bubble - read, do things, meet with people who you normally wouldn't overlap with. This process is slower and the benefits aren't immediately clear, but don't let this deter you. It is far more effective in the long run.

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