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Range: A book review by Bob Morris

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
David Epstein
Riverhead Books (May 2019)

“Obsolescence never meant the end of anything, it’s just the beginning.”
Marshall McLuhan

All of the best works of non-fiction are evidence-driven in one or more ways and that is certainly true of this brilliant explanation of how and why generalists usually “triumph in a specialized world.” Check out David Epstein’s annotated Notes (Pages 297-328) in combination with his own wide and deep research in order to determine “how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands hyperspecialization.”

That is indeed a formidable challenge, especially for those whose specialties — in fact — are or will soon become obsolete. This is a business world in which change continues to be one of the few constants.

Epstein wrote this book in order to share what he has learned about personal growth and professional development. For example, he is convinced that generalists tend to be better prepared to succeed than are specialists in a world that is, today, more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can recall. I agree.

He is also convinced that “it takes time — often forgoing a head start — to develop personal and professional range, but is worth it…learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.” I also agree, as does Aesop.

Mark Zuckerberg disagrees: “young people are just smarter.” True, a few are but consider this response from Epstein: “And yet a tech founder who is fifty years old is nearly twice as likely to start a blockbuster company as one who is thirty, and the thirty-year-old has a better shot than a twenty-year old. Researchers at Northwestern, MIT, and the U.S. Census Bureau studied new tech companies and showed that among the fastest growing start-ups, the average age of a founder was forty-five when the company was launched.”

It remains for each reader to determine which of the information, insights, and counsel provided is of greatest interest and value to them. These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the range and diversity of Epstein’s coverage:

o Science & scientists (Pages 12-13, 51-53, 227-228, 276-278, 281-282, and 284-286)
o Pattern recognition (18-19 and 22-26)
o AI and open-ended problem solving (28-30)
o Music and musicians (55-77)
o Django Reinhardt (71-74)

o Learning fast and slow (79-98)
o Education: “making connections” vs. “using procedures” (82-85 and 92-94)
o Analogical thinking (99-119)
o Grit (121-145)
o “Match quality” (128-129, 130-131, 135-136, and 138-1400

o U.S. Military Academy (132-135 and 137-140)
o Test & Learn model/Herminia Ibarra (160-164)
o Gunpei Yokoi’s “Lateral thinking with withered technology” (192-200 and 271-272)
o Predictions and forecasters (215-231)
o Philip Tetlock (218-223)

o Hedgehogs and foxes (229-231)
o Carter Racing case study (233-241)
o Challenger disaster (239-245 and 247-248)
o Wilderness firefighting and pararescue initiatives (245-248, 250-255)
o Experimentation (269-273 and 287-289)

In Future Shock (published in 1984), Alvin Toffler makes this prediction: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” That is one of several reasons why generalists will continue to triumph in a specialized world. More than a century before Toffler’s prediction, Charles Darwin offered another: “It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

David Epstein stands atop the shoulders of Darwin and Toffler. Those who read Range will stand atop Epstein’s shoulders, much better prepared to determine “how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands hyperspecialization.”

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