DSM Griffin

Writing fantasy, sci-fi, and dystopian stories. I'm also a professional marketer, geek, and all-round good egg.

What I learned reading: Range (David Epstein)

The main takeaway of Range is that there is too much focus on the popular idea that those that specialise do better than the ‘jack of all trades’. The book makes this point well through back-to-back anecdotes, case studies, and summaries of related research that point to the power of generalists over specialists in various areas.

“Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.”

David EPSTEIN

Epstein argues that by building shallower expertise in a number of areas, an individual is more likely to have ‘eureka’ jumps in thinking by connecting previously unconnected ideas from different disciplines. This makes intuitive sense considering how many inventions and big leaps in science come about this way.

The problem is that many professions and employers actively discourage generalists and reward specialists. So how do you change attitudes and behaviours? And also, what is the ideal amount of Range to build before developing a specialism? Where is the tipping point? And if you want to develop your Range actively, what is the best way to go about it effectively (and not waste time)?

Unfortunately, Epstein doesn’t really go into these practical areas. The book is a great read, and you’ll definitely come away with a good number of stories and a strong grasp of WHY generalist knowledge is a good thing. But like me, you may be disappointed by the lack of practical guidance on how an individual (or even an organisation) can leverage this knowledge for themselves.

Sure, I can work this out for myself (more on that in a minute), but I do like a little handholding in non-fiction, even if it’s just some questions from the author to the reader as a thought-starter…

Practical takeaways from Range

As I said, there really isn’t much in the way of practical advice in this book! So from my perspective, I think the average person could improve on their Range by:

  • Active learning:
    Actively reading outside their niche. Some ways to do this would be joining a non-fiction book club, researching and creating reading lists in specific subject areas (I tend to look at what Masters courses have as recommended reading), subscribing to newsletters from other professions or industries, etc.
  • Passive learning:
    Ensuring their own network of friends/colleagues is broad and taking an active interest in their network’s work and hobbies. This goes beyond idle chatter and requires a person to take a real interest in why and how people do things the way they do – active listening is key.
  • Aknowledging blindspots:
    One of the most worrying points Epstein makes is how poorly experts predict future outcomes (and how much we rely on them) as they become dogmatic in their views and unnacepting of contrasting information. We all need to fight to remain open-minded, especially when tackling problems.

Would I recommend Range?

Yes, if you want to understand better the theory behind depth vs breadth of knowledge and how this impacts individual and organisational performance. No, if you want a practical guide on how to improve your Range.

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