Book Review: Range

Range is a book about the dangers of overspecialization.

The author, David Epstein, starts by giving examples that seem to disprove his theory. Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Gary Kasparov — each of these individuals specialized early and excelled in their respective fields.

  1. Tiger Woods was the youngest person to win the Masters, just three months after his 21st birthday. He had been playing golf since he was two years old.

  2. Serena Williams started playing tennis at age four. By the time she was eighteen, she was defeating top-ten opponents in professional matches. Two years later, she was ranked number six in the world.

  3. Gary Kasparov began his training as a professional chess player at the age of ten. By the time he was nineteen, he was ranked number two in the world. Two years later, he became the best player in the world — the youngest ever to hold the title. (okay, this one is my example, but still)

These examples share a theme: getting started early is an advantage. The earlier a child is introduced to their life’s work, the higher their chances for success. As a parent, the responsible thing to do is to enroll your child in activities with focused practice and help them quickly identify their strengths.

Right?

David Epstein disagrees. He points out that this style of learning is actually detrimental to long-term success outside of a few domains like chess, tennis, or golf. Most people see the popular examples of child prodigies and mistakenly assume that it was their single-minded devotion that caused the success. Instead, David argues that these cases are the exception, precisely because the environment that they competed in perfectly matched the practice exercises.

"The world is not golf, and most of it isn't even tennis. As Robin Hogarth put it, much of the world is "Martian tennis." You can see the players on a court with balls and rackets, but nobody has shared the rules. It is up to you to derive them, and they are subject to change without notice." (David Epstein, Range)

The rest of the book is filled with anecdotes of Martian tennis. I’ll admit that I wanted to disagree with David. I’m so desensitized to “anecdata” (i.e. cherry-picked examples that try and prove a point) that these types of pop-science books usually turn me off.

However, he caught me in a trap. Page after page, Epstein referenced ideas from people who I independently respected. Paul Graham, Philip Tetlock, Daniel Kahneman — these were thinkers who I had already decided that I agreed with. David just went and rounded up a bunch of their ideas that validated his theory. Not only that, but he fairly and accurately represented those ideas. In a kind of reverse Gell-Mann effect, I found more closely scrutinizing the ideas in the book, just to make sure I wasn’t being taken for a ride.

By the end, I was satisfied that his sources pointed to an actual finding, rather than a collection of coincidences. I’m forced to accept the premise of the book, which is that generalists generally perform better over the course of their careers than specialists.


Here are some of my favorite examples:

On scientific discovery:

Multilayer optical film is relatively cheap and can be made in large volume. Sitting on spools it could be mistaken for shimmering wrapping paper. It is a multibillion-dollar invention that is good for the environment. So how is it that nobody had looked at a plastic water bottle that way before? A recently published technical book for optics experts "said this technology is not capable of precision," Ouderkirk recalled. "It was written by a real subject matter expert. He's writing a whole book on this topic, so he knew his stuff. The problem is, he didn't know the adjacent stuff."

In 2013, R&D Magazine named Ouderkirk Innovator of the Year.

Over three decades at 3M, he was named on 170 patents. Along the way, he became fascinated with the ingredients of invention, inventive teams, and individual inventors themselves. He eventually decided to investigate those ingredients systematically. He teamed up with an analytics expert and a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. They found that it has quite a bit to do with "the adjacent stuff.

On following your curiosity:

It may very well be that if you were to take all the research funding in the country and you put it in Alzheimer's disease, you would never get to the solution. But the answer to Alzheimer's disease may come from a misfolding protein in a cucumber. But how are you going to write a grant on a cucumber? And who are you going to send it to? If somebody gets interested in a folding protein in a cucumber and it's a good scientific question, leave them alone. Let them torture the cucumber.

On novel ideas:

To recap: work that builds bridges between disparate pieces of knowledge is less likely to be funded, less likely to appear in famous journals, more likely to be ignored upon publication, and then more likely in the long run to be a smash hit in the library of human knowledge.

On working abroad:

Consistent with the import/export model, scientists who have worked abroad-whether or not they returned-are more likely to make a greater scientific impact than those who have not. The economists who documented that trend suggested one reason could be migrants' "arbitrage" opportunities, the chance to take an idea from one market and bring it to another where it is more rare and valued.

On vocational schools versus knowledge:

He compared the current system to medieval guilds. "The guild system in Europe arose in the Middle Ages as artisans and merchants sought to maintain and protect specialized skills and trades," he wrote with a colleague. "Although such guilds often produced highly trained and specialized individuals who perfected their trade through prolonged apprenticeships, they also encouraged conservatism and stifled innovation.” Both training and professional incentives are aligning to accelerate specialization, creating intellectual archipelagos.

On multitasking:

Darwin always juggled multiple projects, what Gruber called his "network of enterprise." He had at least 231 scientific pen pals who can be grouped roughly into thirteen broad themes based on his interests, from worms to human sexual selection. He peppered them with questions. He cut up their letters to paste pieces of information in his own notebooks, in which "ideas tumble over each other in a seemingly chaotic fashion." When his chaotic notebooks became too unwieldy, he tore pages out and filed them by themes of inquiry. Just for his own experiments with seeds, he corresponded with geologists, botanists, ornithologists, and conchologists in France, South Africa, the United States, the Azores, Jamaica, and Norway, not to mention a number of amateur naturalists and some gardeners he happened to know. As Gruber wrote, the activities of a creator "may appear, from the outside, as a bewildering miscellany," but he or she can "map" each activity onto one of the ongoing enterprises. “In some respects," Gruber concluded, "Charles Darwin's greatest works represent interpretative compilations of facts first gathered by others.”

On admission’s processes:

Griffin's research team noticed that serial innovators repeatedly daimed that they themselves would be screened out under their company's current hiring practices. "A mechanistic approach to hiring, while vielding highly reproducible results, in fact reduces the numbers of highpotential [for innovation] candidates," they wrote. When I first spoke with him, Andy Ouderkirk was developing a class at the University of Minnesota partly about how to identify potential innovators. "We think a lot of them might be frustrated by school," he said, "because by nature they're very broad.”

On foxes and hedgehogs:

The integrators outperformed their colleagues on pretty much everything, but they especially trounced them on long-term predictions. Eventually, Tetlock conferred nicknames (borrowed from philosopher Isaiah Berlin) that became famous throughout the psychology and intelligencegathering communities: the narrow-view hedgehogs, who "know one big thing," and the integrator foxes, who "know many little things."

Kahan and colleagues measured science curiosity cleverly, smuggling relevant questions into what looked like consumer marketing surveys, and tracking how people pursued follow-up information after viewing videos with particular content, some of them science-related. The most science-curious folk always chose to look at new evidence, whether or not it agreed with their current beliefs. Less science-curious adults were like hedgehogs: they became more resistant to contrary evidence and more politically polarized as they gained subject matter knowledge.

Those who were high in science curiosity bucked that trend. Their foxy hunt for information was like a literal fox's hunt for prey: roam freely, listen carefully, and consume omnivorously. Just as Tetlock says of the best forecasters, it is not what they think, but how they think. The best forecasters are high in active open-mindedness. They are also extremely curious, and don't merely consider contrary ideas, they proactively cross disciplines looking for them. "Depth can be inadequate without breadth," wrote Jonathan Baron, the psychologist who developed measurements of active open-mindedness.

On working with experts:

Narrow experts are an invaluable resource, she told me, "but you have to understand that they may have blinders on. So what I try to do is take facts from them, not opinions." Like polymath inventors, Eastman and Cousins take ravenously from specialists and integrate.

On being an amateur:

The word "amateur," she pointed out, did not originate as an insult, but comes from the Latin word for a person who adores a particular endeavor. "A paradox of innovation and mastery is that breakthroughs often occur when you start down a road, but wander off for a ways and pretend as if you have just begun," Lewis wrote.

On how people decide to make decisions:

Steven Levitt, the economist who coauthored Freakonomics, cleverly leveraged his readership for a test of switching. On the "Freakonomics Experiments" home page, he invited readers who were considering life changes to flip a digital coin. Heads meant they should go ahead and make the change, tails that they should not. Twenty thousand volunteers responded, agonizing over everything from whether they should get a tattoo, try online dating, or have a child, to the 2,186 people who were pondering a job change.* But could they really trust a momentous decision to chance? The answer for the potential job changers who flipped heads was: only if they wanted to be happier. Six months later, those who flipped heads and switched jobs were substantially happier than the stayers.* According to Levitt, the study suggested that "admonitions such as 'winners never quit and quitters never win,' while well-meaning, may actually be extremely poor advice." Levitt identified one of his own most important skills as "the willingness to jettison" a project or an entire area of study for a better fit.

See also: Patrick Collision’s list of questions