Book Review: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

I have always prided myself on leading a meaningful life.  Neither a Nobel laureate nor celebrity, but there is a sense of "balance" that makes my days mostly enjoyable.  A strong career, adequate finances, a loving family and fun hobbies all contribute to the experience.  Though not by design, I have perhaps a become a "generalist" in life. 

I finished the book, Range, a couple months ago and enjoyed it immensely.  David Epstein did a superb job highlighting the importance of generalists in today's world. Here are my key takeaways: 
  • The book started by comparing two schools of thoughts on raising successful athletes.  Tiger Woods vs Roger Federer, two undisputed all-time greats in their respective genres. What is more, Woods represented the deliberate training camp while Federer was exposed to a range of sports both from a young age.  This clever comparison intrigued me to find out whether range can prevail over focused deliberate training.
  • Epstein believes that deliberate training only works well for "kind" learning environments which have set rules.  Playing chess is one such example.  Kind environments allow the learner to grow his experience and expertise through repetitive training.  Much of world however offers "wicked" learning environments.  Curing cancer is one such example.  In these circumstances, having multiple skillsets and being able to transfer them in various scenarios often leads to better results.  In some cases, merely relying on experience actually hurts your performance.  I agree with Epstein's contention here.  He did especially well in highlighting the importance of "far transfers" in solving some of the world's most difficult problems. 
  • Epstein also claims that today's colleges and industries are too narrowly focused on specialized programs and job categories.  This gives rise to the challenge of connecting the right dots in order to have a wholistic world view for problem solving.  For instance, we know precisely the chemical features of magnesium and have derived many real-life applications for ages.  However, its use on treating migraine, a common but stifling biological condition, was only recently "stumbled across."  One can go on to claim that humankind has already built a large database of knowledge about our universe.  What we need to do more is to apply knowledge across disciplines to solve most of today's tough problems. 
  • Polymaths are generalists with an area of specialization.  The praises of polymaths were sung by Epstein.  Did you know that polymaths are the most successful inventors at 3M, a company known for its daily life innovations including Post-its?  I believe polymaths' success in the world is a no brainer.  This is because they are both generalists and specialists by definition.  Can't get much better than that!
This book brought home the triumph of generalists over specialists in today's world.  However, Epstein went on to highlight why we need both focused frogs and visionary birds to work together.  The frog has a narrow vision of the world from its well.  On the other hand, the bird has a broad view of the world from the sky.  When these two perspectives overlap, possibilities become limitless.  After all, when Steve Jobs and Wozniak came together, they founded the most valuable company (by market cap) in Apple. 


- PTS 

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