I’ve always seen myself as someone with a ton of interests, with a lot of useful skills and knowledge but not a world class expert in anything. And while that’s served me really well, I sometimes wonder if it puts me at a disadvantage.
Fortunately for me, I recently finished Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, a thoughtful and comprehensive read by David Epstein. It made the rounds on VC Twitter this summer, which makes sense because venture capitalists, especially early stage ones, are very much generalists who look across a broad set of industries.
I recommend reading this alongside Peak: The New Science of Expertise — you can see my interview with the author, Erik Anders.
Here are a couple of my favorite ideas and passages. Anything in quotes is from Range unless otherwise indicated.
Tiger Woods vs Roger Federer
Epstein previously wrote a book on the science of athletic performance and has debated Malcolm Gladwell on what they call the Tiger vs Federer model.
Tiger Woods was famously playing golf and winning tournaments at a very young age, trained by his father. He was a prodigy and was dominant in the sport until overuse injuries and a bit of mental and marital breakdown took him out for some time—though he’s making a bit of a comeback now.
Roger was apparently playing a bunch of different sports including soccer into his early teens before deciding to really focus on tennis. He’s seen as one of the most dominant tennis players of a generation and at 37, which is old for tennis, still winning titles.
The importance of being able to transfer expertise into new areas
Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. Our most fundamental thought processes have changed to accommodate increasing complexity and the need to derive new patterns rather than rely only on familiar ones. Our conceptual classification schemes provide a scaffolding for connecting knowledge, making it accessible and flexible.
The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization
To work a modern-day job is to continuously be solving new problems you may or may not have past experience with.
The importance of trying different things and finding a good match
“The sampling period is not incidental to the development of great performers—something to be excised in the interest of a head start—it is integral.”
“The benefits to increased match quality . . . outweigh the greater loss in skills.” Learning stuff was less important than learning about oneself. Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.”
Turns out, Millenials and their job hopping / major switching attitudes are actually onto something!
Why sports are often not a great proxy for life: kind vs wicked learning environments
Startups, product innovation, investing, most artistic fields, feel much more wicked than kind to me.
“Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. In golf or chess, a ball or piece is moved according to rules and within defined boundaries, a consequence is quickly apparent, and similar challenges occur repeatedly. Drive a golf ball, and it either goes too far or not far enough; it slices, hooks, or flies straight. The player observes what happened, attempts to correct the error, tries again, and repeats for years. That is the very definition of deliberate practice, the type identified with both the ten-thousand-hours rule and the rush to early specialization in technical training. The learning environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better.”
“In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both. In the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons.”
The value of being a dabbler who’s widely read and has many interests
Sometimes what looks like tinkering or starting / stopping projects is just planting seeds for future work.
University of Utah professor Abbie Griffin has made it her work to study modern Thomas Edison’s—“ serial innovators,” she and two colleagues termed them. Their findings about who these people are should sound familiar by now:
“high tolerance for ambiguity”;
“additional technical knowledge from peripheral domains”;
“repurposing what is already available”;
“adept at using analogous domains for finding inputs to the invention process”;
“ability to connect disparate pieces of information in new ways”;
“synthesizing information from many different sources”;
“they appear to flit among ideas”;
“broad range of interests”;
“they read more (and more broadly) than other technologists and have a wider range of outside interests”;
“need to learn significantly across multiple domains”;
“Serial innovators also need to communicate with various individuals with technical expertise outside of their own domain.”
The value of analogies
Can’t find a quote, but there was a great story of how Kepler used a ton of different analogies before coming onto the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun.
Students who were faced with a business situation and asked to brainstorm ideas came up with more and more creative ideas when asked to think about very different organizations than organizations in that specific field.
Basically, there’s a ton of power in mental models and cycling through lots of different analogies when trying to problem solve.
When you want specialists vs generalists
It’s not that specialists are never good. It’s that they are most effective under known, specific conditions.
“In kind environments, where the goal is to re-create prior performance with as little deviation as possible, teams of specialists work superbly. Surgical teams work faster and make fewer mistakes as they repeat specific procedures, and specialized surgeons get better outcomes even independent of repetitions.”
“In low-uncertainty domains, teams of specialists were more likely to author useful patents. In high-uncertainty domains—where the fruitful questions themselves were less obvious—teams that included individuals who had worked on a wide variety of technologies were more likely to make a splash. The higher the domain uncertainty, the more important it was to have a high-breadth team member.”
Interdisciplinary thinking is often poo-pooed in the short-term, but more valuable in the long-term
“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.”
Students who struggle early on and make more mistakes internalize the ideas more deeply and do better in the long run
“Above all, the most basic message is that teachers and students must avoid interpreting current performance as learning. Good performance on a test during the learning process can indicate mastery, but learners and teachers need to be aware that such performance will often index, instead, fast but fleeting progress.”
There was a great story of how students who studied 1st year calculus with professors at the US Naval Academy who had high student ratings and good test scores — went on to underperform in years 2 and 3. They got fed simple tools to cruise through the answers but didn’t really internalize the ideas or struggle through more complicated problem sets.
If you work hard at your job, having lots of interests is (probably) not a bad thing and could be beneficial!
“Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets, or writers, of both fiction and nonfiction. And, again, Nobel laureates are far more likely still.”
What the world needs today
“While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases—as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part—we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.”
The danger of specialization
We can only advance and stay ahead of outsourcing and automation if we can adapt and solve new problems.
Like chess masters and firefighters, premodern villagers relied on things being the same tomorrow as they were yesterday. They were extremely well prepared for what they had experienced before, and extremely poorly equipped for everything else. Their very thinking was highly specialized in a manner that the modern world has been telling us is increasingly obsolete. They were perfectly capable of learning from experience, but failed at learning without experience. And that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands—conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts. Faced with any problem they had not directly experienced before, the remote villagers were completely lost. That is not an option for us. The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.