Range: An Important Challenge to Specialization Culture

How many times have you seen articles about how a 13 year-old is learning the math behind black holes? Or a 10 year-old who is performing at orchestras with his violin? These so-called child prodigies are revered for their excelled talents and practice to master their discipline so early. And rightly so.

But one can’t walk away from such an article without reflecting on themselves and those around them. Certainly we need to start putting our attention to some discipline and work diligently on it. And if not us, our kids and family should as early as possible. Then we can achieve great things like these kids will and contribute the most to the field And this philosophy carries over to our education system where we, as a culture, reward students for focus on a certain craft by practicing early and often. In fact, we are trying to push students to decide their fields earlier and earlier so that they can get a head start. Certainly the 7-year old kid who’s learning C++ will be one of the greatest computer scientists in the world.

Yet, David Epstein challenges this notion of success. Not only is early specialization not necessary to innovate a field, it is actually detrimental. Epstein shows that there’s an assumption made about specialization that we don’t account for. We assume the discipline is a kind environment. In a game like chess, hours and hours of practice will eventually lead you to become a master simply because you recognize the same patterns on the board. In this game, the rules are fixed and the mistakes are immediate and simple to correct.

However, most disciplines are not a kind game of chess. Epstein shows that the world is more wicked. The rules are not fixed and mistakes are not obvious to correct. Most fields are a game of Martian Tennis where we are trying to figure out how to win as we play. A solution to a certain problem may not work for that exact problem in a slightly different context. And yet, we believe it would due to our practice. We believe that hours of practice make us better with no question.

In Range, Epstein is masterful in weaving a picture of what actually differentiates the innovators in our world. From Van Gogh to Kepler to NASA, you’ll understand the stories of true game-changers and the limits of specialists. And then you’ll understand the data. Epstein is able to bring together a wide-range of studies that show quite clearly that those who diversify their knowledge, rather than trying to get ahead, succeed in the end.

I personally feel like this book came at a perfect time. As a student myself, the mindset of camping down and staying focused on one thing to succeed is very apparent around me. I’ve always naturally felt though that I needed to try new things. Constantly test myself in other areas of interest and see what I can draw from all my knowledge. Nonetheless, the pressure to pick one and move was certainly building up.

Epstein not only grants permission, but encouragement for you to delay your specialization, possibly indefinitely. Unfortunately, the flood of hyper-specialists in our world blind us to underlying problems that can only be solved by people who have a wide range of knowledge. That’s not to discount specialists of course. But there does need to be a restorative balance in both our education system and ourselves. If someone is not willing to settle in one area yet, we should be able to encourage constant switching and quality testing so they can make the connections they need.

It’s up to generalists to solve the problems in the wicked environment of our world.

If you’d like an in-depth look into why generalists succeed where specialists do not, you can find the book through my affiliate link on Amazon here. If you do pick it up, let me know what you thought through Facebook, Instagram, or by E-mail. I’d love to hear your thoughts and have a discussion on what might be the most important structural problem in our education system right now.