Book Review: Range Why generalists triumph in a specialized world. by David Epstein


Book Review: Range Why generalists triumph in a specialized world. by David Epstein 

Epstein summarizes his book in three words: “Don’t feel behind” (290). He continues:

“Two Roman historians recorded that when Julius Caesar was a young man he saw a statue of Alexander the Great in Spain and broke down in tears. “Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have [in] all this time done nothing that is memorable,” he supposedly said. Pretty soon, that concern was a distant memory and Caesar was in charge of the Roman Republic—which he turned into a dictatorship before he was murdered by his own pals. It’s fair to say that like most youth athletes with highlight reels, he peaked early. Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help. Instead as Herminia Ibarra suggested for the proactive pursuit of match quality, start planning experiments.


Epstein discusses the value and advantages of being a generalist. He quotes Paul Graham who wrote:

“Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway…

In the graduation speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: What should I do now to get there?

I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterwards.” (164)

This advice works for people who are not interested in specializing or unsure in what they want to specialize. Epstein provides numerous examples how generalists leverage their experience, skills, and knowledge from different domains to introduce innovation in new areas.

This ability, Epstein claims, is the critical advantage that generalists bring to our rapidly changing world. Generalists, though, need to be proactive in their pursuit of match quality and experiment with different jobs, industries, and experiences.

I recommend this book  — especially for people who are interested in a career change or contemplating different jobs or industries.

Some quotes:

“Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains.” (45)

“Jeannette Wing, a computer science professor at Columbia University and former corporate vice president of Microsoft research, has pushed broad “computational thinking” as the mental swiss army knife. She advocates that it become as fundamental as reading, even for those who will have nothing to do with computer science or programming. computational thinking is using abstraction and decomposition when attacking a large complex task. It is choosing an appropriate representation for a problem.” (50)

“Doug Altman: “Everyone is so busy doing research they don’t have time to stop and think about the way they’re doing it” (51)

Making connections vs using procedures. 

“When younger students bring home problems that force them to make connections, Richland told me, “parents are like, “lemme show you, there’s a faster, easier way.” If the teacher didn’t already turn the work into using-procedure practice, well-meaning parents will. They  aren’t comfortable with bewildered kids, and they want understanding to  come quickly and easily. But learning that is both durable (it sticks) and flexible (it can be applied broadly), fast and easy is precisely the problem.

“…excessive hint-giving, like in the eight-grade math classroom, does the opposite; it bolsters immediate performance, but undermines progress in the long run. (85)

“struggling to retrieve information primes the brain for subsequent learning, even when the retrieval itself is unsuccessful. The struggle is real, and really useful. “like life, Kornell and team wrote, “retrieval is all about the journey.”

“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. (92)

“Match Quality” – 128 – “is a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are– their abilities and proclivities.

“The crux was that some unanticipated experience had led to an unexpected new goal or the discovery of an unexplored talent. (145)

“It involves a particular behavior that improves your chances of finding the best match, but that at first blush sounds like a terrible life strategy: short-term planning. (145)

“Standardization covenant” – “It is rational to trade a winding path of self-exploration for a rigid goal with a head start because it ensures stability. “The people we study who are fulfilled do pursue a long-term goal, but they only formulate it after a period of discovery. He told me, “obviously there‘s nothing wrong with getting a law or medical degree or PhD. But it’s actually riskier to make that commitment before you know how it fits you. And don’t consider the path fixed. People realize things about themselves halfway through medical school.

“Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.”




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