#Booknotes: Range

Range: Why Generalist Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein


If you’ve been trying to excel at something and have been burning the midnight oil to hit the 10,000-hour mark, Range might make you reconsider your approach. In domains where patterns repeat and feedback is both rapid and accurate, what author David Epstein calls “kind” learning environments, you can develop useful intuition through deep and narrow practice to solve problems that have clear boundaries and stated goals, much like Tiger Woods does in golf or Garry Kasparov did in chess. Specialists rein in the worlds of medicine and sports.

The trouble is that many of the areas where we work and encounter challenges don’t look like a game of golf or chess. Patterns vary. Feedback is delayed. Successful outcomes can be hard to detect. In these more uncertain, unfamiliar scenarios, what Epstein calls “wicked” learning environments, a deep and narrow approach does not get us the best results.

There are implications for how we teach, how we approach our careers, and who we hire to staff our teams. Just consider this: Nobel laureates are 22 times(!) as likely than their non-Nobel-winning peers to participate in the arts as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer.

As Epstein says, “Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skills to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.”


  • Kind Problems and Wicked Problems
    • Gary Klein research into intuition or naturalistic decision making
      • He studied firefighters and first responders
      • Those experts got very good at seeing patterns in their domains
      • Golf and chess are similarly kind domains with clear boundaries to the kinds of problems that need to be solved
    • Kind learning environments
      • Patterns repeat over and over
      • Feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid
      • Kind environments support 10,000 hour style learning with engagement in a particular activity with the goal of doing it better.
    • Daniel Kahenman did research into wicked problems
      • His first project was in the assessment of Israeli military officers. His predictions were awful.
      • Wicked domains have unclear rules
        • Patterns vary
        • Feedback is delayed, inaccurate or both.
    • Klein and Kahenman co-authored a paper saying that experience created expertise but it depended on the domain
  • How specialists fail
    • From Greg Duncan, education economist “Increasingly, jobs that pay well require employees to be able to solve unexpected problems, often while working in groups.”
    • Patterns
      • Chess players can memorize a board in a few seconds (they see common set of patterns that they use to make decisions), BUT if you show them pieces in random locations they are lost
      • Same for all of us! Try memorizing random words versus words in sentences
      • Experienced tax accountants do worse than novices at applying new regulations – “cognitive entrenchment”
      • Kepler looked for analogies for what he was seeing with planets – light, smell, heat, soul/power/spirit, magnetism, currents, broom, balance scales,
      • Functional fixedness – the tendency to consider only familiar uses for objects
    • Jayshree Seth when at Clarkson University – stick with in an area she knew she did’t like but already started , even thought she wasn’t that far in. Sunk Cost Fallacy.
    • Broader
      • Nobel laureates are 22 times are more likely to participate in the arts as a amateur actor, dancer, magician or other performer
      • An average adult today would have scored in the 98th percentile on a standard IQ test one hundred years ago.
      • BUT narrower specialization is making it harder for student to apply abstract concepts outside of their area of study (see James Flynn/NZ)
      • “Fermi problems” – back of the envelope problems that estimate big problems. The point is to show how someone thinks rather than an exact solution.
      • “Far Transfer”
      • Dedre Gentner – “our ability to think relationally is the reason we run the planet,” find surface analogies.
        • Adding one analogy improves problem solving by 3x, adding two analogies improves even further
        • Ambiguous Sorting Task – combination of domain (economic bubbles) and deep structure.
        • Laboratory research – Diverse teams with varied backgrounds that presented their unsolved problems to each other
      • Curse of the “inside view” from Tversky and Kahneman
        • The more inside knowledge you have, the worse your estimates end up (VC/construction/entertainment)
      • Einstellung effect – tendency for problem solvers to employ only familiar methods even if better one are available.
      • BCG created an analogies database to help consultants with engagements
      • Outsider Advantage
        • Eli Lilly posted problems for outsiders to try and figure out. The site is now called InnoCentive.
        • Harvard research from Karim Lakhani showed “The further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.”
        • “[big things happen] when an outsider who may be far away from the surface of the problem reframes the problem in a way that unlocks the solution.”
      • Napolean needed to preserve food for troops, science failed, foodie Nicolas Appert solved the problem
    • Outsiders make better use of specialist information. They also use laggard information in new ways.
      • Gunpei Yokoi at Nintendo committed to use technology that had already become cheap, even obsolete, in new ways to create their first electronic problems.
    • Eduardo Melero and Neus Palomeras – 32,000 teams at 880 different organizations – high uncertainty domains benefited from individuals that worked with a variety of technologies and more likely to make a splash.
    • Alva Taylor and Fredric Wertham – examined comic book industry, “When seeking innovation in knowledge-based industries, it is best to find one ‘super’ individual. If no individual with the necessary combination of diverse knowledge is available, one should form a ‘fantastic’ team.
    • Forecasting
      • Richard Tetlock – Good Judgment Project
        • General public volunteers outperformed experts by at least 30%
        • His team was so good they shutdown all other teams
        • Teams are 50% more accurate than individuals
    • We Can’t Put Things Down
      • Navy seaman ignore order to remove steel toed shoes when abandoning ship
      • Fighters pilots fail to eject from disabled planes
      • Karl Weick called it “overlearned behavior.”
      • Rather than decisions, keep “hunches held lightly.”
    • There is a difference between the chain of command and chain of communication
      • Himalayan mountain climbers–5,104 groups–found that teams from countries that valued hierarchical culture got more climbers to the cummit, but also had more climbers die along the way.
    • Less Is More
      • A study of young musicians found that exceptional players generally came from kids who started later and had fewer structured lessons
    • Teaching
      • Desirable difficulties – make learning challenging, slower, and more frustrating creates short term frustration and better in the long term
      • Hints short circuit learning
      • Distributed practice – create spacing between learning sessions
      • “For knowledge to be flexible, if should be learned under varied conditions.”
      • “Desirable difficulties like testing and spacing make knowledge stick. It becomes more durable. Desirable difficulties like making connections and interleaving make knowledge flexible, useful for problems that never appear in training. All slow down learning and make performance suffer, in the short term.”
    • Match Quality – degree of fit between the work and who the person is.
      • English and Welch college graduates switched more often than the later choosing Scottish students.
      • People who randomly switched jobs were happier than those who stayed
      • Teachers that switched schools were better at helping students.
      • Herminia Ibarra – “We discover possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” We learn who we are in practice, not in theory. “I learn who I am when I see what I do.”
      • “Outsider artists”, non-formally trained artists; reminds me of “self-published authors”
      • Howard Finster “Trying things is the answer to find your talent.”
      • “Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.”
      • Oliver Smithie – bring new skills to an old problem or a new problem to old skills

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