It’s long been said that a jack of all trades is a master of none. But the myth of the superiority of specialists is apparently based on limited data, and there’s plenty of evidence, now collected in a new book, to suggest that range is the true engine of innovation and creativity in the game of life.
David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, released in May by Penguin Random House, upends conventional wisdom about what it takes to succeed in postmodernity. While tiger moms and the golfer Tiger Woods were popularizing the notion that the best and brightest decide what to be as kids, drill vehemently throughout childhood, and quickly rise to the top of their fields by being gritty and focused, researchers have been studying the world’s most influential athletes, scientists, artists, musicians, inventors, and business leaders to see what makes them tick. It turns out that in many fields, being a bit of a dilettante, a curious late bloomer with multiple interests, is often the trick to excellence.
The book is an eye-opener for those who have submitted to the cult of head starts and 10,000 hours of practice made famous by Malcolm Gladwell (who is quoted on the cover of Epstein’s book, saying, “I loved Range.”) It’s also a bit of a balm on the wounds of any generalist who has felt “behind” in life because they didn’t alight on their purpose before they were teens, or switched career tracks, or—gasp!—dared to cultivate more than one interest or be more than one thing, including Epstein.
The writer studied environmental science, worked as a general assignment reporter, became a sports journalist, and finally found his true calling when researching great athletes for his 2013 book The Sports Gene. That’s when Epstein learned that not all professional athletes succeed thanks to their exceptional early focus. Some—like tennis champion Roger Federer—seem to have blossomed in one area despite having played many different sports in youth. Meanwhile, research on professional soccer players in Germany revealed that the best players were those who didn’t take the sport seriously until their twenties.
Now, Epstein’s an evangelist of range, the voice of the deeply superficial. He was invited to speak to groups of career-switchers and learned that, like him, many were filled with shame and regret over the very thing that makes them exceptional and necessary in a specialized world.
In Range Epstein makes a very compelling case for generalization. He provides reams of scientific data on education and professional excellence, showing that high grades and early promise are often not harbingers for later exceptionalism but can be signs of a mind too inflexible to innovate and too steeped in convention to challenge intellectual norms. He shows how throughout history dabblers have managed to connect ideas from different fields and thus changed the world, pointing to the 15th-century artist Michelangelo, who fancied himself a poet; Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer whose work challenged human understanding of the universe’s workings and spawned a scientific revolution; and the 19th-century naturalist, geologist, and biologist Charles Darwin of evolutionary theory fame.
Most compelling of all is the evidence that having a capacity for abstraction and the ability to transfer concepts is the key to success in our “wicked” world. While it’s true that some chess grandmasters and world-class athletes start early and drill hard, this repetition is only effective in golf or games with strict rules and easily quantifiable results, Epstein says. Those are “kind” worlds with limited possibilities.
In life, however, and especially in postmodern life, where rote tasks are increasingly automated and pretty much any fact can be discovered with a web search, the rules aren’t straightforward. What it takes to be great is intellectual flexibility.
Epstein argues that people who don’t have a strict plan dictating what they will be and a narrow focus on a single interest end up making amazing contributions to the culture because they can transfer knowledge from one field to another. They understand concepts and see how these might apply to other areas, whereas the specialists are so steeped in one set of facts that they may miss the forest for the trees. If you only have one tool, you’ll use it in every situation—but you can’t use a hammer to screw things and you can’t use a saw to hammer a nail, so the wise human accumulates a bunch of tools, and getting this varied toolkit takes time.
It’s more than just a pleasing theory for dilettantes. Epstein talks to self-taught music virtuosos, business leaders who never even planned to work at all, and scientists who were widely mocked for their unbound curiosity and ultimately, through creative experimentation, found solutions for conundrums that the single-minded couldn’t resolve because they never thought to look beyond the narrow focus of their knowledge. He examines research on the creators of comic books and Broadway shows, movies, literature, and art, and finds that the most innovative contributors move across genres instead of singularly drilling down. Being curious and flexible proved more important than having experience or expertise cultivated in one field.
Perhaps most important, Epstein promotes the notion that we don’t know who we are and what will work for us until we’re doing things. Life unfolds. We grow. We change. That’s why we need range. Perhaps it would be nice to determinedly move forward in a chosen field based on an early prediction that it will always hold your interest, but knowing when to quit can be as important as grit, Epstein argues. Until you find your match, which may not happen in your first college major or first job or even your fifth, you won’t know what you are capable of and there’s no need to force the question.
You have to try and fail, over and over, in order to occasionally alight on an exceptionally successful idea or solution or the job in which you’ll excel, Epstein contends. He cites Thomas Edison’s thousand-plus patents as evidence of this. They were mostly for inventions that were “completely unimportant.” As Epstein puts it, “His failures were legion but his successes—the mass-market lightbulb, the phonograph, a precursor of the film projector—were earthshaking.”
As a generalist haunted by a sense of superficiality, I found Epstein’s book refreshing. It is also incredibly readable. Still, despite enjoying it, I must admit I left it unopened on my desk for about 10 days while suspiciously eying the cover, with its telling keyring indicating many keys are superior to a master key and that Gladwell quote. And I read it with trepidation, fearful throughout that Epstein would replace the 10,000 hours of practice cliche with some other simple and trite formula for success that would ultimately undermine my ambling approach.
He did not, however. In fact, although people asked for just that as he was presenting ideas from Range at speaking engagements before the book was published, he resisted the temptation to simplify because life isn’t simple and that is the point of the book. We don’t operate in a “kind” world with easy-to-discern rules, and Epstein is not offering any.
Instead, Epstein promotes concepts. He urges individuals—and parents especially—to abandon the desire for instant gratification and easy answers as early performance on tests isn’t an indicator of professional success. He emphasizes traits over particular skills—be curious, flexible, open-minded, adventurous, experimental, and playful. Try and fail and try again. Explore. Read outside your field. Supply your mind with lots of ideas so that you can make the connections that specialists miss, helping you thrive.
Never decide you are too old or too late to the game to try something new. “The tidy specialization narrative cannot easily fit even [the] relatively kind domains that have most successfully marketed it,” Epstein concludes. “So, about that, one sentence of advice: Don’t feel behind…research in myriad areas suggests that mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power, and head starts are overrated.”