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Friday, November 01, 2019

Review: Range

Range is a book dedicated to the generalists, as opposed to the specialist. In general, society, companies, teachers, coaches and parents generally put pressure on their employees, students, and kids to specialize. The rarity is the liberal arts major, but even that's been going out of fashion of late.

David Epstein points out that the specialist domains like chess, music, and firefighting might be suited for specialization, but many domains do not. Even in music, early specialization might also not be helpful:
When Sloboda and a colleague conducted a study with students at a British boarding school that recruited from around the country—admission rested entirely on an audition—they were surprised to find that the students classified as exceptional by the school came from less musically active families compared to less accomplished students, did not start playing at a younger age, were less likely to have had an instrument in the home at a very young age, had taken fewer lessons prior to entering the school, and had simply practiced less overall before arriving—a lot less. “It seems very clear,” the psychologists wrote, “that sheer amount of lesson or practice time is not a good indicator of exceptionality.” As to structured lessons, every single one of the students who had received a large amount of structured lesson time early in development fell into the “average” skill category, and not one was in the exceptional group. “The strong implication,” the researchers wrote, is “that that too many lessons at a young age may not be helpful.”.. Those children identified as exceptional by [the school] turn out to be those children who distributed their effort more evenly across three instruments.” The less skilled students tended to spend their time on the first instrument they picked up, as if they could not give up a perceived head start. The exceptional students developed more like the figlie del coro. “The modest investment in a third instrument paid off handsomely for the exceptional children,” the scientists concluded... Nearly all of the more accomplished students had played at least three instruments, proportionally much more than the lower-level students, and more than half played four or five. Learning to play classical music is a narrative linchpin for the cult of the head start; as music goes, it is a relatively golflike endeavor. It comes with a blueprint; errors are immediately apparent; it requires repetitive practice of the exact same task until execution becomes automatic and deviation is minimal. How could picking an instrument as early as possible and starting in technical training not be the standard path to success? And yet even classical music defies a simple Tiger story.(Kindle Loc 1007)
And of course, once you wander off the domain of classical music into more improvisational arts like Jazz or Pop Music,  nearly no one is an early specialist! For creative work such as comic books, specialization hurts:
high-repetition workload negatively impacted performance. Years of experience had no impact at all. If not experience, repetition, or resources, what helped creators make better comics on average and innovate? The answer (in addition to not being overworked) was how many of twenty-two different genres a creator had worked in, from comedy and crime, to fantasy, adult, nonfiction, and sci-fi. Where length of experience did not differentiate creators, breadth of experience did. Broad genre experience made creators better on average and more likely to innovate. (Kindle Loc 3140)
The book covers topics as diverse as sports, scientific research, comics, and even describes the early history of Nintendo's foray into electronic toys. While some of these chapters are clearly central to Epstein's thesis, many of them (such as the chapter on Nintendo) fall wildly off the mark.

By far my biggest criticism of the book is that there's no direct comparison. You can pick the best specialists in the world and the best generalists and compare them, but that doesn't mean that one strategy is better than the other. What you need to do is to examine the number of people who pick one strategy, and what percentage of them succeed, and Epstein makes no attempt to examine those trends, and what has changed over time.

My own intuition on the topic is that in a world full of generalists, being a specialist will provide an advantage. In a world full of specialists by contrasts, generalists who can straddle multiple specialties and provide insight that might not occur the the specialists deep in their field will become more valuable because they have so many more places they can contribute. My guess, such as it is, in that in recent years, over-specialization has occurred to the point where it's probably more profitable to be a generalist, but that's speculating. I certainly don't have any numbers to prove it.

In any case, the book makes one exceptionally good point, which is that at no point is it too late to switch fields to see what's over the fence. To continue specializing past the point of diminishing returns is to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. That in itself makes it easy for me to recommend this book.

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