Book tip: Range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world by David Epstein

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Sep 25, 2020

Book tip by Mark Snijder:

“I myself sometimes doubted whether I made the rights choices. When I was studying International Relations, I had fellow students who were directly preparing themselves for a career in international diplomacy. They became members of student unions for international relations, participated in international UN simulations and chose an internship at an embassy. I didn’t do any of this. Next to my studies, I worked out five times a week and worked in restaurants and bars. And I followed extra courses in Religious Studies, because I thought that this discipline was still missing in the already multi-disciplinary International Relations degree.

Instead of focussing and specialising, I broadened myself during that time. Of course, both options of spending your student days are valid. But why does the first option often seem to be valued more?

This is the illusion of the headstart, writes American investigative journalist David Epstein in his book ‘Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialized world’. Briefly summarised, headstart means: if you specialise as early on as possible and put all your time and effort into it, you will get there. For some disciplines, this can work. But in the complex world in which we live, this does not apply for most of the disciplines and domains, writes Epstein. He therefore makes a convincing plea for range: a broad range of knowledge, information and skills with which we are able to find new answers to the complex challenges in front of us.

Because, Epstein explains, (hyper)specialisation only works in so-called ‘friendly’ learning environments. A learning environment with clear rules and frameworks, in which problems or challenges always come to you in similar guises, in which the consequences of your actions quickly become visible and in which you directly receive reliable feedback for your actions every time.

Chess is such a friendly learning environment. The board, pieces and rules are clear and do not change. You continuously have to act on the basis of your opponent’s moves, you directly see what is happening as soon as you have made your move, and you can endlessly practice with the (same) moves made by you and your opponent during practice sessions. In such a learning environment, it pays to practice for hours and hours, to narrow your view and completely focus on this one game with 32 pieces and the possible moves that go with it. In such an environment, you improve yourself by repeating the same activity over and over again.

But in the world around us, those ‘friendly’ learning environments are limited. We often find ourselves in wicked learning environments. In which the rules of the game are unclear or incomplete. In which there sometimes are clear patterns, and sometimes unclear, which sometimes repeat themselves, but also often don’t. In which feedback often comes late, is not accurate, or both.

Try to leading a corona crisis in the right direction.

The challenge of such a wicked learning environment is that experiences of the past only yield limited knowledge, information and insights for the present and the future. In the game of chess, you can practice with replaying games of decades ago. After all, the game is still the same. But if you do this in complex situations, you mistakenly assume that the world of tomorrow is the same as yesterday’s. At best, you are extremely well prepared for what happened earlier. But extremely badly prepared for everything else that could happen.

Epstein offers a fresh counterpoint to the dominant trend of (hyper)specialisation, for example in higher education. He convincingly explains that the complexity of major current social issues require a broad and transcending view, with one foot outside your world. That we have to learn to be cognitively flexible, so that we can adequately deal with ever changing contexts. That we shouldn’t make our children chose for one sport or one discipline at a young age, but that we should make time and space for a sampling period during which they can develop themselves in a variety of sports, instruments and disciplines. And that we must actively invite dissenting opinions and perspectives. Especially from those who have not specialised in that one field from an early age on.”