“Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains."

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein, 2019


This book is an easy read. It’s well-structured with each chapter setting out to add to the case for avoiding early specialisation and silos of deep, but narrow, knowledge and expertise.

It weaves stories of artificial intelligence and open-ended problem solving, the challenges of using personality scales to predict success in US military training, deliberate practice in elite sport, creativity in the comic book industry, interleaving and desirable difficulties and the benefits of using ‘outsiders’ to solve industry problems. It’s enjoyable. For Epstein the challenge is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.’ The book makes the case for ‘range’ and although the author doesn’t offer a definition it seems to comprise the early, even deliberate, accumulation of experience and insight across different domains so that conceptual reasoning skills can connect novel ideas and solve unfamiliar, ‘wicked’, problems.

“The most successful problem solvers spend mental energy figuring out what type of problem they are facing before matching a strategy to it, rather than jumping in with memorized procedures. In that way, they are just about the precise opposite of experts who develop in kind learning environments.”

So What? 

If, as Epstein suggest, we live in a world of hyperspecialisation then we can become like ‘hedgehogs’ who toil devotedly within one tradition of their speciality, reaching for ‘formulaic solutions to ill-defined problems.’ Better to be like foxes, “draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradiction.’ Specialist knowledge is fundamental to problem solving but so too is active open-mindedness and a willingness to change. Narrow experience makes for better chess and poker players, where patterns repeat, but not for roles where the domain is unpredictable like, politicians, chief executives, activists, and entrepreneurs.

The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.”

Now What?

In some ways the book is an exercise in confirmation bias for generalists.  However, the big message would appear to be that whilst specialists dig deep into technical areas, increasing our knowledge and skills, generalists add by looking at disparate areas and finding bridges between them. Each chapter poses interesting questions for those in development or training roles. For example –

  • early specialisation or sampling?
  • Is your problem-solving environment stable or ‘wicked’
  • How desirable are difficulties?
  • Do you go internally or externally, narrow, or broad, for solutions to complex problems?
  • How readily might you be willing to abandon a cherished practice?

Worth a read, then a re-read.