PME Resources

Book Review | Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World

By Chris Field March 19, 2020


There are no instant experts in chess—certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade's intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions.

~ Chase & Simon, 1973[1]

We have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but we have no idea how to integrate that knowledge. We don’t train people to think or reason.

 ~ Dr. Arturo Casadevall, Chair, Molecular Microbiology & Immunology, Johns Hopkins, Bloomberg School of Public Health[2]

 

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell released his third book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Based on findings by Simon & Chase in 1973, Outliers argues that to master any skill requires practicing, the correct way, for at least 10,000 hours. In proving the ‘10,000-hour rule’, Gladwell included examples of Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, Mozart, law firms, and The Beatles.[3] Implicit in Gladwell’s argument is that success is the manifestation of specialisation. If you want to be among the best at something, you must focus solely on that singular skill.

In 2013, David Epstein disputed the 10,000-hour rule in his book The Sports Gene. Epstein argued that a person’s talent and potential requires more than simply 10,000 hours training and practicing. Epstein offered that we must examine both people’s software (developed within nurturing and supportive environments combined with training, opportunity and sheer determination) and people’s hardware (their genes as a product of nature).[4]

The publication of Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success and Epstein’s The Sports Gene led to a connection and then debates between both authors.[5] Following the debates, a friendship formed. Epstein explains that, like many debates, disagreements and partnerships in life, The Sports Gene exists in creative harmony with Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success and the 10,000-hour rule:

[During our debates] … we could have viewed our ideas as in zero-sum competition. But we didn’t. We viewed it as an opportunity to engage in more discussion—often politely antagonistic but very productive discussion—and consequently we learned from one another. [This] set in motion what became not only a productive intellectual relationship, but also a model of how two people publicly associated with certain ideas can engage without forcing zero-sum competition.[6]

Inspired by ideas generated from the Gladwell-Epstein debates, Epstein wrote Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World. Furthering the utility of creative harmony, Malcolm Gladwell concurs with Epstein on the unnecessarily combative nature of zero-sum competition, stating that Epstein’s book ‘makes me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong. I loved Range.’

 
Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World

No tool is omnicompetent. There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors.

~ Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, 1934[7]

 

Through Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World, David Epstein articulates the challenge we all face in determining ‘how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and broad conceptual skills, in a world that increasingly incentivises, even demands, hyperspecialisation’. In examining hyperspecialisation, Epstein notes that specialists:

  • Excel in ‘kind’ domains and complicated learning environments, rewarding deliberate practice with improvement ‘defined by rules and boundaries, repeated patterns, rapid accurate feedback’ and ‘robust statistical regularities’ such as tactics, surgery, accounting, chess, golf, bridge, poker, classical music and firefighting.
  • Excel in tidy solutions, low on uncertainty and high on efficiency.
  • Excel in ‘single-loop learning’, where learning favours the ‘first familiar solution that comes to mind’.

Epstein also articulates the risks of hyperspecialisation, where specialists:

  • Fail in ‘wicked’ domains and complex learning environments, involving human behaviour and human endeavour, where the ‘rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious’, and feedback is ‘often delayed, inaccurate, or both’, such as strategy, politics, finance, hospital emergency rooms, solving disease or war.
  • Fail in problems requiring disorderly cognitive detours, breadth and experimentation.
  • Nurture ‘cognitive entrenchment’ employing a ‘system of parallel trenches in the quest for innovation’ where ‘everyone is digging deeper into their trench and rarely standing up’ to see alternate concepts, ideas and solutions in other domains.
  • See ‘a smaller and smaller part of a larger puzzle’, where specialists cannot see and understand the complexity of interconnected systems.
  • Create knowledge silos, where specialised organisational elements work against the progress and success of others. For example, in the 2008 global financial crisis ‘insurance regulators regulated insurance, bank regulators regulated banks, securities regulators regulated securities, and consumer regulators regulated consumers – but the provision of credit goes across all those markets… [meaning] the specialised approach to regulation missed systemic issues’.

Following Epstein’s examination of hyperspecialisation, Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World provides seven ideas for us to consider when creating our own ‘range’. The aim of these seven ideas is for us to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, broad conceptual skills and interdisciplinary thinking, through developing:

1.    Creative achievers who ‘tend to have broad interests…supporting insights that cannot be attributed to domain specific expertise alone’. For example ‘compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer’.

2.    Elite athletes and musicians typically ‘devote less time early [in their youth] to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts’, instead they undergo a ‘sampling period’ where they:

  • Play a variety of sports or instruments, in unstructured or lightly structured environments. Don’t think about playing – just play.
  • Learn-to-learn though gaining a range of experience and physical proficiencies from which they can draw.
  • Delay commencing specific skills training which requires narrowing focus, increased structure and additional practice.  

3.    Learning in multiple contexts, through challenging learners to ‘grapple with some confusion’ and ‘desirable difficulties’.[8] This empowers learners in ‘making-connections’ with broad concepts, instead of mechanically ‘using-procedures’ to ‘interpret current performance as learning’. Making-connections and critical thinking enable a learner to create abstract models without relying on specific examples or learning prompts. In turn, learners improve ‘applying their knowledge to a situation they have not seen before, which is the essence of creativity’.

4.    Flexible Knowledge where learning occurs under varied conditions of mixed-practice or ‘interleaving’. Enhancing inductive reasoning, interleaving ‘presents different examples mixed together and students learn to create abstract generalisations’ allowing them to ‘differentiate types of problems’ and apply what they learned to material they have not previously encountered. The most successful problem solvers, ‘spend mental energy finding out what type of problem they are facing’ before matching a solution to it, ‘rather than jumping in with memorised procedures’.

5.    Analogical thinking is the practice of ‘recognising conceptual similarities in multiple-domains or scenarios’ that may seem, on the surface, to have little in common. Analogical thinking is a ‘powerful tool for solving wicked problems’. This thinking allows us, as humans, to ‘reason through problems we have never seen in unfamiliar contexts’ and ‘understand that which we cannot see at all’.

6.    Lateral thinking with withered technology devised by Gunpei Yokoi. He combined ideas on ‘lateral thinking’ from Alex F. Osborn's, Your Creative Power: How to Use Imagination (1948), and Edward de Bono's, The Use of Lateral Thinking (1967), such as ‘reimaging information in new contexts’, with ‘withered technology’ which is mature ‘technology [that is] extremely well understood, easily available and does not require a specialist’s knowledge’. Yokoi employed ‘cheap [or obsolete], simple technology to use in ways not previously considered’. This technology included Game Boy, by Nintendo, which was ‘cheap…could fit in a large pocket… [is] all but indestructible’ and requires only ‘AA batteries’.

7.    Critical assessments of ‘organisational congruence’ is the cultural ‘fit’ of people with an organisation’s components – ‘values, goals, vision, self-concepts and leadership styles’. Since the 1980s, ‘congruence has been a pillar of organisational theory’.[9] However, there are team and mission risks in rigid adherence, in all circumstances, to established organisational congruence or ‘overlearned behaviour’. For example:

  • NASA’s early 1980s organisational congruence of technical quantitative analysis, where engineers produced data to support their assertions, worked effectively in supporting the first 24 space shuttle flights.
  • Unfortunately, the 1986 space shuttle Challenger low temperature O-ring gas leakage problem was ambiguous, wicked, uncertain and outside the previous experience of NASA engineers.
  • In the ‘face of an unfamiliar challenge, NASA managers failed to drop their familiar [quantitative analysis] tools’ and accept qualitative analysis (a photograph of leaking gas) resulting in the loss, on 28 January 1986, of seven lives within 73 seconds of the launch of the Challenger.
  • At NASA, ‘accepting a qualitative argument was like being told to forget you are an engineer’.
Conclusion

David Epstein’s seven ideas to create our own ‘range’ through maintaining the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, broad conceptual skills and interdisciplinary thinking are somewhat daunting. This is especially true for those of us raised in environments that increasingly incentivise - even demand - hyperspecialisation.

To counter the daunting prospect of embracing ‘range’, Epstein’s advice to us is to slow down. He recommends that we each:

…compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger [or older] people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.

Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World concludes that ‘there is nothing inherently wrong with specialisation…we all specialise to one degree of another, at some point of other’. Epstein argues that creative harmony between ideas, as demonstrated in the Gladwell-Epstein debates, without zero-sum competition is healthy for organisations and for our people.

Both Malcolm Gladwell and David Epstein emphasise that we waste energy, stifle innovation and create confusion when we assume the unnecessarily combative nature of zero-sum competition.

 

End Notes:

[1] Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. Perception in chess. Cognitive Psychology, 4, 1973, 55–81

[2] David Epstein, Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World, Macmillan, 2019, p. 277

[3] Neel Dozome, The 10,000 Hour Rule is Dead, David Epstein builds a convincing case that all work and no play is the path to mediocrity, Medium, The Startup, 13 October 2019 <https://medium.com/swlh/the-10-000-hour-rule-is-dead-6fe781735569> [accessed 26 February 2020]

[4] Richard Moore, The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete by David Epstein, The Guardian, 22 August 2013

<https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/22/sports-gene-david-epstein-review> [accessed 27 February 2020]

[5] See the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, 10,000 Hours vs. The Sports Gene, 10 March 2014 <http://www.sloansportsconference.com/content/10000-hours-vs-the-sports-gene/> [accessed 04 March 2020]

[6] The Daily Stoic, How to be Proven Wrong, 19 February 2020 <https://dailystoic.com/how-to-be-proven-wrong/> [accessed 26 February 2020]

[7] Ian Beacock, ed. Sam Haselby, Humanist among machines: As the dreams of Silicon Valley fill our world, could the dowdy historian Arnold Toynbee help prevent a nightmare?, Aeon Media Group Ltd, Melbourne, 25 June 2015 <https://aeon.co/essays/arnold-toynbee-shines-a-light-on-the-humanities-role-today> [accessed 27 February 2020]

[8] Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A., Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.) & FABBS Foundation, Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, Worth Publishers, 2011, pp. 56–64

[9] For example:

  • Nadler, D.A. and Tushman, M.L., A Congruence Model for Organizational Assessment, in Lawler, E.E., Nadler, D.A., and Cammann, C., eds.  Organizational Assessment: Perspectives on the Management of Organizational Behaviour and the Quality of Working Life.  New York:  John Wiley; 1980
  • Deal, T.E. and Kennedy, A.A.  Corporate Cultures:  The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life.  Reading, MA:  Perseus Books, 1982

 

 


Portrait

Biography

Chris Field

Major General Chris Field is Deputy Commanding General, Operations, US Army Central.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



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