Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a World of Specialization by David Epstein

Apr 11, 2020

My father-in-law and I were swapping book recommendations one evening a few months ago. Although we both read quite a bit, it isn't too often that our book tastes cross paths. (We both love history, but he wants it dense with facts while I prefer it laced with emotion and drama.)

But one of the books he mentioned caught my attention. He said it was about why the world needs people who haven't limited themselves to one area but have developed broadly across a wide range of disciplines. As a parent who is always wondering if it's "too late" for one of my kids to try something or if we've made a lifetime commitment to something just because we've done it for six months, I was totally intrigued by this idea.

I also knew immediately, without even reading it, why my father-in-law loved it.

Because he raised nine generalists.

Mike and each of his eight siblings grew up trying a variety of sports, instruments, clubs, and activities. Their parents pushed them very little. If they wanted to try something, it was up to them to figure out a way to get there and sometimes they were responsible for paying for it too. If they wanted to quit and move onto something else, that was seen as both acceptable and normal.

Although some of Mike's siblings have been to known to complain about the lack of visible support or encouragement, it cannot be denied that every single one of them is talented, diverse, and not in the least afraid to try new things. Because of that, I would want any of them on my team, no matter the subject. There is not a better representation of a well-rounded individual than Mike and his brothers and sisters.

While I was in the middle of this book, Mike heard about a problem that one of my friends was having with the diapers for her daughter. Mike said, "The engineer in me says someone needs to design a better diaper." Before I even knew what was happening, boxes of diaper-making supplies started showing up on our porch.

I laughed and teased Mike for thinking he could design something that people who have diaper design as their job had failed at.

But then I read about InnoCentive, an organization that "facilitates entities in any field acting as 'seekers,' paying to post challenges, and rewards for outside 'solvers.'" Basically the idea is that if you have an unsolvable problem, you can post the challenge to this website, and then solvers across all disciplines and demographics can bring their own expertise to the table to come up with solutions.

The company was founded by Alph Bingham, a chemist who used to work for Eli Lilly. In 2001, as VP of research and development strategy, he "collected twenty-one problems that had stymied Eli Lilly scientists." He asked if he could post them on a website for anyone to see. Some of the scientists thought the problems were too confidential and also wondered at Bingham's audacity in proposing that just your average Joe could solve a problem that had evaded the most highly-trained and highly-specialized chemists. And yet, after Bingham launched the problems, answers started rolling in: "Strangers were creating substances that had befuddled Eli Lilly chemists. As Bingham had guessed, outside knowledge was the key." He said, "It validated the hypothesis we had going in, but it still surprised me how these knowledge pockets were hidden under other degrees. I wasn't really expecting submissions from attorneys."

I found this chapter, "The Outsider Advantage," so fascinating. And after reading it, I went to Mike and said, "You know what, on second thought, you might be the perfect person for fixing this diaper conundrum. You go for it."

The author made a point that I've thought about again and again since finishing this book. He said, "The bigger the picture, the more unique the potential human contribution. Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly."  In other words, if we put all of our time and energy into becoming highly specialized, then robots are going to put us out of a job. We can develop a machine to analyze data and solve problems with a narrow focus. It is our ability to gather and integrate information and think outside the box that makes us valuable. Gary Marcus (a psychology and neuroscience professor) said, "In narrow enough worlds, humans may not have much to contribute much longer."

One of the things I really loved about this book was the way that David Epstein approached this topic from many different angles. The book began with two prominent sports figures (Tiger Woods and Roger Federer), who represented opposite sides of the specialist to generalist spectrum. Knowing that David Epstein was a sports writer, I was a little worried that with an opening like that, this book would have a high concentration of sports examples.

But that was not the case at all. Epstein brought in stories from all walks of life (chess, music, science, sports, academics, medicine) and across cultures and history (18th-century Venice to Japan at the turn of the 21st century to Hungary right after World War II). It felt like Epstein took his own advice and didn't limit his analyzation of this topic to his own area of interest and expertise.

I had to laugh when I was at book club talking about this book. First of all, I was one of only two people who had finished it. Everyone said it was a little slow or too technical. They were interested in the general premise, but when it came right down to actually reading it, they preferred a summary. (This was not my "serious" book club, in case you were wondering.) I didn't feel that way about this book at all, but maybe that's because I listened to it (and at double speed, too).

Anyway, one of the women (the one who had actually read the whole thing) said, "It was interesting, but . . . it's just that he kept talking about chess. And I don't care anything about chess!" I maybe shouldn't have, but I actually retorted, "Isn't that the whole point of the book? That we don't limit ourselves to just our pet interests but read and learn about other areas? That we have range?" In fact, the author quoted someone who said that exact thing--that every day we should challenge ourselves to read about or explore a topic that isn't in our preferred genre. I found my book club to be an interesting social experiment. Much as we might like the idea of developing a broad range of skills, it is challenging to actually break out of our comfort zones. I will be the first to admit that I like what I like and would often like to just continue what I'm doing and not rock the boat.

That said, I felt somewhat empowered after reading this book. I often feel guilty that I got my bachelor's degree in something that I don't feel particularly passionate about. I mean, I thought I was passionate about it at the time, but I realized pretty quickly into it that my interest level did not match those of my peers. Maybe I should have switched majors at that point. But I actually quite enjoyed my time . . . I just wouldn't go back into the same field. This book validated and normalized those feelings. I am not tethered to that area just because I chose it once, and those skills will go with me in whatever  I want to try next.

The author quoted psychologist Dan Gilbert, who said, "We are works in progress claiming to be finished." This book helped me realize that who I am now doesn't have to be who I am tomorrow. I am a fluid being, a work in progress, taking in information and transforming it into something else.

When Maxwell was in third grade, I was complaining because I had a little cold. I said something like, "Why do I have to have this cold?" And Max, taking my question seriously, said, "I don't know. I haven't studied biology very much." I replied, "Maybe someday you'll want to be a doctor and help with these kinds of things." Max quickly said, "Oh I don't think so. You see, I've already devoted a lot of time to becoming an entomologist."

At eight years old, Max had already decided that he was well on the path to becoming an entomologist. But the beauty of life is that if he changes his mind at 12 or 21 or 35, he can do that. And you never know, maybe his knowledge of goliath beetles will help him find a cure for cancer.

Because that's what range can do.


  1. This is a really interesting concept!

  2. Excellent review! I remember that exchange with Max - haha. I’m curious what you would study if you could do school over again. I feel like we’ve discussed this. Library science?


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