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

The Gist

This book suggests that early, or over, specialisation is problematic. It makes the case for maintaining the benefits of ‘breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.’ I think it makes a good case for being sceptical about many aspects of domain-specific specialisation including early narrowing of experience, models of expertise and leadership training. It’s well-written and well-argued with useful notes. Epstein is a journalist so not so surprising that he’s authoring a book on this topic.

What’s Good

It’s also wide ranging and evidenced. Amongst the many topics it covers are 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.  There’s lots to get your teeth into. I loved it.


Each Chapter uses case histories, some of which are well known and other less so, to offer an insight into an aspect of generalism. For example, Epstein shows how narrow experience and a ‘head start’ is useful for chess or poker but less so for predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform. In another example he talks of the complexities of a wicked world and how rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.

“In totality, the picture is in line with classic research finding that is not specific to music: breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.”

Something to Try

Invite someone who is not an expert in your field to give a view on a challenge you face. The outside view ‘probes for deep structural similarities to the current problem in different ones.’ The outside view is deeply counterintuitive because it requires a decision maker to ignore unique surface features of the current project, on which they are the expert, and instead look outside for structurally similar analogies. It requires a mindset switch from narrow to broad.