'Range' Argues That Specialization Should Not Be The Goal For Most
Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
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A little more than 10 years ago, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell was published. Throughout that book, he frequently cited the so-called "10,000-Hour Rule," which stated that to master something, one needed to practice it correctly for that amount of time. That, Gladwell argued, was what successful people did.
It makes intuitive sense: If you want to get good at something, work hard at it until you are. Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World, a new book by David Epstein, a former investigative and science reporter at ProPublica, argues that this theory of specialization applies to a limited number of skills and fails to set its adherents up for success. What most people need instead is, well, range.
According to Epstein, the world for nearly everyone is not a place where specialization — which he argues leads to myopic thinking — is truly beneficial. His claim extends from individuals to systems, and he includes some striking anecdotes and evidence in the introductory chapter of the book. One contributing factor to the financial collapse of 2008, he says, was that "[l]egions of specialized groups optimizing risk for their own tiny pieces of the big picture created a catastrophic whole." Another anecdote he puts forth is that "cardiac patients are less likely to die if they are admitted during a national cardiology meeting" because the absence of interventional cardiologists reduces the number of stents used "in cases where voluminous research has proven that they are inappropriate or dangerous." These are compelling points, but they have that slippery feel that can appear in social science books. In this case, their perfect fit and a lack of cited counterargument signals that things may be falling together too easily.
Throughout Range, however, Epstein is meticulous and spends a great deal of time giving credit to dissenters where credit is due. For example, he shares the story of Lazlo and Klara Polgar and their three daughters, Susan, Sofia, and Judit. Lazlo hoped to raise a family of geniuses and that's what he did. His daughters trained in chess whenever they could — and it paid off. "Susan became the first woman to achieve grandmaster status through tournament play against men...Judit, at fifteen years and five months, became the youngest grandmaster ever, male or female." Sofia, by comparison the least successful, still reached international master status. This, Epstein grants, is a triumph of specialization.
He deftly flips this on its head, however, explaining the history of computers who can beat humans at chess. What repeated practice trains, he argues, is the same thing that computers are better at than people: tactics. Garry Kasparov, a grandmaster whose 1997 loss to IBM's supercomputer signaled something of a changing of the guard, set out to demonstrate this in a series of hybrid tournaments where humans competed with a machine partner. Epstein writes:
"Kasparov settled for a 3-3 draw with a player he had trounced four games to zero just a month earlier in a traditional match...the primary benefit of years of experience with specialized training was outsourced, and in a contest where humans focused on strategy, he suddenly had peers."
When the human-and-machine-team-ups proliferate outward, the results continue along this line. "A few years later...a duo of amateur players with three normal computers not only destroyed Hydra, the best chess supercomputer, they also crushed teams of grandmasters using computers." Epstein is always careful to respect the dedication and skill of the chess grandmasters. His point is not that their work was wasted but that repetitive devotion of this sort is only useful for training a certain type of skill and most things aren't like chess.
Epstein goes on to highlight numerous great successes made possible by wide-ranging thinking. Gunpei Yokoi, a graduate student and hobbyist, joined Nintendo in 1965 as a maintenance employee. An executive caught him messing around with a gripping tool he'd made in his spare time at work and asked him to develop it into a toy. Yokoi rose in the ranks after the toy's success, playing an important role in the development of the Game Boy, where his lack of engineering experience helped him resist the pull toward the newer technology their competitors were trying. Epstein is quick to also emphasize the essential role that narrow specialists played in the process. Another success he cites is InnoCentive, a company that connects entities with intractable problems with smart people who want to help solve them, for rewards, in their spare time. When the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard had those people who solved problems on InnoCentive rate how relevant the problem they addressed was to their own field of specialization, they found that "the further the problem was from the solver's expertise, the more likely they were to solve it."
Where Epstein's argument stumbles is in more artistic fields. The objective measures that he had been relying on to make his points are no longer as relevant, and they're less convincing as a result. Early on, he traces Vincent Van Gogh's creative life before he settled on painting, and uses Van Gogh's high number of paintings sold for over $100 million as proof of his prowess. Similarly, he cites a study done which ranked comic book creators based on the commercial value of their issues. Art's commercial value is not and never will be a useful metric of its quality and it's a shame that Epstein attempts to include that idea in his analysis.
On top of this, Range makes the same compromises that many books of social science make. Many studies are cited, but the size or repeatability of them is not mentioned. There are notes in the back for the more studious readers, but more rigorous in-text citations should be encouraged.
Despite these flaws, Range is a convincing, engaging survey of research and anecdotes that confirm a thoughtful, collaborative world is also a better and more innovative one.
Bradley Babendir is a freelance book critic based in Boston.