“Range”: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

By David Epstein

Riverhead Books, May 28, 2019

339 pages hardcover $28; softcover, $23; e-read version $15

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a nutshell: Reversing a popular belief, author David Epstein makes the case that having a diverse set of skills is more effective over time and more fulfilling than focusing on one.

Who’s it for: General audiences, recent college graduates, those embarking on second careers, parents guiding young children down the proper path.

Author’s quote: “Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.”

When I picked a copy of the recently released book “Range,” the first thing I noticed was a front cover endorsement blurb from the writer Malcom Gladwell that stated: “I love ‘Range.’” Gladwell made waves with his 2008 book “Outliers” which discussed how 10,000 hours of practicing one specific task led to mastery success in that field. The Beatles, for example, achieved their 10,000 hours playing in Hamburg, Germany nightclubs prior to their U.S. invasion. Bill Gates had access to a school computer at the age of 13 to gain his expertise. So it seemed strange for Gladwell to be giving the thumbs up to a book that advocates for practicing an array of skills.

“Range” does an admirable job of laying out how we got stuck in this world of specialization and why a diverse use of our time is more beneficial. To wit, author David Epstein contrasts the paths of golfer Tiger Woods and his tennis counterpart, Roger Federer. Woods was raised as a prodigy by his father to be a champion golfer; his life focused on little else. Federer grew up engaged in multiple sports and activities, choosing tennis late in his teenage years. Epstein explains that parents who push their offspring into one narrow field might give their kids a head start, but that advantage is eventually exceeded as their counterparts mature later on.

The Woods-Federer example also reveals a difference between golf and tennis. The repetitive nature of golf takes place in what Epstein calls “kind” environments, where there are fewer set rules and progress can be easily measured. This would be the same for a game like chess. Tennis, he contends, is more like the real world with complex scenarios based on the skills of a competing player and strategies that are more difficult to predict. These situations take place in what Epstein terms a “wicked” environment where generalists, or people trained with an array of situations, perform better.

“Range” features a series of fascinating stories mixed with scientific data to explain how a diverse skill set provides a well-rounded, holistic palette for embarking on a useful, fulfilling life. One chapter details an initially depressing story of painter Vincent van Gogh, who meanders from career to career with little achievement. Eventually his experiences and self-discovery bring him success in the art world as a post-impressionistic painter.

So what about that book cover endorsement from Malcom Gladwell? Epstein and Gladwell are friends who have had spirited debates about their respective fields. Likely they both agree that pushing children into one sport or activity early on is not the right choice. At the same time, once someone has acquired a broad set of experiences and skills, those 10,000 hours may be accumulated over a longer period of time.

Epstein himself is an example of the “wild” generalist model. A former senior editor at Sports Illustrated, his smorgasbord of life experiences changed his focus as the circumstances of his life evolved. With that in mind, “Range” provides solace for those of us who arrived late to their life’s true calling. Does Epstein solve the specialist versus generalist debate? Maybe not, but his mix of fascinating storytelling mixed with science-based narrative makes for a joyful book that most readers will thoroughly enjoy.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution based (CDFI) based in Marquette, Michigan. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.