Book Review — Range by David Epstein
This morning, I finished reading Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein, an American journalist who previously worked as an investigative reporter at ProPublica and Sports Illustrated. The book was written in 2019.
After reading the first 80 pages of the book, I told a friend that this is one of the most profound books I have read in a long time. However, when I reached around the 120th page, punctuated by reading For The Good of the Nation by Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the drama of the presidential elections, I was no longer sure.
I will start by talking about how profound the book is: The widely accepted 10,000-hour rule (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell) suggests that to become an expert in any field, one needs to put in a lot of practice and repetition. This has led many to believe that starting early and focusing on one area is the best way to achieve expertise. However, David Epstein challenges this notion and argues that breadth of practice is just as important as depth.
Epstein’s first argument is that 10,000 hours of practice is a long time, and it requires a lot of dedicated work. Therefore, it is essential to be engaged with the topic, and if one hasn’t decided on a specific area, it is beneficial to survey the field to discover what one wants to do. Epstein gives examples of world-class athletes who engaged in several sports initially and world-class musicians who played several instruments before they focused on one. He also gives examples of people who tried a range of occupations before discovering their vocation, flitting from job to job until they found their life’s work. This makes so much sense. Why go dedicatedly on a path without trying other things only to find out much later in life that what one had devoted their life to is not the optimal use of their talent and innate ability? The example of an athlete like Roger Federer, who dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming, skateboarding, basketball, handball, table tennis, badminton, and football before ultimately deciding on tennis, is thought-provoking. Despite deciding on tennis in his teens when others had started way earlier, it didn’t seem to hamper his development in the long run.
Epstein’s second argument is that 10,000 hours of practice works in relatively simple fields where practitioners get immediate feedback, and the topic is clear. However, many disciplines today involve wicked problems that have no clear markers of success, an ill-defined boundary, and can limit solution approaches. In these circumstances, breadth of experience is an advantage. Unlike chess and golf where the rules are clear and defined, much of life is chaotic, and it is best to try several paths before zoning in on one’s path. The discussion about premodern societies who could not group colours together caused me to gasp.
Yet, after reading to the middle of the book, something conflicting about the ideas in the book emerged. Epstein attributed the German success at the 2014 World Cup to a bunch of late specializers who didn’t play more organized football than amateur-league players until age twenty-two or later. I knew this was not true. I have followed football long enough to know that Manuel Neuer and Mats Hummels played U20. So, I looked up the rest of the squad. Hummels played U20, Ozil played U19, Khedira played U17, Schweinsteiger played U16, Gotze played U15. Philipp Lahm, the captain of the team, played U17. All of them were attached to major German teams. So, it kept me wondering what other things I’m unfamiliar with that are false he is using to buttress his point.
Also, I noticed some survival bias in his samples. Demonstrating examples of successful individuals who switched jobs frequently before achieving their ultimate success does not necessarily indicate that changing jobs frequently will lead to success. In an ironic twist, he employs these examples to challenge the prevailing narrative that simply emulating the practices of successful CEOs, referred to as “All CEOs do X,” will lead to one’s own success in becoming a CEO. It’s important to acknowledge that many unsuccessful individuals also engage in these practices, such as brushing their teeth, eating food, and wearing clothes, which aren’t the only factors contributing to success. Furthermore, while the successful people studied have exhibited perseverance and grit, Epstein presents instances where individuals who gave up still managed to succeed in domains that matched their abilities.
But by far my biggest gripe with the book is the anecdotes. The book starts each chapter with a narrative that seems more fitting for a work of fiction or narrative history than a scientific text. I purchased the book with the expectation of learning about contemporary scientific discoveries related to generalization versus specialization, which was promoted in the book’s marketing. However, instead of actual insights, I found pages upon pages of highly subjective descriptive writing in every chapter. I did not pick up this book to read a novel. If he had kept the stories short and engaging like Gladwell does, my perception may have been different. I often read the stories wondering how they relate to the point he will soon make. It wasn’t too enjoyable. I didn’t appreciate the fillers. This was a book that would have been weightier at 100 pages than the 352 pages we have.
While I believe that there might be valuable insights in the book, most of them are embedded within contextually bare stories that are edited to fit a particular narrative. It is nearly impossible to distinguish fact from assumption. I suggest reading each chapter heading and skipping straight to the last two pages for a brief summary of the argument, thus avoiding wasting time on unnecessary fluff. Then, use those topics as a starting point for further study.
Despite its pointless filler, the book is well-edited, and the writing flows. There are some interesting points that can be found amidst the soup of irrelevant content.
And the greatest insight from this book that forces me to encourage you to read is that feeling like you are behind in life is unnecessary. According to two Roman historians (as narrated in the book), Julius Caesar cried upon seeing a statue of Alexander the Great in Spain when he was young, thinking that he had accomplished nothing memorable in comparison to Alexander, who had conquered many nations at a similar age. However, this worry quickly became irrelevant as Caesar eventually took control of the great Roman Republic. Comparing yourself to younger people who aren’t you is not helpful. Everyone progresses at their own pace, so don’t allow others to make you feel like you’re lagging behind. Additionally, you might not even be sure where you’re headed, so feeling behind will only make things worse.
Read widely. Get interested in other domains. One of my favorite characters in the book is Arturo Casadevall, chair of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose “h-index,” a measure of a scientist’s productivity and how often they are cited, recently surpassed Albert Einstein’s. He has this advice for anyone who would care to listen:
“I always advise my people to read outside your field, something every day. And most people say, ‘Well, I don’t have time to read outside my field.’ I say, ‘No, you do have time, it’s far more important.’ Your world becomes a bigger world, and maybe there’s a moment in which you make connections.”
This is a book I will go back to, but you can be sure that I will do so by reading each chapter heading and then skipping straight to the last two pages of each.