The game-changing powers of generalists in a specialising world

How do the life and development of Vincent Van Gogh & Roger Federer & Django Reinhardt compare to that of Tiger Woods and Judith Polgar and career trajectories of West Point graduates and Nobel-prize winning scientists? And why should we care?

Whether you are fresh graduate embarking on a career or an experienced professional grappling with a “mid-life crisis”, or even a serial entrepreneur with varying degrees of success, we all have been faced with some variation of a rather fundamental question : what do I want to do with my life, or how can I become the best version of myself ?

Improve and specialise early vs Improvise and specialise late ?

The traditional approach to find success in life that we have been told is to find your true “talent”, or “skill” or “calling” as early as possible, and focus obsessively on that to the exclusion of everything else. Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” which popularized the 10,000 hours rule was a shot in the arm for this school of thought.

In the book Range, David Epstein makes the case that this belief is highly over-rated and simplistic, and lays out a strong and nuanced counter-argument that significant experimentation and late specialisation often leads to better outcomes, and to his credit, Malcom Gladwell himself seems to acknowledge as much going by his blurb review.

Delving deep into the lives of some of the most successful people – in sports, arts, science and even regular careers – Epstein unravels the hidden layers under the simplistic belief of the advantages of early specialization to explore various angles of the often ignored fact that human beings are rather complex beings whose understanding of themselves and the world evolve significantly over time. The corollary to this is that by sampling widely, learning a variety of skills and adapting to various situation we dont just become better at identifying what we may be good at, but we also put ourselves in a position to achieve significantly more than someone whose paths were narrow and straightforward. Indeed the legend of the child prodigy may have been vastly overrated versus the many successes of the relatively late bloomers.


One self vs many selves?

Indeed in Alice in Wonderland, when the Gryphon asks Alice about her story, she decides to talk about her adventure beginning from that morning, as she says “It’s no use going back to yesterday, as I was a different person then”.

The real-life implications from this are quite fundamental in that discovering and rediscovering the best match for what we are really good at takes years, even decades. The secret to find our life-long true calling does not lie in a psychometric test, indeed if there is such a talent we have been gifted, it must be discovered by iteratively learning about ourselves better over time in the real world. We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.


Kind vs Wicked learning environments ?

All this is not to say that there is no role for super-specialisation – in fact the entire arc of science pushes society further into specialized knowledge – but rather that the benefits of such laser-focused, early specialisation usually are restricted toward gaining efficiency in what the author calls narrow, well-defined, “kind” learning environments where the patterns often repeat and feedback is fairly instant. Say chess, for instance.

Unlike most other real-world environments, loosely called “wicked” domains, where the rules are either not clear or incomplete without repetitive patterns and critically, where feedback often is delayed. The most important skills for success in such environments come from having been exposed to various domains, developing insights and applying analogous thinking from fields far removed from the current one to problem-solve dynamically.

Range is a compelling and thought-provoking read for nearly anyone who is interested in learning or improvement, either for themselves or others.

Picture of Srihari Janakiraman

Srihari Janakiraman

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