Book Review - Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World by David Epstein
When I started jakeshell.com, the goal was not to become just another ultra-niche blog dedicated to one narrow line of thinking. The goal was to write for a wide audience, the classical polymath if you will, exploring myriad topics, and satisfying my own curiosity for all that is amazing in this life. After four years of writing, I’ve managed to stick to the original goal. The nearly 80 articles span history, swimming, home construction, culture, strength training, general thought processes, health and diet, personal productivity, biohacking, and even an article on my favorite movie, Field of Dreams.
The experts said to specialize. They said to find a niche and exploit that niche. But my interests are much too varied to stick to my expertise alone. I could populate the site with article after article on swimming and swim training, my profession. While that would satisfy the experts, it would not satisfy my many interests, the likes of which know few bounds. I subscribe to the National Strength & Conditioning Association’s Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, I also subscribe to Lapham’s Quarterly. I have to believe I’m the only swimming coach in the country to do so. Peer reviewed research on strength training on one hand…Tolstoy and Lewis H. Lapham on the other. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My interests and intuition told me not to specialize, for surely there are others out there like me that share my interest in a variety of subjects. Surely there is a great cognitive benefit to exploring a wide variety of topics. I believed there must be value in exploring interdisciplinary studies and linking concepts across various fields and time periods in human history. I am proud that I resisted the call to specialize, and now, some four years later, a new and fantastic read from David Epstein gives scientific backing and much anecdotal evidence to my beliefs.
Range is an enlightening and…for lack of a better term…wide-ranging read, and David pushes back valiantly against the call for hyper-specialization seen in science, education, business, medicine, and sport. Using a great number of examples, both famous and obscure, he systematically dismantles the prevailing group think that one must specialize early and then ultra specialize in order to find success in life. David’s overarching thesis, in my own words:
The world is much too complex and messy to specialize. Solutions to complex problems require not just thinking outside the box, they often require thinking outside one’s own field of expertise. In a world where challenges are often interconnected and part of much larger systems, it is the generalists, able to call on a wide range of experience, who have the advantage.
I agree wholeheartedly with Epstein’s theory, and see the benefits in my own career. Consider coaching swimming, for example, where the three seemingly different fields of physiology, psychology, and physics converge to allow us to train the body to move through water faster. To specialize in one field is to lack the myriad benefits of the other two. Sport physiologists do not make the best coaches, nor do those concerned only with biomechanics. The best coaches combine knowledge of the three disciplines and combine them in artistic mastery to produce fast swimming. Art and science, science and art. To go further outside the box and give more credence to Epstein’s theory, I studied History in college and now coach swimming for a living. I cannot with certainty say how that helped me get to where I am today, but I know that it did, indeed.
I highly recommend Range for all coaches, parents, educators, leaders, etc.. It will make you think deeply about your own path in life and how you might better yourself by stepping outside your current niche. Often the solutions for complex challenges lie outside the current bubble, and by studying a wide range of the human condition you allow yourself the opportunity to make connections across myriad fields and disciplines. Are you in finance? Read history. Education? Learn business. Are you a swimming coach? Pick up a physics text book and get to work.
Range will change the way you think about learning, mastery, and your own profession in general; I highly encourage you to give it a read and open your mind to all the benefits of the polymath philosophy.