A Review of Range: aka the Book that Reminded Me to Continue Sampling
“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” -Mark Twain
Hello again! This is my second book review of 2021 on Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. This time I took a different note-taking approach. Instead of writing down ideas or quotes, I dictated them to my Notion app on my phone. I ended up with 3x more text 😭 and took a lot more time piecing together this review.
Hopefully you’ll find this one easier and more insightful to read than the last. Drop me a comment with your note taking recommendations!
In Range, Epstein debunks the idea that people who specialize earlier are more successful in their careers. Through interviews and studies of athletes, musicians, inventors, scientists, artists, and more, he’s found that success has come to those who:
- have spent time sampling different fields before specializing, thus did not have a head start, and
- may be experts in one or a few areas, but often are a generalists with knowledge in different areas.
He explores a few ideas to support his thesis, here are the ones that’ve resonated the most for me. (I’ve added Oly💡 for my personal thoughts.)
Thinking Beyond Our Experience: Cognitive Flexibility
→ Cognitive flexibility allows us to solve problems that we’ve never encountered before.
Oly💡: The more we are faced with different types of experience, the better we can handle abstract ideas. Our minds are more flexible when facing new abstract problems, and have better chances of solving them.
Perhaps we need to get out there, try different things, expose ourselves to different situations and environments, and open up our minds to equip ourselves for the challenges to come.
Developing an Outside View
Epstein speaks of an “inside view” and an “outside view”. With an “inside view”, we approach a problem with the details of the project in front of us. An “outside view” looks past the surface details for deep structure of similarities in different problems. This requires one to switch their mindset from narrow to broad, from close minded to open minded.
Oly💡: Even if we‘ve experienced a similar problem, look past the details and draw parallels and learnings from different analogies. Just because you found a solution once, it doesn’t mean the same solution will apply again.
Why only rely on marketing experts to solve a tough marketing challenge? It may be valuable to bring in people from a different department to solve certain department-specific challenges.
This requires us to train our minds to actively look beyond the superficial similarities, be able to identify the deep structures of problems, and draw comparisons from them for inspiration.
It’s Okay to Fail
Sometimes we need to fail in order to look elsewhere and find a high “match quality”. (match quality, term coined by economists: a degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are). Some examples Epstein uses to highlight this: Van Gogh, Gaugin, JK Rowling, and himself.
Oly💡: In some cases, it is worse to not fail. We stick around, doing a mediocre job at something we find mediocre, without a flicker of passion in sight or a reason to look elsewhere. 🤷🏻♀️️
“We fail tasks we don’t have the guts to quit.” — Seth Godin
Oly💡: We tend to put a lot of weight on sunk costs, holding us back from taking a leap, moving laterally or doing a 180 with our careers. If we move on from a specific career path, or specialization, the years we’ve invested don’t go to waste, they contribute to who we are and to broadening our world view.
We’re told to think and plan long-term. Where will you be in 10 years? What job title do you want when you’re X age? Epstein shares a different approach: in order to plan out your whole life, you should test and learn, and constantly readjust. Plan short term.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US shows that 50% of late baby boomers went through at least 11 different jobs between 18 and 50.
- In another study, they found people who were really fulfilled and successful but took an unusual winding career path. One thing they all had in common is none of them did long-term planning they all started with short term plans.
“The people we study who are fulfilled do pursue a long-term goal but only formulated after a period of discovery.”
Oly💡: People seem so set on career progression, bigger salaries, fancier titles, etc. Why is our society obsessed with image and career progression?
Here’s a question for all of us: We’re so busy climbing the corporate ladder, have we taken time to stop and think: am I even climbing up the right ladder?
You don’t need a specific roadmap to your perfect job. In fact, you might not even know what that job will be.
In product, business, marketing, we’re taught to use the “first act then think” or “test-and-learn” instead of the “plan-and-implement” model. Why not apply the same model for careers?
It’s funny, I’ve always been a “sampler”:
- I grew up sampling all the possible activities and sports: ballet, Kajukenbo, piano (d’uh), soccer, skating, softball, drawing, painting, swimming, handball, basketball, guitar, drums, bridge club, hip hop dancing, etc.
- My hobbies (and mild-obsessions turned maybe-this-can-be-a-career but ended up staying hobbies) in the past 5 years include: pottery, knitting, Barre3, pilates, yoga, blogging, travelling, running.
It felt like I did a lot of things, but I wasn’t great at any of them. This book has reminded me that these years spent sampling were not a waste. Likewise, if I were to change lifestyles or career paths, my experience so far will not have been a waste, but contribute to my future.
I do not know what the world will look like and who I’ll be in 10 years. Perhaps I should stop planning for that person, instead equip her with a breadth of experience under her belt.