Range over Mastery

In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularised the notion of the ‘10,000 hour rule’. Drawing on research done by a Swedish psychologist, Gladwell constructed a narrative around the idea that mastery of any skill needs roughly 10,000 hours of practice. It was an attractive idea, one that built upon the already well-accepted notion that ‘practice makes perfect’. You now could plan your path to mastery, set up daily goals for deliberate practice that would lead, eventually, to perfection.

This is completely wrong, says David Epstein in his book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Or at least that’s what the book’s blurb says. The book itself is more nuanced, and suggests that such a rule is true only in a very limited sense.

Epstein divides the world into two types of domains: kind and wicked. Kind domains are simple, one-dimensional fields with clear rules, where patterns repeat and feedback is fast and accurate. Playing the piano, playing chess, or playing golf are some examples of such domains, where deliberate practice can improve performance. Wicked domains, on the other hand, are those where patterns don’t repeat, rules are unclear or incomplete, and feedback is often delayed or inaccurate. Most real-world domains fall under this category. Research, medicine, education, management, parenting: these are complex domains where there’s no well-defined path to mastery. 10,000 hours of deliberate practice do not help here — on the contrary, expertise and specialisation in these domains may even worsen performance in certain contexts.

What matters in these wicked domains, Epstein says, is “range”. How much experience you have in fields unrelated to your work; how much of an outsider you are; how well you can integrate diverse perspectives of experts you work with; how much of a lateral thinker you are; how appropriately you choose to drop standard best practices; how well you can see connections between fields — in short, how much of a generalist you are.

In chapter after chapter, Epstein marshals an impressive and seemingly exhaustive array of statistics, anecdotes, and life histories to dispel commonly-held stereotypes and beliefs around learning, performance, and growth. He covers aspects like getting a head start in your career, the value of hyperspecialisation, not quitting, the irrelevance of old technologies, and the deification of experts in fields like research and medicine. Challenging the validity of such notions, he builds a convincing case for the idea that what matters in wicked domains is range, and that “generalists triumph over specialists” in the real world.  

The evidence he presents also serves as advice to people in fields like education, management, and research. For those in management, there’s advice on structuring communication flows in a hierarchy, on the types of people HR should hire, on creating a problem-solving culture, on innovation, and on decision-making. For educators, the book outlines why it’s important to learn slowly, why struggle (during learning) is more important than repetition, how interleaving (mixing different subjects while learning) leads to better retention. For researchers, it makes a strong case for going beyond the currently favoured trend of hyperspecialisation. 

Perhaps more interestingly, Epstein spends a lot of time expanding on what all this means to individuals. What to do in life? is a modern dilemma that springs from the choices and opportunities we have. For individuals wrestling with this question — and most of us do, at some point in our lives — the book offers plenty to chew on. It’s hard not to be moved by the astonishing trajectory of Van Gogh’s life (who drifted from one job to the next and found his calling late in life) or by the unconventional career of Frances Hesselbein (whose professional career began in her fifties, and whom management guru Peter Drucker called “the best CEO in America”), or by the unsophisticated approach of Gunpei Yokoi (the man behind Nintendo’s innovative video games). These untypical lives illustrate the value of range over the commonly celebrated traits of consistency and cutting-edge thinking. They are alternate role models our culture needs more of. 

The lessons that emerge from Epstein’s analysis aren’t easy to apply. Following prescriptive advice about deliberate practice is straightforward, but what do you do when the insight simply suggests that you need to experiment, just try things out and “flirt with possible selves”? How do you reconcile your desire for quick results with research that suggests that “for a given amount of material, learning is most efficient in the long run when it is really inefficient in the short run”? And having already invested a lot of time and energy in one thing, how do you overcome the “sunk cost fallacy” that keeps you from switching despite mediocre results? 

Acquiring range is no short-term fix, so the odds are stacked against it. Our incentives and narratives favour an early start to a career, perseverance, greater specialisation, and deliberate practice. These common approaches are attractive because they form “a tidy prescription, low on uncertainty and high on efficiency.” And since they sell better, there are big financial incentives in fields like education and sports to promote these narratives.

The book itself is one answer to the question of how to create a broader interest in cultivating range. Early on, Epstein says that “we have been using the wrong stories”. And he sets out to give us new stories to use, stories that create a different narrative around how to learn, how to solve problems, how to grow and excel.

Towards the end of the book these stories become the dominant construct. Anecdotal evidence gains prominence over research to support the claims Epstein makes, and on these occasions the result seems contrived and less convincing. But such instances are rare, and this quibble doesn’t detract from the book’s ability to convince us of its thesis.

What’s troubling at a deeper level, though, is its slant towards confirmation bias. The studies and anecdotes the book highlights are ones that strengthen its thesis; we don’t hear about those life-histories or studies that contradict — or even complicate — this picture. Like Gladwell, who assembled a compelling set of case studies that supported the 10,000 hour thesis, Epstein follows the conventional framework of such non-fiction works, and there’s no reason why we won’t see other works in future that challenge the notion of range. (The book itself contains evidence of the transient nature of psychological or sociological studies. For instance, Epstein writes that the famous Marshmallow experiment was wrong after all: the kids who did not wait long before falling for temptation didn’t really fare worse than those who displayed patience. Newer studies overturn the findings of the older ones: that’s how social science works.)

The book has an unwavering focus on performance and progress, which is a little unfortunate.  Cultivating range can help improve performance and boost your career, but it also makes you an interesting person and perhaps even a better human being. An economist well versed in art-history is less boring than one who knows little about other subjects; a mathematician who can quote Shakespeare and Marx arguably has a broader understanding of the world; an investment banker who has dabbled in journalism is more likely to support civil liberties. Cultivating range can be done for its own sake simply because it’s pleasurable, and the resulting broadening of perspective is a value in itself. But these matters are not of interest to Epstein; by viewing the world only through the lens of performance, the book ignores other possibilities of range.

Despite these flaws, Range is an important book. It challenges well-accepted stereotypes about learning, career choices, and management. It is also very relevant to our times. Modernity — and all the complexity that it brings — is making wicked domains more wicked. We need new tools and methods to navigate this rapidly-growing complexity, and Range offers a valuable framework.

Malcolm Gladwell, to his credit, agrees with the thesis of Range. A front-cover blurb from Gladwell says, “Makes me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong.”  In Epstein’s words, that makes Gladwell an “integrator fox”: “Agreement is not what they are after; they are after aggregating perspectives, lots of them.”  Like other qualities that lead to range, it’s a hard one to acquire.