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.

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