What is the right strategy to achieve greatness and succeed in a specific domain? If you believe the predominant narrative in many efficiency-oriented societies today, the answer is clear: Focus on one thing early in life to have a head start and invest at least the famous 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at it. Excellence and ingenuity, the story goes, are a result of hyperspecialization, grit, and relentless focus. Except this might actually not be true.
In “Range,” David Epstein tells a different story: Neither is an early head start and narrow specialization necessary to achieve greatness, as he demonstrates with several examples from Roger Federer, who played many different sports like skiing, basketball, and soccer as a child until settling for a career in tennis, to the “figlie di coro,” the virtuoso musicians of eighteenth-century Venice, who played not only the violin but also several other instruments like the cello, oboe, lute, mandolin, harpsichord, and “viola d’amore”. Nor is hyperspecialization the primary source of creativity, innovative ideas, and scientific breakthroughs later in life. From Vincent Van Gogh to Django Reinhardt to several inventors and Nobel laureates, the book is full of gripping stories and thought-provoking research showing that mental meandering, personal experimentation, and cross-disciplinary thinking are sources of power, creativity, and true innovation.
Range is a powerful reminder that there is a place for the generalists, the curios polymaths, among us. That it is okay, also for your children, to go broad and try different paths until you find what really fits you – and who you really are. That when you face a “wicked” problem, diverse experience beyond the boundaries of a specific field is a huge advantage because it allows you to think outside the box. And that having range can be invaluable in connecting seemingly unrelated disciplines and concepts in new ways.
Yet, many of us out there are allrounders who love to tinker, prototype, experiment, and build. Many of us are interested in the most diverse topics and feel most at home at the interfaces between design, technology, and the arts. And, as David Epstein shows, the more a domain specializes, the more it depends on generalists who see the bigger picture and make connections specialists are unable to see. Research suggests that broad individuals can even be more valuable than a diverse group of specialists. So the next time someone calls you a “Jack of all trades, master of none,” gift them a copy of Range.
Being a generalist is not a sign of weakness – it is a sign of strength. And, with job titles like Front-end Designer emerging, it seems as if the industry is slowly recognizing this. So embrace your seemingly unimportant and inefficient interests. Paint, dance, code, run, read, write, sing, play, and dabble. And let nobody tell you that a designer shouldn’t write production code or a developer can’t also be a brilliant writer. If you are a generalist, be a generalist. It is who you are.
This is the 47th post of my 100 days of writing series. You can find a list of all posts here.