Review: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

The power law. The Pareto Principle. Winner-takes-all.

They all recognize an ecosystem where most of the benefits—and profits, as is often the case—accrues to a handful of individual entities, the theory suggesting that this type of uneven distribution is made possible by positive feedback loops that end up elevating the winners perpetually higher. If our hyper-connected modern society is indeed moving in this direction, then specializing in a valuable skill, as early as possible, is a perfectly reasonable strategy in response. Even though the infamous 10,000-hour practice rule has been repeatedly debunked in recent years, the underlying goal of acquiring specialized expertise is a meaningful goal synonymous with success.

Range, then, looks to dispel that idea. It starts by citing examples of famous athletes and prodigies whose parents started them at a young age; their training regimens echo back to the aforementioned 10,000-hour mark which is then attributed to their excellence as teenagers and eventually adults. Then it makes the opposite argument, in finding folks who spent a bunch of time testing different sports and vocations, and only ended up picking the activity that they eventually become famous for much later. In aggregate, however, I’d summarize this work as anecdotal.

What’s more interesting is when the author goes into the value provided by a more generalized approach. It comes down to the idea of “kind” vs. “wicked” environments:

  • Kind domains feature set rules and measurements of progress. Continued and repeated practice is effective because the feedback loop for improvement is known and relatively short.
  • Wicked domains are ambiguous, typically with aspects of the domain unknown or hidden, few stated rules, and unclear markers of progress or sometimes even completion. Concentrated practice here is less meaningful because the feedback loops are weaker and each situation may be different from the last.

The observation, then, is that the real world is often more wicked than kind, particularly with the proliferation of knowledge work which constitutes the modern firm. In fact, the specialization and expertise that someone can build up in a kind environment can limit their perspective in a wicked setting, such that they can no longer think “outside the box” and instinctually fall back to prior training. The book even goes into the idea of deliberate amateurism, the act of purposefully not locking into a prescribed approach to generate novel combinations1.

True to its subject matter, Range cites a number of case studies, examples and stories from a wide variety of sources, everything from sports to Renaissance musicians to controlled scientific experiments to patent filings. For me, the human interest stories were the weakest parts of the book; I understand that the author has to keep their reader entertained and not just sprout dry facts and theory, but these instances sometimes just feel like cherry-picked examples, biographies to inspire but not necessarily replicable.

Unless…that is the actual meta point.

  1. A prior company I worked for had a corporate value around always establishing “a beginner’s mindset”, another manifestation of the same precepts.

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