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Book review | Best-selling author David Epstein underscores role of detours, breadth and experimentation in career success

Switching from one interest to another may not be “a failure of perseverance”. It could be an “astute recognition that better matches are available”.

February 20, 2021 / 07:52 AM IST

David Epstein’s new book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World is highly recommended for readers who are fed up with pursuit of hyper-specialisation, and want to know how to create a life of meaning and success by developing broad interests and skills. It was first published by Riverhead Books in 2019 but the edition this review is based on was published in 2020 by Pan Books. The latter includes an afterword, which makes for insightful reading especially during the COVID-19 pandemic as the job market seems precarious.

The author has master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism. He has worked as an investigative reporter and a sports writer. The book has personal significance for him because, as a child, he was not quite sure what he was going to be when he grew up. His aim here is to capture how to cultivate “the power of breadth, diverse experience, and interdisciplinary exploration, within systems that increasingly demand hyper-specialization, and would have you decide what you should be before first figuring out who you are.”

If this sounds like an unnecessary tirade meant to coddle individuals that you think of as drifters, read the book before you dismiss it. It draws on the career paths of many scientists, athletes, inventors and artists. There are stories and lessons in here that could benefit young individuals who are entering the job market, senior employees who love their job but struggle to keep pace with new developments, and people who make a lot of money but do not find any alignment between what they do for their livelihood and what brings them joy.

Epstein writes, “Told in retrospect for popular media, stories of innovation and self-discovery can look like orderly journeys from A to B.” According to him, “inspirational-snippet accounts” appear straightforward “but the stories usually get murkier when examined in depth or over time.” With this book, he challenges prescriptions for success that seem not only tidy and attractive but also “low on uncertainty and high on efficiency.” What he emphasises instead is “the role of detours, breadth and experimentation.”

The book is divided into 12 chapters excluding the introduction, conclusion and afterword. It might be most rewarding when read at a leisurely pace, with enough time to take in ideas --developed across chapters – and to assess their merit and relevance. In addition to quotes from the various people he interviewed, Epstein refers to several research studies throughout the book. Readers who have the curiosity and the patience to wade through his notes at the end would find them extremely thoughtful, informative and fascinating.

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If the spam folder of your email account is filled with advertisements urging you to make your child’s brain “coding ready,” you will easily relate to Epstein’s main argument. He refutes the idea that an early start and the quantity of deliberate practice determine success in every field under the sun. He is a cheerleader for sampling, changing directions, “learning to drop your familiar tools” and “flirting with your possible selves.” While working on this book, he learnt something startling -- that experts with terrific credentials can become “so narrow-minded” that they “get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident.”

Does this resonate with you? Is Epstein exaggerating for the sake of effect? Why do so many organizations value seniority over skill? Epstein sums up the findings of psychologists Gary Klein and Daniel Kahneman. He writes, “Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise, they agreed, depended entirely on the domain in question. Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial and political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform.”

There are innumerable Twitter threads by young research scholars lamenting the lack of job opportunities in the academic market. People who have spent several years gaining expertise in a tiny area of specialisation are struggling to find teaching positions. What are the options available to them if they cannot afford to wait for a call from a university that wants to employ them? Does higher education hone what Epstein calls “the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains”? Can they take care of their financial needs if there is no fellowship, grant or other kind of institutional funding on the horizon?

Epstein engages deeply with the ideas of James Flynn, a professor of political studies. During the course of an interview, Flynn told him, “Even the best universities aren’t developing critical intelligence. They aren’t giving students the tools to analyze the modern world, except in their area of specialization. Their education is too narrow.” Epstein clarifies that Flynn does not mean “that every computer science major needs an art history class.” He is of the opinion that “everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines.”

What can organisations do to support generalists? Epstein shares that people with varied career histories often downplay their rich backgrounds because they fear that employers would see them as scattered or not serious enough. He writes, “Perhaps it would be a good idea for sites that host resumes, and organizations that review them, to include some function that allows users the chance to share their resume as a narrative journey in which they can explain the lessons of their zigs and zags, rather than just list them as bullet points.”

What can you take back from this book? Remember that switching from one interest to another may not be “a failure of perseverance.” It could be an “astute recognition that better matches are available.” We keep changing through our lifespan, so it is alright if our career goals change in keeping with “more self-knowledge.” Do not push children or adolescents into a “premature commitment to a singular passion.” It could be more damaging than you can imagine. Taking time to find a good fit does not imply an absence of a healthy work ethic.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect)
first published: Feb 20, 2021 07:52 am

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