Sam Holstein

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Why All Entrepreneurs and Academics Should Read Range by David Epstein

“David Epstein manages to make me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told everything I thought about something was wrong. I loved Range.”

— Malcolm Gladwell

We think we understand what it takes to master a skill. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule and countless TED talks about the importance of perseverance and grit, we know what we need to do is pick what we want to master and practice relentlessly until we achieve mastery.

Except, when you actually look at the data, that’s not true.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein is a book about the pitfalls of early specialization. He uses examples and data from sports, academics, and business to make the case that people are more likely to create innovative breakthroughs or achieve mastery in their field when they delay early specialization in favor of spending a few weeks, months, or years trying new things before committing. He compares it to “dating for careers.” The result of this trial period is a breadth of knowledge Epstein calls range.

My Five Favorite Quotes

“You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it. We don’t train people in thinking or reasoning.”

“Whether chemists, physicists, or political scientists, the most successful problem solvers spend mental energy figuring out what type of problem they are facing before matching a strategy to it, rather than jumping in with memorized procedures.”

“Overspecialization can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action.”

“The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.”

“In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.”

Interesting Facts & Figures

“A tech founder who is fifty years old is nearly twice as likely to start a blockbuster company as one who is thirty, and the thirty-year-old has a better shot than the twenty-year-old. Researchers at Northwestern, MIT, and the U.S. Census Bureau studied new tech companies and showed that among the fastest-growing start-ups, the average age of a founder was forty-five when the company was launched.”

What This Book Taught Me

It reaffirmed my opinion that it’s better to hire older people. Silicon valley bros like Zuckerberg may preach about the virtues of youth, and our culture may venerate youth as an ideal, but young people can be stupid. We may be pretty, but our heads are full of rocks. Much better to be older, wiser, and full of interesting knowledge and experiences.

Hyperspecialization is not a golden ticket to success. Sometimes I wonder “What if I’d gone to school for English, submitted stories to writing contests in high school, and started off as a writer from the beginning, instead of being into startups and tech for ten years?” Reading Range showed me that without that period of early exploration, I probably wouldn’t have had the entrepreneurial skills to make a writing career work in the first place.

We need a broader foundational education for students. High school and undergraduate students take a handful of poorly-structured general education courses and then are promptly shunted to the specialized courses of their choosing. If we had a broader foundational education in critical thinking skills, enlightenment era values, and the scientific tradition, people in every specialization would create more value and make the world a better place.

Who I’d Recommend This Book For

Self-learners. Autodidacts like you and me are responsible not only for our own education but for making sure we’re educating ourselves about the right things. It is absolutely necessary for us to understand how intellectual range affects learning and cognition.

Academics in the sciences. Professional scientific education operates as a series of inflexible silos. Range will show you how that approach not only makes you less intellectually flexible, it makes your scientific work less innovative and impactful.

Business professionals. The various departments of large corporations often act like competing teams in a sports league — there’s interdepartmental drama and finger-pointing all the time. If individuals in corporations were more multidisciplinary as a rule, people would say “that’s not my job” less often and “let me see if I can add value here” more often.