Book Notes #13: “Range” (By David Epstein)

by | Apr 20, 2023

I’m an advocate of doing a few things at once. It’s ok to meander and explore, and stumble upon what interests you. The term I’ve been using is “Portfolio Career.” That is, one can curate your career like a portfolio of opportunities and occupations.

Since I feature so many portfolio careerists, I’m interested in learning about the existing research on the topic.

I came across this book which I found thought-provoking.

By David Epstein

Here are a few takeaways:

  • Roger vs. Tiger
    Epstein has a history as a sports writer. And he starts the book on familiar territory, with a comparison between Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. He contends that while Tiger specialized in golf from a very young age, Federer didn’t focus on tennis until he was a teenager. In fact, Federer dabbled with other sports first. Epstein finds that elite athletes go through a “sampling period” where they play several sports where they gain various skills.This phenomenon is known as “Late Specialization.” He cites studies that show that this also applies to non-sports professions. As a kid, Duke Ellington preferred baseball lessons to music ones. In some cases, people with multiple careers were ashamed of their jumping paths.

    We live in a world that seems to reward hyperspecialization. But it’s OK to be a Dark Horse and take an unusual path. After all, these Dark Horses are looking for “match quality” or a profession/role that they can leverage their skills.For example, Michael Crichton started his career in medicine. He eventually drew upon his knowledge when writing Jurassic Park and ER.

    In reality, the Roger path to sports stardom is far more prevalent than the Tiger path, but those athletes’ stories are much more quietly told, if they are told at all. Some of their names you know, but their backgrounds you probably don’t.

  • Tragedy of Overspecialization
    There are some professions where it’s very important to be a specialist. Like being a pilot or doctor. But even then, especially in the medical profession, you can be siloed to the point of not recognizing solutions to problems you’re facing.Epstein comments that overspecialization can be a problem because it’s like having blinders on. The specialization within big banks may have generated or exacerbated the 2008 financial crisis. The bank’s various departments were not talking to each other and not looking at the systemic issues facing the mortgage industry. There was a “system of parallel trenches.”


  • The Wicked Domain
    The world is wicked. Epstein contends that the world is a game with unclear, undefined rules. It’s a dynamic system where we don’t always get immediate feedback. This is different than a game like tennis or baseball where there are defined rules.So in real life, it’s important to be adaptive and have acquired skills from other domains. Humans have the ability to think creatively and reason through wicked domains. Or at least, we have the capability to.

    Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly…

    When we know the rules and answers, and they don’t change over time – chess, golf, playing classical music – an argument can be made for savant-like hyperspecialized practice from day one. But those are poor models of most things humans want to learn…

    The world is not golf, and most of it isn’t even tennis…

    Pretending the world is like golf and chess is comforting.

  • Power of the Arts
    Epstein cites a study I’ve come across before but is no less impactful. Scientists who have won Nobel Prizes are 22x more likely to participate in the arts like being a dancer, musician, and so on.These hyperspecialized artists are connected to the wider world. This may seem like diffusing one’s time and energy. But rather, it’s a way of acquiring more skills and having one’s foot in a few different worlds.

    It’s hard to fix a broken workflow when i’s no one’s job to make sure the workflow functions.

    The Figlie Del Coro were eighteenth century Venetian artists, or the “daughters of the choir.” They didn’t specialize in one instrument but played several of them. Some of the well known figlie include Anna Maria della Pieta. Many of these artists were orphans and had physical deformities, and they performed from behind a curtain. They were paid to learn new instruments. They were incredibly versatile. They played music unlike others, and many of the era’s top Haydn enjoyed having his music played by the figlie.

    A teaching system evolved, where the older figlie taught the younger, and the younger the beginners. They held multiple jobs — Anna Maria was a teacher and copyist – and yet they produced star after virtuoso star.

    Their example runs counter to the hyperspecialization myth of musicians in contemporary times. There are plenty of artists who have sampled like Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Django Reinhardt.


  • Become a Swiss Army Knife  & Fermi Problems
    It’s very useful to be able to do a lot of things. That may seem obvious but that’s not how schools are often structured. As many as 75% of college graduates eventually pursue a career unrelated to their major. And that includes folks who concentrated in the sciences. Epstein cites Enrico Fermi who created a nuclear reactor by using basic estimates to help him understand better.

    The ultimate lesson of the question was that detailed prior knowledge was less important than a way of thinking.

    How many piano tuners are there in New York? We’re not looking for an exact answer but how you reason. Maybe you start with the population of New York. How many pianos could there be in the city? How many would be serviced by one tuner? As you can see, we’re reasoning to a plausible answer. This type of approach can help unlock solutions to problems across various domains. But all too often, students don’t learn how to reason like this. So when they find themselves in a new domain, they freeze up.

    “Fermi estimation can cut through bullshit like a hot knife through butter.”

  • Analogical Thinking
    Analogical thinking is key to developing range and having success across domains. That is, being placed in a new context but seeing a familiar pattern. Humans have the ability to be placed in a new situation and find familiarity.

    Because we live in a wicked, dynamic world, it’s critical that we think across domains draw upon skills from other parts of our life. How can you or your organization leverage outside-in thinking? Get people from other domains to try to come up with solutions to the challenges you’re facing. One answer is the Leadership Develop Groups I experienced at Harvard.

    Students might learn about the motion of molecules by analogy to billiard-ball collisions; principles of electricity can be understood with analogies to water flow through plumbing…

    Focusing narrowly on many fine details specific to a problem at hand feels like exact right thing to do, when it is often exactly wrong.


  • Quotables
    Some noteworthy lines.

    “A person don’t know what he can do unless he tryes. Trying things is the answer to find your talent.”


    “Do not be an engineer…be a producer. ‘The producer knows that there’s such a thing as as semiconductor, but doesn’t need to know its inner workings…That can be left to the experts.”


    “The generalists tended to get bored working in one area for too long. They added value by integrating domains, taking technology from one area and applying it in others.”


    “The higher the domain uncertainty, the more important it was to have a high-breadth team member.”


    “I have a lot of apps open in my brain right now.” (Lin-Manuel Miranda)


    “Deliberate Amateur.”


    “Friday Night Experiments” (FNE) – Unstructured time to problems


    “A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” (that’s the full quote)


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