The book “Range” by David Epstein turned out to be one of the best reads yet this summer. With careful reasoning and examples, the author turns several beliefs on their heads and makes you examine evidence to the contrary and manages to even convince you that the opposite is true. He argues that while deep specialization is advantageous for predictable fields and what he calls “kind world” situations, broad general knowledge and diverse experiences outside one’s field are advantageous in complex and unpredictable fields and “wicked world” situations where each situation is different from the one that occurred previously.
This is an overview of the book and not at all meant to be a substitute for reading the book. If you don’t read the book, some of the summary statements below may not make much sense and moreover, you will miss out on some amazing stories that serve as examples and case studies for the arguments that the author makes. For starters, the author makes a case for why early head starts are overrated and for learning to stick, it needs to occur along with difficulties, which he calls “desirable difficulties.” Those who are polymaths and “jack of all trades” and those who “zigzag” through or take a scenic route to find one’s calling are perfectly well positioned to achieve great success as much as those who trained early and trained hard. He draws a striking contrast between how the careers of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer developed since early childhood.
He makes a compelling case for how musicians who learn multiple instruments create more beautiful music compared to those who learned only one instrument all their lives. In an unlikely music band in seventeenth-century Venice, every member learns to play instruments that other members play as well, and together, they made some of the most beautiful music in the world. Those who apply outside experiences in one’s own field have an outsider advantage in solving problems. They are able to drop familiar tools readily and use unlikely tools from outside the field and achieve better results. This kind of diversity and lateral thinking leads to innovation and the book contains several illuminating examples.
There are two healthcare examples that I particularly loved. In a world where the words “stay in your lane” are said a bit too often, a patient, Jill, with a rare form of lipodystrophy called Emery-Dreifuss syndrome researches her own disease and genetic makeup in depth. Not only that, she finds a celebrity athlete with the same disease and genetic mutation and draws attention to the fact that their muscle development is at opposite ends of the spectrum. She prepares thorough files and takes them to a researcher Dr. Abhimanyu Garg asking him to study their two cases and the result is a scientific breakthrough. Then there is the example of an eminent infectious diseases doctor and researcher Dr. Arturo Casadevall who makes a strong case for more interdisciplinary research in medicine. Referring to the interface between specialties, he says, “you basically have all these parallel trenches, and it’s very rare that anybody stands up and actually looks at the next trench to see what they are doing, and often it’s related.”
Overall, it’s a fascinating book. The most important takeaways for me are that expanding one’s range is good for you, it’s okay and actually desirable to stay “pluripotent,” and there is no need to “feel behind” if you have multiple interests and it’s good to take the “scenic route.”