Book Review: Range by David Epstein

Range by David Epstein is one of those books that challenges your prior beliefs. Like many other people, I had fallen in love in ideas such as deliberate practice and a singular focus on specialization in order to succeed in sports and in life. Although, I've known for a while about the benefits of playing many sports as a child, this book taught me much more about the benefits of developing "range," or broad experiences and skills. I admit, it's uncomfortable reading something and thinking, "Wow, I was wrong about this," but in the end, you become a smarter person, so the bruises on your ego are worth it.

One of the first things the book teaches you is the difference between "kind environments" and "wicked environments." In a kind environment, rules are clear, and feedback is objective and quick. You know exactly how you're doing, what your errors are, how you can improve, and whether you're making progress. Activities such as golf, chess, and playing piano are examples of kind environments. Because of the clear rules and feedback that these activities provide, people can zone in on deliberate practice and specialization in order to master their craft.

This is generally fine, but problems arise when people assume that every activity in life has a kind environment. As the author points out, most things in life are not like golf. Most things are not a simple game with well-defined rules, boundaries, and give clear, quick feedback. Most things in life have a wicked environment, with unclear rules and feedback. In our modern, interconnected, and complicated world, you can't always rely on thousands of hours of repetitive deliberate practice to succeed. When we're constantly facing new situations and problems, our past experiences aren't as helpful. What is more helpful in a wicked environment are broad skills and thinking skills that you get from developing range. Being a generalist and knowing HOW to think makes you a better problem solver, decision maker, and creator, which are all very important in wicked environments. Furthermore, trying out new things in life improves your "match quality," by finding a career that's truly good for you. It's harder to find match quality if you stick to specialization from an early age.

Not only this, but early specialization is overrated even in environments that most would consider kind. For example, most elite athletes don't start specializing in their sport as early as possible. Instead, most begin their childhoods with a wide range of activities. It is only later, in their teens when they may start specializing in their sport and benefit from the efficiency of deliberate practice.

This is a better route to success for a few reasons. First, by "sampling" many different sports, kids learn which sports they like most and which sports are best suited for their natural talents. Once it's time for them to focus on one sport, they will have chosen the best sport for them that they like the most, which prevents them from burning out. They also develop a range of physical and mental skills by playing different sports, which makes them a better overall athlete.

Throughout the book, Epstein teaches different benefits of developing range and thinking like a generalist. After reading this book, you'll be convinced about the importance of developing range.

I'll admit, in today's world that is obsessed with specialization, it can be hard to trust the benefits of developing range. Since there's less immediate feedback when broadening your experiences and skills, you might doubt whether it'll pay off. You may start to think that you're falling behind, and that people who are specializing earlier are gaining a lead on you, but you have to trust the process. You may not know when or how it will happen, but developing range will pay off greatly! Of course there are times when you need to specialize, but you need to balance this with broader training, then you'll get the best of both worlds.