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The case for general excellence

In his new book, Range, David Epstein argues that although specialization has its virtues, businesses need people with wide horizons and ranges of interests in order to succeed.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

by David Epstein, Riverhead Books, 2019

Range, an engaging new work that purports to demonstrate “why generalists triumph in a specialized world,” is a diverting grab bag filled with gee-whiz tales of human ingenuity and counterintuitive social sciences findings. And although author David Epstein doesn’t make a terribly coherent case for his big idea, that’s no reason to disregard the important insight he has latched onto. Let’s restate it this way: Smart and well-educated generalists, people who know how to think and can apply their powers across disciplines, can be hugely valuable in your business. If you are a leader of a business, in fact, this is exactly what you are or have been forced to become.

There’s no denying that in the modern world, the explosion of knowledge (and the efficiency of capitalism) promotes specialization. If you break a tooth, after all, I would suggest you see my wife, the dentist, rather than me, the generalist. Unfortunately, increasing specialization can have the paradoxical effect of narrowing horizons and limiting innovation to incremental advances. The scientific grant funding system seems to reinforce this syndrome. In medicine, where the spread of specialization is most obvious, patients in the U.S. often get good results on complex procedures (at very high prices), while the health of the population at large suffers.

In medicine, where the spread of specialization is most obvious, patients in the U.S. often get good results on complex procedures (at very high prices), while the health of the population at large suffers.

Does that mean expertise has no value? Of course not. But someone needs to see the big picture. Citing economist Robin Hogarth, Epstein relates a useful distinction here between the different kinds of arenas people work in. Chess and golf are “kind” learning environments: “Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid.” These environments tend to have strict and unchanging rules, and they reward repetition. Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly makes better.

If you’re reading this, though, chances are that you work in what Hogarth calls a “wicked” learning environment. “In wicked domains,” the author explains, “the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.” (Epstein himself seems to be a product of wicked learning environments. He has an undergraduate degree in environmental science and astronomy, and master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, and has worked as a reporter at outlets as diverse as Sports Illustrated and ProPublica.)

Coping with such an environment is the role of leadership, which after all must occur in an uncertain world of ongoing social and technological change. Epstein’s ideal generalist may be Arturo Casadevall. His family fled Cuba in the late 1960s when he was 11 years old and settled in New York’s new melting pot, the borough of Queens. At 16 he was hired by McDonald’s and worked there for four years, which he says was a great learning experience. Then he was a bank teller. “His father wanted him to have something practical to fall back on, so a community college degree in pest control operations hangs on his office wall, near a certificate of his election into the prestigious National Academy of Medicine,” Epstein writes.

Casadevall, who became chair of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in 2015, thinks scientific research is in crisis — progress has slowed while more and more papers are being retracted — and that graduate science education needs an overhaul. In fact, he thinks all education needs an overhaul in the direction of teaching students how to know what is true, how to think, and how to be interdisciplinary.

I suspect he’s right. But an even bigger problem may be a shortage of Casadevalls going forward. By the time I finished college, I had worked in a bank, a pleating factory, a mimeograph supply firm, a collection agency, and a waste fiber brokerage, and perhaps most memorably, as a doorman on the Upper East Side. My sons, who are graduating from the same university in May, have only worked in their chosen fields, gaining important, but narrower, experience. In retrospect, it might have been better if they and their fellow elite graduates had spent more time stacking hay bales, as one of them did briefly, or flipping burgers, like Casadevall.

Of course, Casadevall’s formal education didn’t stop with his pest control certificate. He happens to have a B.S., an M.D., and a Ph.D. His career highlights another of Epstein’s key points, which is that people needn’t specialize when they’re in kindergarten, as some obsessive parents seem to think. And later, when they do specialize, they needn’t do so to the exclusion of all else.

On the contrary, it might be worth cultivating an avocation. The author notes that the most successful scientists are much more likely than others to be amateur actors, musicians, painters, poets, and so forth. This is particularly true of Nobel Prize winners, he reports. Creative achievers in science and engineering seem to have broad interests. Although it’s not clear to me which way the arrow of causality points — isn’t it possible the most creative scientists simply have so much talent that it spills over into other creative fields? — it’s hard to believe that cultivating an avocation would hurt most business leaders. And it might well contribute to clearer thinking, better imagining, and greater understanding.

In its haphazard way, Epstein’s book does likewise.

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