Wide ranging

“Range” is a good title for this wide-ranging book. The subtitle is also descriptive – why generalists triumph in a specialized world. I want this to be true, not sure that it is. Everybody purports to value the generalists as leaders, innovators and visionaries, but nobody wants to hire generalists. The generalist challenge is sequencing. You need some sort of specialty to get most jobs. After you have cleared that threshold, you can spread out. Being a generalist is essential at the higher levels of leadership, but you have to get there first by a specialized route.

Diverse sources

Returning to “Range,” the author is very wide-ranging. He refers to dozens of books that I have read over the past couple years. In fact, you could read “Range” as a kid of frame for others. I wonder, however, if I would have gotten the same benefit from “Range” had I been less familiar with books like “Peak,” “Grit,” “Late Bloomers,” “Where Good Ideas Come From” or “Super Forecasters,” among others.

The advantage of borrowing

The author freely borrows ideas from all those, which is part of the main theme of the book. Lot of ideas are out there. Generalists find them, compile them and put them into new context. Discovering is important; assembling is too. Generally, assemblers are responsible for more effective innovation.

Innovation cannot be created directly; else it would not be innovation. Epstein encourages lateral thinking and that is best accomplished by broad knowledge and broad contacts. Recall that innovation is not the same as invention. Innovation involves using new inventions but more often by applying existing – sometimes very prosaic – factors in new ways.

Foxes & hedgehogs

Epstein uses the old Izaiah Berlin metaphor of hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs know one thing very deeply; foxes know lots of things but not in detail. Both sorts are necessary. Hedgehogs develop inventions and ideas. Foxes assemble. In settled or limited situations, hedgehogs do better, since they can apply bodies of knowledge and experience. This is where grit pays off. MOST of life is like this. If this was not true, there would be little use in any sort of professional expertise or practice. When board a commercial airline, we hope the pilot and crew do NOT need to innovate, that they will follow well-known and established procedures. The division of labor works and innovation can be overrated.

In new or uncertain situations, however, it is the foxes that excel. Foxes beat hedgehogs consistently when trying to predict uncertain events. Epstein mentions the work of Phillip Tetlock, who did a multi-decade study of experts in political pundits. He found that the experts were no better than random chance in predicting big political events out more than a short time or innovations. In fact, the specialists were often WORST in their own specialties, and the most famous were often worst of all. (I recall this from when the Soviet Union fell. Nobody predicted this, although some have now implied that they did.) Tetlock (and Epstein) speculate that the reason is that famous pundits get famous by making radical predictions and then not backing down when they are wrong. They can also tell better stories. Those experts are hedgehogs.

The foxes do much better because they are willing to listen to broad and new information and to change their minds. Theirs is a more iterative procedure, incorporating new information as available and a willingness to “flip-flop” when it makes sense.

Is grit overrated?

One of the things I liked a lot about the book was that it was wide ranging, but that means that the story line is something a little tangential. Epstein spends a lot of time talking about grit and persistence. He is not against it but says it may be overrated. This is especially true for young people. They have to make commitments to studies or career before they know themselves, before their personalities are formed. It might be a bad fit. Sometimes the best thing you can do is quit and move to something more appropriate.

We tend to double down because of the sunk cost fallacy. The more time or money we spend on something, the less likely we are to abandon it. It is called a fallacy because that is exactly what it is. Even if you spend $1 million on something, if the payoff from additional investment does not pay off, the sunk cost does not matter.

It reads more logically than it was lived

His closing advice is that you have to experiment and try lots of things. Epstein points out that the stories we tell of success and innovation tend to be more orderly than the reality. It is the narrative fallacy. It is hard to tell as story w/o a narrative, which explains it. Stories are more logical and plausible than reality.

I recommend the book. It is well written and the themes appropriately diverse. My only complaint is one I have for almost all such books. They include too many personal stories. They are kind of larded into books. I cynically think they are there to make the book long and heavy enough to be taken seriously, but I suppose readers like the human stories. My problem is that lots of the authors use the same stories or at least the same people. As I wrote, I read a lot of these sorts of books and I have heard many of them before.

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