Cover of book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

by: David Epstein

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75 Highlights | 40 Notes
  • His mom was a coach, but she never coached him. He would kick a ball around with her when he learned to walk. As a boy he played squash with his father on Sundays. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming, and skateboarding. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, badminton over his neighbor's fence, and soccer at school. He would later give credit to the wide range of sports he played for helping him develop his athleticism and hand-eye coordination.

    He found that the sport really didn't matter much, so long as it included a ball. “I was always much more interested if a ball was involved,” he would remember. He was a kid who loved to play. His parents had no particular athletic aspirations for him. “We had no plan A, no plan B,” his mother would later say. She and the boy's father encouraged him to sample a wide array of sports. In fact, it was essential. The boy “became unbearable,” his mother said, if he had to stay still for too long.

    Though his mother taught tennis, she decided against working with him. “He would have just upset me anyway,” she said. “He tried out every strange stroke and certainly never returned the ball normally. That is simply no fun for a mother.” Rather than pushy, a Sports Illustrated writer would observe that his parents were, if anything, “pully”. Nearing his teens, the boy began to gravitate more toward tennis, and “if they nudged him at all, it was to stop taking tennis so seriously.” When he played matches, his mother often wandered away to chat with friends. His father had only one rule: “Just don't cheat.” He didn't, and he started getting really good.

    Note: Roger Federer, model for parenting?
  • Prominent sports scientist Ross Tucker summed up research in the field simply: “We know that early sampling is key, as is diversity.”
  • I was slightly bemused to find that a former Navy SEAL with an undergraduate degree in history and geophysics pursuing graduate degrees in business and public administration from Dartmouth and Harvard needed me to affirm his life choices. But like others in the room, he had been told, both implicitly and explicitly, that changing directions was dangerous.
    Note: What is my story - changing fields...? Is there a forum for my story?
  • And I was stunned when cognitive psychologists I spoke with led me to an enormous and too often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.
  • Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform.
  • The domains Klein studied, in which instinctive pattern recognition worked powerfully, are what psychologist Robin Hogarth termed “kind” environments. Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid.

    The environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better.

    Note: kind learning environments
  • Kahneman was focused on the flip side of kind learning environments; Hogarth called them “wicked”

    In wicked domains, 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 if often delayed, inaccurate, or both.

  • There is a saying that “chess is 99 percent tactics.” Tactics are short combinations of moves that players use to get an immediate advantage on the board. When players study all those patterns, they are mastering tactics. Bigger — picture planning in chess - how to manage the little battles to win the war — is called stratedy.
    Note: How to teach strategy?
  • A duo of amateur players with three normal computers not only destroyed Hydra, the best chess super computer, they also crushed teams of grandmasters using computers. Kasparov concluded that the humans on the winning team were the best at “coaching” multiple computers on what to examine, ahd then synthesizing that information for an overall strategy.
    Note: on the first freestyle chess tournaments where teams could be made up of multiple humans and computers
  • “There are so many layers of thinking,”, he said. “We humans sort of suck at all of them individually, but we can have some kind of very approximate idea about each of them and can combine them and be somewhat adaptive. That seems to be what the trick is.&lrdquo;
    Note: #eq, by Julian Togelius, NYU professor who studies gaming AI, about how human players beat AI using 'long-term adaptive strategy', what is 'long-term adaptive strategy'
  • The subtitle of Schwartz's paper: “How Not to Teach People to Discover Rules” — that is, by providing rewards for repetitive short-term success with a narrow range of solutions.
    Note: Barry Schwartz, psychologist
  • The gains around the world on Raven's Progressive Matrices — where change was least expected — were the biggest of all. “The huge Raven's gains show that today's children are far better at solving problems on the spot without a previously learned method for doing so,” Flynn concluded. They are more able to extract rules and patterns where none are given.
    Note: James Flynn, Test is called Raven's Progressive Matrices, designed to guage the test taker's ability to make sense of complexity.
  • To use a common metaphor, premodern people miss the forest for the trees; modern people miss the trees for the forest.
  • … rather than focusing early training on conceptual, transferable knowledge.
  • He does not mean this in the simple sense that every computer science major needs an art history class, but rather that everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines.
    Note: He = James Flynn
  • They must be taught to think before being taught what to think about.
    Note: they = students,
  • I remember nothing about stoichiometry, but I use Fermi thinking regularly, breaking down a problem so I can leverage what little I know to start investigating what I don't, a 'similarities' problem of sorts.
    Note: Fermi thinking - estimate, just by reasoning to get the right order of magnitude. For Fermi who constantly made back-of-the-envelope estimates to help him approach problems
  • The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from on problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.
  • The Pietà's music program was not unique for its rigor. According to a list of Pietà directives, formal lessons were Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and figlie were free to practice on their own. Early in the rise of the figlie del coro, work and chores took most of their time, so they were allowed an hour a day of music study.
  • The psychologists highlighted the variety of paths to excellence, but the most common was a sampling period, often lightly structured with some lessons ad a breadth of instruments and activities, followed only later by a narrowing of focus, increased structure, and an explosion of practice volume.
  • Limb saw that brain areas associated with focused attention, inhibition, and self-censoring turned down when musicicans were creating. “It's almost as if the brain turned off its own ability to criticize itself,” he told National Geographic. While improvising, musicians do pretty much the opposite of consciously identifying errors and stopping to correct them.
    Note: Charles Limb, like in writing - let it vomit out, edit later
  • He pointed to a study that found an average of six houshold rules for typical children, compared to one in households with extremely creative children. The parents with creative children make their opinions known after their kids did something they didn't like, they just did not proscribe it beforehand. Their households were low on prior restraint.
    Note: how many rules do we have for our child at home? #to-journal, #to-try - don't proscribe beforehand
  • “Students do not view mathematics as a system,” Richland and her colleagues wrote. They view it as just a set of procedures.
    Note: Lindsey Richland, a University of Chicago professor who studies learning
  • They aren't comfortable with bewildered kids, and they want understanding to come quickly and easily. But for learning that is both durable (it sticks) and flexible (it can be applied broadly), fast and easy is precisely the problem.
    Note: errors parents and teacher make when teaching kids
  • Kornell was explaining the concept of 'desirable difficulties', obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower, and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long term.
    Note: Nate Kornell - cognitive psychologist
  • One of the desirable difficulties is known as the 'generation effect'. Struggling to generate an answer on your own, even a wrong one, enhances subsequent learning. … It requires the learner to intentionally sacrifice current performance for future benefit.'
  • This is another instance where extrapolating from sports to rest of the world can mislead. With motor-skill learning, some bad habits once formed can be laborious to undo. Elite coaches expend a lot of energy undoing motor habits that athletes who were over-coached as children formed years earlier. In the nonsports world, repeated wrong answers can set up learning, so long as the right answer is provided eventually.
  • In 2007, the U.S. Department of Education published a report by six scientists and an accomplished teacher who were asked to identify learning strategies that truly have scientific backing. Spacing, testing and using making-connections questions were on the extremely short list. All three impair performance in the short term
    Note: How do I use, show Mitra to use spacing, testing, connection-forming, interleaving in what I'm learning, teaching? examples... #to-journal
  • Whether the task is mental or physical, interleaving improves the ability to match the right strategy to a problem.
  • Teaching kids to read a little early is not a lasting advantage. Teaching them how to hunt for and connect contextual clues to understand what they read can be.
  • When a knowledge structure is so flexible that it can be applied effectively even in new domains or extremely novel situations, it is called 'far transfer'
  • “I especially love analogies,” he wrote, “my most faithful masters, acquainted with all the secrets of nature … One should make great use of them.
    Note: Johannes Kepler, #eq
  • Deep analogical thinking is the practice of recognizing conceptual similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that may seem to have little in common on the surface.z
  • The outside view probes for depp structural similarities to the current problem in different ones. The outside view is deeply counterintuitive because it requires a decision maker to ignore unique surface features of the current project, on which they are the expert, and instead look outside for structurally similar analogies. It requires a mindset switch from narrow to broad.
  • All forces align to incentivize a head start and early, narrow specialization, even if that is a poor long-term strategy. That is a problem, because another kind of knowledge, perhaps the most important of all, is necessarily slowly acquired — the kind that helps you match yourself to the right challengse in the first place.
  • 'Match quality' is a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are — their abilities and proclivities.
  • Learning stuff was less important than learning about oneself. Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.
  • Levitt identified one of his own most important skills as 'the willingness ot jettison' a project or an entire area of study for a better fit.
    Note: Steven Levitt
  • Switchers are winners. It seems to fly in the face of hoary adages about quitting, and of far newer concepts in modern psychology.
  • Persevering through difficulty is a competitive advantage for any traveler of a long road, but he suggested that knowing when to quit is such a big strategic advantage that every single person, before undertaking an endeavor, should enumerate conditions under which they should quit. The important trick, he said, is staying attuned to whether switching is simply a failure of perseverance, or astute recognition that better matches are available.
    Note: The Dip by Seth Godin, grit - but after you find your match quality.
  • The Grit Scale statement “I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest” is Van Gogh in a nutshell, at least up until the final few years of his life when he settled on his unique style and creatively erupted. Van Gogh was an example of match quality optimization, Robert Miller's multi-armed bandit process come to life. He tested options with maniacal intensity and got the maximum information signal about his fit as quickly as possible, and then moved to something else and repeated, until he had zigzagged his way to a place no one else had ever been, and where he alone excelled. Van Gogh's Grit scale score, according to Naifeh's assessment, was flush with hard work but low on sticking with every goal or project. He landed in the 40th percentile.
    Note: from pg 135:

    One-armed bandit - slang for a slot machine

    multi-armed bandit prococess - a hypothetical scenario: a single gambler is sitting in front of an entire row of slot machines, each machine has it's own unique probability of reward with each pull; the gambler's challenge is to test the different machines and try to figure out the best way to allocate their lever pulls to maximize rewards.

  • She explained that she did just whatever seemed like it would teach her something and allow her to be of service at each moment, and somehow that added up to training.
    Note: about Frances Hesselbein
  • Hesselbein mentioned it to a dress-factory worker who was also volunteering, and the woman told her, “You have to carry a big basket to bring something home.” She repeats the phrase today, to mean that a mind kept wide open will take something from every new experience.
  • Dark horses were on the hunt for match quality. “They never look around and say, 'Oh, I'm going to fall behind, these people started earlier and have more than me at a younger age,'” Ogas said. “They focused on, 'Here's who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here's what I've found I like to do, here's what I'd like to learn, and here are the opportunities. Which of these is the best match right now? And maybe a year from now I'll switch because I'll find something better.”
    Note: the dark horse project, Ogai Ogas - neuroscientist, #eq
  • He and another psycohologist aggregated the results of ninety-two studies and revealed that some personality traits changed over time in fairly predictable ways. Adults tend to become more agreeable, more conscientuous, more emotionally stable, and less neurotic with age, but less open to experience. In middle age, adults grow more consistent and cautious and less curious, open-minded, and inventive. The changes have well-known impacts, like the fact that adults generally become less likely to commit violent crimes with age, and more able to create stable relationships.
  • Instead of asking whether someone is gritty, we should ask when they are. “If you get someone into a contexst that suits them,” Ogas said, “they'll more likely work hard and it will look like grit from the outside.”
    Note: #eq, timely grit
  • Ibarra concluded that we maximize match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives. And repeat.
    Note: Herminia Ibarra - professor of organizational behavior at London Business School
  • … Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway …
    Note: #eq, Paul Graham
  • The more information specialists create, the more opportunity exists for curious dilettantes to contribute by merging strands of widely available but disparate information — undiscovered public knowledge, as Don Swanson called it. …

    It isn't just the increase in new knowledge that generates opportunities for nonspecialists, though. In a race to the forefront, a lot of useful knowledge is simply left behind to molder. That presents another kind of opportunity for those who want to create and invent but who cannot or simply do not want to work at the cutting edge. They can push forward by looking back; they can excavate old knowledge but wield it in a new way.

  • With that, and Drive Game, in mind, Yokoi embarked on an approach he called “lateral thinking with withered technology.” Lateral thinking is a term coined in the 1960s for the reimagining of information in new contexts, including the drawing together of seemingly disparate concepts or domains that can give old ideas new uses. By 'withered technnology', Yokoi meant tech that was old enough to be extremely well understood and easily available, so it didn't require a specialist's knowledge. The heart of his philosophy was putting cheap, simple technology to use in ways no one else considered. If he could not think more deeply about new technologies, he decided, he would think more broadly about old ones. He intentionally retreated from the cutting edge, and set to monozukuri
  • What its withered technology lacked, the Game Boy made up in user experience. It was cheap. It could fit in a large pocket. It was all but indestructible. …
    Old hardware was extremely familiar to developers inside and outside Nintendo, and with their creativity and speed unencumbered by learning new technology, they pumped out games as if they were early ancestors of iPhone app designers — Tetris, Super Mario Land, The Final Fantasy Legend, and a slew of sports games released in the first year were all smash hits.
    Note: witty
  • But there is a well-documented tendency people have to consider only familiar uses for objects, an instinct known as functional fixedness.
  • Do not be an engineer, he said, be a producer. “The producer knows that there's such a thing as a semiconductor, but doesn't need to know its inner workings...That can be left to the experts.
    Note: #eq, Yokoi Gunpei
  • Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen argued that it was actually the most important kind of innovation, an 'empowering innovation' — one that creates both new customers and new jobs, like the rise of personal computers before it — because it brought video games to an entirely new (often older) audience.
  • Eminent physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson styled it this way: we need both focused frogs and visionary birds. “Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon,” Dyson wrote in 2009. “They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and brind together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.”
    Note: #eq, Freeman Dyson
  • She described her approach to innovation almost like investigative journalism, except her version of shoe-leather reporting is going door-to-door among her peers. She is a 'T-shaped person', she said, one who has breadth, compared to an 'I-shaped person,' who only goes deep, an analog to Dyson's birds and frogs. 'T-people like myself can happily go to the I-people with questions to create the trunk for the T,' she told me. 'My inclination is to attach a problem by building a narrative. I figure out the fundamental questions to ask, and if you ask those questions of the people who actually do know their stuff, you are still exactly where you would be if you had all this other knowledge inherently. It's mosaic building. I just keep putting those tiles together. Imagine me in a network where I didn't have the ability to access all these people. That really wouldn't work well.'
    Note: about Jayshree Seth
  • Individual creators started out with lower innovativeness than teams &mdash they were less likely to produce a smash hit — but as their experience broadened they actually surpassed teams: an individual creator who had worked in four or more genres was more innovative than a team whose members had collective experience across the same number of genres. Taylor and Greeve suggested that 'individuals are capable of more creative integration of diverse experiences that teams are.'
  • Their findings about who these people are should sound familiar by now: 'high tolerance for ambiguity'; 'systems thinkers'; 'additional technical knowledge from peripheral domains'; 'repurposing what is already available'; 'adept at using analogous domains for finding inputs to the invention process'; ability to connect disparate pieces of information in new ways'; 'synthesizing information from many different sources'; 'they appear to flit among ideas'; 'broad range of interests'; 'they read more (and more broadly) than other technnologists and have a wider range of outside interests'; 'need to learn significantly across multiple domains'; 'Serial innovators also need to communicate with various individuals with technical expertise outside of their own domain.'
    Note: describing 'serial innovators' by Utah professor Abbie Griffin and her two colleages
  • Tetlock conferred nicknames (borrowed from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin) that became famous throughout the psychology and intelligence-gathering communities: the narrow-view hedgehogs, who 'know one big thing,' and the integrator foxes, who 'know many little things.'
  • He tried on ideas like Instagram filters until it was hard to tell which he actually believed.
    Note: about Philip Tetlock, witty
  • Not only were the best forecasters foxy as individuals, they had qualities that made them particularly effective collaborators — partners in sharing information and discussing predcitons.
    Note: about the superforecasters in the Good Judgement project
  • Eastman described the core trait of the best forecasters to me as: 'genuinely curious about, well, really everything.'
    Note: scott eastman
  • The best forecasters view their own ideas as hypotheses in need of testing. Their aim is not to convince their teammates of their own expertise, but to encourage their teammates to help them falsify their own notions.
  • Those who were high in science curiosity bucked that trend. Their foxy hunt for information was like a literal fox's hunt for prey; roam freely, listen carefully, and consume omnivorously.
  • He made a point of copying into his notes any fact or observation he encountered that ran contrary to a theory he was working on. He relentlessly attacked his own ideas, dispensing with one model after another, until he arrived at a theory that fit the totality of the evidence.
    Note: about Charles Darwin
  • Foxes see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect. They understand that most cause-and-effect relationships are probabilistic, not deterministic. There are unknowns and luck, and even when history apparantly repeats, it does not do so precisely. They recognize that they are operationg in the very definition of a wicked learning environment, where it can be very hard to learn, from either wins or losses.
    Note: Hence a decision journal for everything?
  • There are no tools that cannot be dropped, reimagined, or repurposed in order to navigate an unfamiliar challenge. Even the most sacred tools. Even the tools so taken for granted that they become invisible. It is, of course, easier said than done.
  • She found that the most effective leaders and organizations had range; they were, in effect, paradoxical. They could be demanding and nurturing, orderly and entrepreneurial, even hierarchical and individualistic all at once. A level of ambiguity, it seemed, was not harmful. In decision making, it can broaden an organization's toolbox in a way that is uniquely valuable.
    Note: i.e. send mixed messages. ambiguity in parenting? or is it a different kind of a system?
  • Superforecasting teams harnessed the same cultural cross-pressure. A team was judged purely by the accuracy of its members' forecasts. But internally the Good Judgement Project incentivized collective culture. Commenting was an expectation; teammates were encouraged to vote for useful comments and recognized for process milestones, like a certain number of lifetime comments.
  • Instead of a ladder, the organizational structure was concentric circles, with Hesselbein in the middle. Information could flow in many directions, and anyone in one circle had numerous entry points to communicate with the next circle, rather than just a single superior who acted as a gate. When she explained it to me, it seemed a lot like the kind of congruence Geveden worked to engender, and the kind that Captain Lesmes wielded: a differentiated chain of command and a chain of communication that produced incongruence, and thus a healthy tension. An occasionally confusing but effective mix of strong formal and informal culture.
  • 'Saturday morning experiments.' he called them. … One needs to let the brain think about something different from its daily work, he would say. 'On Saturday', as Smithies put it, 'you don't have to be completely rational'
    Note: #project-idea, #todo, Oliver Smithies
  • … You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it. We don't train people in thinking or reasoning.
    Note: Arturo Casadevall, #eq
  • 'When you push the boundaries, a lot of it is just probing. It has to be inefficien,' Casadevall told me. 'What's gone totally is that time to talk and synthesize. People grab lunch and bring it into their offices. They feel lunch is inefficient, but often that's the best time to bounce ideas and make connections.'
    Note: Arturo Casadevall, #eq, inefficiency again - non-optimization
  • Approach your own personal voyage and projects like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise.
  • As Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a century ago, of the free exchange of ideas, 'It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.'
  • Book References from Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

    • Guide to the ABC's of drawing by
    • Gunpei Yokoi Game House by Yokoi Gunpei Gēmu-kan
      Notes: only in Japanese. English translations do not exist yet
    • Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki
      Notes: to-watch, dreamlike epic by Japanese comic and animated film creator
    • Serial Innovators by Abbie Griffin
    • patent U.S. no. 4398804 using Google Patents by Yokoi Gunpei
      Notes: Yokoi's often simple patents are often a treasure trove of invention history