Book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

In his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David J. Epstein investigates the significant advantages of generalized cognitive skills for success in a complex world. We’ve heard and read many praises for narrow expertise in both humans and AIs (Watson, Alpha Go, etc.). In both humans and AIs, however, narrow+deep expertise does not translate to adaptiveness when reality presents novel challenges, as it does constantly. 

As you ingest this highly readable, non-technical book, please add your observations to the comments below. 

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Natalie Adolphi

I’ll have to admit that I was a little skeptical about this book initially, due to all of the sports analogies. (Not that I don’t like sports, but they aren’t a source of deep thinking for me!) Having stuck with it, I have appreciated the wide range of examples. I have often felt that Life is like a big Monte Carlo Random Walk, and the important thing is to keep sampling phase space and to enjoy the local minima when you find them. In the spirit of the text, that is my analogical (and ultra-geeky) thought for the day! So… Read more »

Edward Berge

I agree Natalie. The author admits that the other way of learning through intense specialization also produces exemplary results, albeit in fields not so wicked. So while I too am predisposed to the thesis, coming from a wide range background, I also think that the examples are cherry-picked to support the argument. Then again, that’s what we all do. I do appreciate though the point that it’s not only insular natives that don’t see the broad, abstract and connecting generalizations but neither do most college-trained students and teachers. My college education was in the liberal arts, specifically designed for a… Read more »

Edward Berge

I just quoted this one in another thread, but given its range it is applicable to this one too: “Although it is possible to identify particular tasks and activities that operate within particular domains of thinking, feeling, or acting in everyday life, most tasks involve an integration of multiple task domains. […] Higher-order skills emerge from the constructive differentiation and inter-coordination of skill elements from diverse task domains. […] Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that development takes place in a multidirectional web of pathways (Fischer and Bidell, 2006) rather than a unidirectional ladder. […] Developing skills do not… Read more »

Edward Berge

Hedgefoxes and foxhogs: Epstein notes that hedgehogs cherry-pick information to feed their biases and resist revising their ideas when faced with new information. But as we noted, Epstein does this too to make his case. I’d add that it’s not as simple as a person, group, idea or theory being either a hedgehog or a fox. That strict categorical dichotomy is in fact a hedgehog move! All of us individually and collectively have some combination of both/and/neither/nor depending on various contexts and circumstances, just like our so-called levels of development. So while some theories are foxy in that they include… Read more »

Edward Berge

Also see this related prior post, a short TED talk by Epstein: