Book of the week
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Dabblers of the world, take heart, said Randall Stross in The Wall Street Journal. Pushing back against a culture that celebrates the monomaniacal pursuit of high achievement—and holds up single-minded prodigies such as Tiger Woods as models—journalist David Epstein has mounted a strong case for the wisdom of gaining wide experience before settling on a specialty. Instead of Woods, Epstein spotlights Roger Federer, who as a child sampled various sports before focusing on tennis. And the benefits of cultivating wide-ranging interests show up in many fields. One study found that scientists who have won the Nobel Prize are 22 times as likely as their peers to have artistic hobbies. So narrow specialization from a young age is out? asked Alex Hutchinson in The Globe and Mail (Canada). That’s a claim “sure to generate sparks in the peak-performance world—and sighs of relief from stressed-out parents.”
As for the evidence supporting this happy thesis, “Epstein serves up a feast of it,” said Jim Holt in The New York Times. Vincent van Gogh, we learn, was a pastor, a bookseller, and a teacher before discovering his passion for painting. The Nintendo employee who contributed the most to the creation of Game Boy worked initially as a janitor. In Scotland, where university students are encouraged to sample interdisciplinary courses for two years, graduates are more likely to sustain a career in their chosen major than are their counterparts in England, who choose academic paths before applying. Each anecdote proves a joy to read. “Indeed, so persuasive is Epstein’s marshaling of evidence that I almost failed to notice an ambiguity lurking at the heart of his book”: If the world, in all its complexity, favors generalists, how can a person know when and how to specialize? And what if multitalents like Roger Federer are simply exceptions, and we lesser mortals are better off specializing, and specializing early?
Still, parents of young children could learn a lot from Range, said Ashley Fetters in The Atlantic. Various recent child-rearing guides have stressed the importance of perseverance or “grit”—telling parents that kids should stick to whatever passion they pursue. But that’s no recipe for a happy child, or even a successful one. In a study of school-age musicians that Epstein cites, the standouts began intense musical practice only after choosing the particular instrument they wished to focus on. The best approach, Epstein suggests, is simple: Let kids discover through trial and error what activities they love. And if the love vanishes, let them quit. ■