Range – How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

“The dilemma is this. In the modern world knowledge has been growing so fast and so enormously, in almost every field, that the probabilities are immensely against anybody, no matter how innately clever, being able to make a contribution in any one field unless he devotes all his time to it for years. If he tries to be the Rounded Universal Man, like Leonardo da Vinci, or to take all knowledge for his province, like Francis Bacon, he is most likely to become a mere dilettante and dabbler. But if he becomes too specialized, he is apt to become narrow and lopsided, ignorant on every subject but his own, and perhaps dull and sterile even on that because he lacks perspective and vision and has missed the cross-fertilization of ideas that can come from knowing something of other subjects.” ― Henry Hazlitt



Is It Better to Be a Specialist or a Generalist?

Today’s high-tech economy is a dynamic place. Highly educated, ambitious people have a shot at topping the ladder. With the help of modern technology, the path to finding work has been made slightly more direct. Starting from early childhood, we can develop “signals” or instincts that direct our career choices. Early specialization has become more common because earlier generations were less directly exposed to market forces and technological advances.

A lot of people get into the habit of thinking they need to specialize in something to be good. But the research shows that when it comes to creativity and expertise – that’s not true. When you look at the very best people in the world at solving problems, they don’t specialize in one area but instead, break down their skills in many different areas to get the best out of whatever they’re working on.

People with more diverse experiences and backgrounds are more likely to develop overall expertise and develop strong relationships in the areas where they work. They are more likely to take on leadership positions within their organizations and have a greater capacity to think on their feet and respond quickly to change. They also are less likely to respond emotionally to setbacks and their strengths tend to compound themselves over time.

Why you should read this book?

Are you, someone

Who wants to be a successful entrepreneur?

Who wants to know how to build an effective career?

A great parent?

Or just a human who wants to thrive in an age of AI, robots?

Then this book is for you.

Range gives you an insight into how cultivating a large range of skills is one of the fundamental building blocks for any successful person. It keeps you intellectually agile, creative, informed, and prepared for any eventuality.

The range principle is a pretty simple idea. It states that the value of your range of options should be maximized—that is, as many options as possible should be taken from within your preferred parameter range, and as many options as possible outside of it. It is an evolving philosophy, it’s a lifestyle, it’s an attitude that can be taken to extremes and pushed to extremes to create a balanced life.

The idea is to extend your skills indefinitely by considering alternatives and possible alternatives, and consider many possible worlds in between your starting and ending points. The approach allows you to invent your own rules, or at least discipline yourself to think clearly about what’s possible and important in life.

Summary

  1. There is an important maxim – to become excellent, don’t specialize early in life. That is the only rule you should follow, and it is the only way to become truly excellent at anything, even if at first you fail.

Specialization is an unfortunate phase of human development. The specialization we experience as children comes with a downside: we develop narrow views of the world and limited abilities to deal with things that aren’t neatly categorized into boxes. Making a career out of specializing in a single field also limits your horizons. You can only view the world so narrowly, and typically can’t accept new ideas or approaches. When you specialize early in life, you close off opportunities for learning and growth. You narrow your understanding of the world and become unaware of new possibilities that might open up after expanding your horizon.

2. Ideas are mostly acquired by doing. Have broader experiences that give your newer perspectives.

“Experience is the best teacher,” said Napoleon; and knowledge is the most valuable of all — other things being equal — because experience changes us. Experience makes us appreciate all that we have seen and learned. It sharpens our faculties both mind and body. It deepens our understanding of people and situations. It makes us more compassionate and noble. The experience opens doors that give us clarity. The experience moves mountains. Experience is the most valuable asset we can develop.

Whether it’s building a database or helping to design a product, getting involved in new projects gives you a chance to practice what you’re learning and get valuable feedback. Even non-entrepreneurs should have some kind of experience building a product or working for an existing company if it allows them to understand how companies operate and what their goals are.

3. Expertise often comes with a built-in bias—a preference for things being different than how they are. Experts often oversell their expertise.

In the long run, general knowledge is better than specialized knowledge. Experts are often biased in favor of intuitive solutions and pessimistic about their likelihood of being wrong (even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary). They are therefore prone to reach strong conclusions early in situations where uncertainty exists. Even when faced with contradictory evidence, experts tend to cling to their initial gut reaction, narrow focus, and existing beliefs.

How this book has transformed my life

With specialization comes the loss of flexibility and access to resources of the wider world. Often we pay a price for this specialization: We miss out on opportunities that might have been taken up by someone else with a broader range of interests and skills. In this way, specialization can be a net loss for society at large, but it can be enhanced and cultivated.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the effects of specialization in recent days. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the difficulty of switching careers or even considering new starter careers. Because each of us is naturally programmed toward particular careers, it seemed almost impossible to imagine actively generalizing on multiple skills but now this looks achievable and a new way to rethink my career.

I started blogging, incorporating my reading habits, my knowledge of architecture with my writing skills. Also, I realized that most of us have a set of interests or passions – ethic, intellectual, creative, whatever, and we don’t need to specialize in any one of them to triumph in today’s specialized world.

“Favoring specialization over intelligence is exactly wrong, especially in high tech. The world is changing so fast across every industry and endeavor that it’s a given the role for which you’re hiring is going to change. Yesterday’s widget will be obsolete tomorrow, and hiring a specialist in such a dynamic environment can backfire. A specialist brings an inherent bias to solving problems that spawns from the very expertise that is his putative advantage, and may be threatened by a new type of solution that requires new expertise. A smart generalist doesn’t have bias, so is free to survey the wide range of solutions and gravitate to the best one.”
― Eric Schmidt, How Google Works

Summary + Key Takeaways

  • Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains.

It is no longer sufficient to simply have a skill. A skill is useful, but it is also limited. You may be able to solve a problem, but not all. The world is getting smaller every day; there are more things to do and fewer people who are experienced doing them. You need to be able to transfer knowledge rapidly from one domain to another, to be relevant, to be able to get a raise, and, most importantly, to be able to solve problems no one else can.

There is no end to the knowledge that can be shared across boundaries whether those are physical or virtual. We are entering an age where knowledge is highly valuable and can be used to fuel creativity, innovation, and competitiveness.

  • Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.

Have you ever tried to apply your knowledge to a situation that didn’t fit? It can be difficult and sometimes frustrating. This is something we all have to figure out and it is something we must do to grow in our abilities as learners. The age of robots, AI is also the age of creativity where only creative jobs will be left for humans and only the generalized learner will be able to apply his/her knowledge in the creative space of the modern era.

  • Generation effect- struggling to generate an answer on your own, even a wrong one, enhances subsequent learning.

The more incorrect answers you see, the better your understanding of the material is likely to be. Having access to lots of wrong answers makes it easier to learn. “In a sense, ” it concludes, “every [student or aspiring professional] should live and learn by constantly losing [they’re] own sense of security.”

You learn from your mistakes. And when you’re learning a topic new, even an erroneous answer can expand your horizon and prompt fresh thinking. The feedback loop is powerful: if you get feedback on things you’re working on, it can help you find the right approach – or even inspire new ideas!

  • Hypercorrection effect- the more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.

The human brain is a beautiful creation, and as such it’s prone to making mistakes. Big mistakes can be the stepping stone to greater success, or the single biggest thing that stands between you and success. If you’re serious about improving at anything in life, you need to learn to deal with mistakes and transition successfully from the learning phase to the doing phase. To learn effectively you need an open mind; to open your mind you need to tolerate big mistakes. Big mistakes can be very valuable; they can make you stronger and provide you with more valuable information later on in life. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and don’t be afraid of learning from them either. Being forced to confront your weaknesses and make them work towards your goals can be extremely motivational. It’s very common for people to be discouraged when their skills plateau. They assume they aren’t good enough, or that they’ll never get better. There’s a lot of data that shows this isn’t true. If you want to improve at anything in life, you need to get comfortable with making mistakes. It’s ok to lose sleep over small details. It’s ok to feel like an acrylic model of a whale when you’re working on a model of a dog.

You’ll get better at whatever it is you’re attempting to learn. Making small mistakes gives you much more valuable information than having no mistakes at all.

  • For knowledge to be flexible, it should be learned under varied conditions, an approach called varied or mixed practice, or, interleaving.

One way to train your mind to be flexible is to use it to sample a variety of knowledge. For example, if you want to learn more about engineering, you might take up a crayon-colored hobby that involves copying the letters of the alphabet in the sand. Or if you have only a general knowledge of cryptography, perhaps taking up a game of hiding and seek with a partner could help increase your knowledge. As you grow more experienced, you can swap projects with others or take on different tasks in parallel to sharpen your memory.

  • Learn deeply means learning slowly.

Learning rapidly can be rewarding, but it also leads to disaster because new knowledge can overwhelm older ways of thinking and acting. If you want to break free from the routine and learn a new skill or learn a new approach to an old one, it’s best to instead focus on one straightforward pursuit–learning deeply as much about that skill as possible. It doesn’t matter if you practice for hours every day or spend weekends practicing advanced techniques in your spare time–if you learn slowly and consistently every part of your skillset is worth it.

  • If you need a large force to accomplish some purpose but are prevented from applying such a force directly, many smaller forces applied simultaneously from different directions may work just as well.

When faced with a new challenge, sometimes smaller creatures can work together better than larger ones. Once you identify some force that you want to imitate or harness, all you have to do is start making small changes to encourage the development of that force.

  • Evaluating an array of options before letting intuition reign is a trick for the wicked world.

When in doubt the best way to go is to put your instinctive knowledge of the situation aside and look at the available data. Sometimes your intuition will lead you to make a decision that is wrong or may not be in your best interest. Instead, evaluate the available information carefully and search for ways to improve your decision. There is no harm in trying new things in life and there are benefits to taking calculated risks.

  • We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models. We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.

The best way to know yourself is to be aware of the wonder and creativity in the world around you and how much better off you would be if only you were doing/having/thinking something different. Our existence is in preparation for something greater. What’s important now isn’t important tomorrow. We can change details today, even if the outcome is small or unimportant. This can only be attained by doing new things, making networks, and finding newer models that can make us learn and unlearn information about success, performance, and education.

  • Big innovation most often happens when an outsider who may be far away from the surface of the problem reframes the problem in a way that unlocks the solution.

The big innovation happens when an outsider brings a novel perspective to a familiar problem. This is based on an observation that the outsiders have never experienced similar situations before and are often equipped with knowledge from different fields not relevant to the problem field or its expertise. This draws a fresh perspective to the problem making it easily resolvable.

  • Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do some things, but it also makes you blind to other things that you could do.

The best thing about knowledge is that anyone can use it to improve their lot in life in one way or another. The downside is that knowledge affects all areas of your life—even areas you don’t think of as being related to knowledge. An expertise knowledge can downplay in longer run and therefore a person who knows how to think outside the box, has a generalized approach, and think critically about problems can be extremely effective in any area of life—be it business or personal.

  • For the re imagining of information in new contexts, including the drawing together of seemingly disparate concepts or domains that can give old ideas new uses – lateral thinking with withered technology.

We live in a world increasingly made by machines. The functions that were once performed by people have been outsourced or automated – thanks to software engineers and data scientists. The logic behind creating and delivering content is seemingly automated. However, human creativity and empathy remain vital in delivering experiences that push us beyond our programming. Therefore must learn to re-imagine information. We must reimagine knowledge. And we must reimagine ourselves.

  • Broad genre experience made creators better on average and more likely to innovate.

It’s a well-known fact that experience makes a difference. It can give you insight, skills, perspectives, and emotional resources to draw from when you’re creating. In today’s Creativity can make us better and more likely to innovate. For example, if you’re a beginner at blogging, being experienced with writing can lead to deeper and more valuable insights than someone with less experience. It can also help you find alternative ways to reach your vision – a skill that is sometimes overlooked because of the allure of immediate success.

Great broader experiences make people better because it refines their thinking, sways their priorities, and opens doors to new experiences.

  • Super-forecasting- roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee

The average expert is a horrific forecaster. Their areas of specialty, years of experience, academic degrees, and even (for some) access to classified information made no difference. On the other hand, integrators (those who integrate contradictory knowledge/ worldviews) outperform experts on pretty much everything and specially trounced them on long–term predictions.

The trick is to know many little things.

  • The best forecasters are high in active open-mindedness.

The best forecasters are extremely curious and don’t merely consider contrary ideas, they proactively cross disciplines looking for them. They ask two basic things of a forecast: forward motion (what will happen) and backward motion (what did happen). They look for patterns in events and patterns in interactions among those events. They seek confirmation of their initial hunches. For forecasters, learning this way is not optional. It is fundamental to how they approach their work.

  • There are no tools that cannot be dropped, reimagined, or repurposed to navigate an unfamiliar challenge.

The most effective tools are the ones that take a ‘throwaway’ mentality. When used effectively, ” throwaway” tools can support a movement, let you know where something is at, just kickstart an idea that you may not have been able to otherwise, or just help someone else deal with something they were dealing with.

  • The trick to expanding the organization’s range is by identifying the dominant culture and then diversifying it by pushing in the opposite direction.

The most successful innovation cultures build on a foundation of shared knowledge and strong interpersonal ties.

The successful teams that adopt an effective problem-solving culture are those that can rapidly prototype and scale solutions for problems that don’t fit into the group’s existing paradigms. They are also those that can motivate and educate their teammates in ways that push them out of their traditional roles. Their speed, recognition of strengths, and ability to adjust quickly allow them to develop creative solutions to problems that might otherwise take days or weeks to figure out.

  • There is no such thing as a master key that will unlock all doors. Rather than wielding a single tool, manage to collect and protect an entire threshold, and then show the power of range in a hyper specialized world.

The ability to tap into multiple skills, locations, and worlds is the very heart of what human potential is all about. And yet we spend a vast majority of our lives stuck in either one of two camps: jamming and grinding our way through school or working a dead-end job where we’re barely contributing anything. Range starts with being able to tap into your full potential — your potential for learning and connecting with others — regardless of where you are or what you’ve already learned.

  • Take your skills to a place that’s not doing the same sort of thing. Take your skills and apply them to a new problem, or take your problem and try completely new skills.

It’s the ability to think on your feet and your ability to learn from others that separates the great communicators from the merely good ones. Think laterally, broaden your experience; get outside your bubble. Learn something new every day. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Show curiosity about everything. Be willing to learn from others as well as yourself. Open your mind to new ideas and information even if it scares you.

  • Teams that include members from different institutions are more likely to be successful than those that did not, and teams that included members based in different countries have an advantage as well.

In a study led by Stanford Professor John Ioannidis, teams that included people from different institutions were more likely to achieve some goal than teams that did not. The benefits of such cross-country teams extend beyond increased productivity. Studying teams leads to insights into how groups work, and how they benefit from one another’s perspectives. Moreover, studying cross-country teams provides us with opportunities to think about international organizations in new ways—in a good way.

  • Arbitrage opportunities- the chance to take an idea from one market and bring it to another where it is more rare and valued.

Imagine if you could take an idea from one part of the world and bring it to another part of the world, where it was more practical and valued? Imagine if your creativity could jump continents in a single bound. That’s the power of global markets. Imagine being both a mugger and a peacemaker. That’s the unprecedented potential of social media.

There are three basic ways that businesses and individuals can profit from arbitrage. The first and most common is buying low and selling high. Say you have a really good deal on a good product and are willing to sell it at any price. It doesn’t matter how much your competitors are willing to pay for your good, because you can always buy it at a lower price and then resell it for a higher profit. Second, you can find people who are willing to sell a good or service at an inexpensive price but are not using it as much as they could be. Finally, arbitrageurs can get profit by buying low and selling high in an asset that will always appreciate.

  • Work that builds bridges between disparate pieces of knowledge is less likely to be funded, less likely to appear in famous journals, more likely to be ignored upon publication, and then more likely in the long run to be a smash hit in the library of human knowledge.

If you want to see your work read by the next generation — if you want your ideas to end up in the hands of students and potential workers, then you need to find ways to bridge the gap between seemingly unrelated fields.

You must understand how your work will be used and appreciated by people outside your field.

There’s a lot to unpack when you’re using your creative talents for non-traditional purposes, and it can be intimidating or even embarrassing at times. But to use your creativity in a way that makes you happy, you have to be willing to do counterintuitive things. That means being willing to make room for new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new ways of using your creativity. By integrating different fields of study — cultural studies, communication arts, gender studies — you’re opening up new doors for your future self.

  • Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you fell behind.

If I were to give you a piece of advice, it would be this: resist the urge to compare yourself to others more than you already do. Instead, focus on where you want to be — in five, ten, twenty years. Be satisfied with where you are right now and what you have already achieved. Keep looking ahead, but don’t get overly excited about where you might be in the future.

We’re all moving at different speeds. Nor does the world care one way or another about how fast you go. The key is to acknowledge that progress and find ways to maintain momentum. Get moving, then wait for the waves to ride over you.

  • Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves- their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.

“Success in the knowledge economy is not measured by wealth, fame, or power. Rather it consists in applying your knowledge in ways that make you a better, more valued person and citizen. Knowledge is power. But unlike economic power which is based on production and exchange, knowledge is more than that- it is a dynamic, ever-changing super-strategy for making your world better—and accelerating your career to boot.

It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.

“It is a painful thing to say to oneself: by choosing one road I am turning my back on a thousand others. Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands; willy-nilly we must submit and rest content as to things that time and wisdom deny us, with a glance of sympathy which is another act of our homage to the truth.”
― Antonin Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods

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