If you work in hospitality sales, marketing, or revenue optimization, you’re something of a specialist — or even a subspecialist if, for example, you’re in the revenue department, concentrating on data analytics. But if you’re particularly good at your job, you probably started out as a generalist. That’s the intriguing premise of David Epstein’s new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, which argues that long-term success is often the result of breadth of knowledge over depth of knowledge, of having many diverse experiences rather than one deep experience, and of pursuing interdisciplinary education instead of siloed learning.
But that’s not the way the world is moving. People are expected to figure out what they want to do as soon as possible, and to get there by moving from point A to B to C. Detours and tangents are counterproductive. In the introduction to Range, Epstein compares the much-publicized story of Tiger Woods, who was focused on becoming a golf champion almost literally from birth, with the lesser-known background of tennis star Roger Federer, who played a variety of sports well into his teens. “The challenge we all face,” Epstein writes, “is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization. “While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases — as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part — we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress.”
Epstein has some personal experience with this. With a master’s degree in environmental science, he thought he was going to be a scientist and was working on a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean when he realized he wanted to be a writer — and even then he moved quickly through a series of journalism jobs before writing his first book, 2014’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. “I began worrying that I was a job-commitment-phobic drifter who must be doing this whole career thing wrong,” Epstein writes in Range. “Learning about the advantages of breadth and delayed specialization has changed the way I see myself and the world.”
Within the context of your argument, what does it mean to be a generalist?
It’s a semantic moving target in a lot of ways. If you look at the stuff I wrote about patent research [in Range], it can have a very specific definition, where people who study technological innovation will categorize a specialist as someone who has worked across one or a very small number of the patent offices, whereas the generalist is someone who’s worked across a large number of those classes. Or in comic books, someone who has worked across many genres as opposed to staying in one genre.
In other areas, it’s really difficult to quantify. Even the opening anecdote, where I use Roger and Tiger — Roger becomes a specialist eventually, obviously, but he goes at it in this way that’s like most of the people in the book, where they didn’t set out to be broad. It’s that they typically set out to either explore their interests or improve their match quality — term economists use to describe the degree of fit between someone’s interest and abilities and the work they do — and in their search for that, they just do a lot of zigging and zagging that brings them to a place where they have these disparate experiences and skills when they do decide to specialize. I think of it as the people who don’t travel a linear path in whatever they’re doing, and when they arrive at their longer-term goals, they do so with a range of nontraditional experiences and skills.
Who is your intended audience for this book?
With both of my books, I have investigated questions that I was curious about that I would’ve been totally fine for someone else to have written a book about that I could read, but that I didn’t see out there and that I wanted to explore for my own interest. My first book was called The Sports Gene, and it was a list of questions about the balance of nature and nurture and athletic skill development that I had accumulated from my own time as an athlete and from being a spectator. And in this case, it was questions about the development of expertise in non-sports areas. But I was attuned to the fact that when I wrote the sports books, the business community ended up being biggest buyers of it, which was a total mystery to me. Then I started to realize that people that are interested in performance are interested in performance — it doesn’t matter if it’s a chef or an acrobat or athletes.
And so, this time around I realized that that would be much more of the audience and I wanted that to happen. I really want, like, HR people to see this, because I write about the work of Abbie Griffin on serial innovators. She’s often warning HR people that when you’re defining your job roles too narrowly, you are screening out these people who have the potential to be your highest-impact employees, because they have these eclectic backgrounds, because they have a need to communicate with people outside their domain, because they, as she puts it, appear to flit among ideas. So, I want people who are decision makers in companies and people who are involved in recruiting and training, and also people who are involved in the education system, because I think in many cases we are taking the backward approach to the integration of AI into the workplace, where we’re pushing people to be more specialized when the most specialized jobs are the ones that are most easily overtaken by AI.
Is a generalist mindset something that you can work at or deliberately cultivate?
For sure. Like most habits and traits, some things come to some people pretty naturally, and then other people have to work at them. There was a woman in the Netherlands who did these famous studies called the Groningen Talent Studies. Basically, she was studying how do people develop. She looked in sports, she looked in classrooms, she looked in other areas of work — following people from being 12 years old to becoming professionals, sometimes professional athletes, sometimes entrepreneurs. What are the traits that predict who’s going to get to the top? One of the things that ran across everyone was called self-regulatory learning, and what that basically means is taking accountability for your own development. The single most important practice for that is reflection. It’s like taking time to reflect on the things you do after you do them and how that impacted your skills and how that fit with you, and continually doing that constantly.
Does this dynamic apply to individuals or is there something about generalism that also can work at the team or group level?
I think it can. One of the things with patents was, when you were in an area that was less well-characterized — the more wicked domains where you weren’t sure where the next breakthrough would come from — then having a generalist on a team massively improved chances of a team making a breakthrough. And in comic book teams, it was good to have a team of individual specialists together with different experiences, but it was even better to have individuals who themselves had these very broad experiences. I think this stuff functions on both levels. If I look at the totality of the data, I don’t think breadth and depth are in zero-sum competition. I think breadth is the ally of depth, and that if you can have some of these integrators on teams of specialists, they really become more than the sum of their parts.
One of the major challenges in our industry is fostering collaboration between the disciplines of sales, marketing, and revenue optimization. Could being aware of the generalist mindset help?
If I had my ideal, they would actually be switching those job functions sometimes, so that people can actually work in the other roles. Silos and disciplines are a necessary evil of making the world comprehensible, but the world is not broken into disciplines and silos in that way. At some point, you have to put the world back together again, and I think we should be pointed toward doing that. I’ve had an inside view of this. In my own career, I was living in a tent in the Arctic when I decided to become a writer, and my very ordinary science skills when put it in the context of a sports magazine suddenly became extraordinary. And I feel like if people were moving across those domains, they would have these sorts of intellectual arbitrage opportunities where they take strategies that were working in one area that are common and then bring them to the other area where they’re less common and cause a big boost. But the people have to be moving in order for that to happen.