Non-Fiction, Science


Cover image for Range by David Epsteinby David Epstein

ISBN 978-0-7352-1448-4        

“Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there.”

Most people by now are familiar with the ten thousand hour rule, as studied by Anders Ericsson, and made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. Journalist David Epstein examines an opposing approach to learning, putting aside the concept of early specialization, followed by many hours of deliberate practice, in order to explore the potential benefits of wide sampling for learning, creativity, and problem solving, before specialization takes place. His inquiry takes the reader through the unconventional career paths of famous innovators such as Vincent Van Gogh, tracks the surprising scientific breakthroughs made by outsiders in fields in which they have no formal training, and highlights how the ability to integrate broadly remains a uniquely human strength.

It is important to note that Epstein is not dismissing this earlier research, or discounting specialization altogether. Rather, he is interested in dissecting our mythologization of this one method of learning, and figuring out in which realms this strategy is applicable, and in what areas it puts us at a disadvantage. The resulting reporting reveals a fascinating range of situations where unusual training paths, and outside collaborators have had an outsize influence on innovation, creativity, and problem solving. He specifically identifies “kind” domains in which the rules are relatively fixed, and feedback is immediate, and more “wicked” domains where results take longer to reveal themselves, and the rules are subject to change at any moment, if any patterns can be discerned at all.

Epstein has a great eye for stories, and a knack for telling them well. He opens each chapter with a case that illustrates the point, before he lays out the somewhat drier data that buttresses his argument. One of the most fascinating of these is the story of the figlie del coro, female orphans and foundlings from the Venetian ospedali. Given over to the orphanage by their mothers—who were probably sex workers—the girls were raised to music from an early age, taught to sing and play a variety of instruments. Although these women were hailed as among the best musicians of the period, and had the vaunted early start, they spent much less time per day practicing than today’s classically trained musicians, and they switched and sampled instruments often. In fact, they were known to switch places mid-performance. Their story illustrates that even in “kind” domains like classical music, there are paths to outrageous success that do not follow what we think of as the typical path. And the examples provided are not just historical; in the world of modern music, Yo-Yo Ma tried violin and piano before settling on the cello.

Yet another of Epstein’s gripping stories comes from endeavours like InnoCentive, a company founded to search for unusual solutions to sophisticated problems that have stumped experts in the fields from which the problems arose. Thus, a man with experience working with concrete solved the problem of how to remove congealed oil from an environmental recovery barge, and the dean of a library school who had no library science background discovered a potential link between migraines and magnesium deficiency, which was documented in the available literature, but which no researcher or neurologist had ever connected before. These cases make for a compelling argument not only for individual range, but for diversity within teams that are solving problems, so that not everyone is working out of the same toolbox.

Given the early pressure for students to specialize, and the popularity of books such as Grit, which valourize persistence to a fault, Range offers an interesting counterpoint to this tendency to try to get ahead. Yet Epstein points out that students who chose to specialize early were more likely to switch fields later. Education doesn’t just provide work skills, it also helps students identify the areas that are a good match for their strengths and preferences. Experience is never wasted, and exploration is part of the point of education. We cannot know in advance how seemingly unrelated skills may help us down the road.

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