Friday, September 6, 2019

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein (author), Will Damron (narrator)

Penguin Audio, May 2019

We hear a great deal, over the course of our educations and careers, about the importance of specialization, concentration, focus, and drill, drill, drill.

And specialization is not a bad thing. In many areas it's not just valuable, but essential. If you need surgery, you want not just a doctor, but a surgeon, and really, not just a surgeon but one who has done that particular procedure many times before. It's your best guarantee of a safe and successful outcome.

But not every field is surgery. Not even any medical field; a doctor with a more varied background and a CV that shows some flitting among different medical areas is a lot more likely to be a good diagnostician. Why? Because that doctor with the varied background has a much broader background to draw on when considering the patient's symptoms and comments. David Epstein looks at why this is so, in areas as different as athletes, musicians, inventors, and scientists.

Generalists see connections specialists can't, because the specialists have never encountered the information from fields outside their own--even, sometimes, when the fields are seemingly very close and both could benefit from more interaction. Epstein gives us interesting and absorbing stories of Nintendo growing from a playing card company to a major videogame company due to the playing around in his spare time of an electrical engineer years out of date on his skills and with no computer programming background at all. Also all the things Vincent van Gogh failed at before more or less stumbling into the painting, and the style, that made him one of the greatest of artists.

Or, contrariwise, the top-down, procedure-oriented, data above all culture at NASA that made it impossible for the engineers to who saw a serious problem with launching the Challenger on the cold day in January, but who couldn't quantify the risk, to be heard by the decision-makers they were talking to.

Some of our most cherished, or at least most drilled into us, ideas about how to succeed are not so much wrong, as inadequate and incomplete. We need specialists. We also need generalists and polymaths. Specialists alone, without generalists, are more likely to result in stagnation.

This book is both enjoyable, and enlightening. Recommended.

I listened to this audiobook via Scribd, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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