Range

In August 2019, I bought this book as a birthday gift for a friend. The subtitle “why generalists triumph in a specialized world” had caught my eye, and I thought it might help him decide among grad school, the Peace Corps, and jobs in tech for his next step post-college.

I rarely buy books as gifts until I’ve read them myself. This one was different because it so clearly articulated the key point, right there on the cover. Who doesn’t feel the tension between well-roundedness and ever-tighter scoping, professionally and personally, in our modern world?

The book slipped out of mind until a few weeks ago, when a different friend called me out of the blue to strongly recommend it. Seeing that Bill Gates concurred, and trusting his reviews even more after reading Educated, I checked Range out of the library.

It was about as great as expected, and I took away two key points before my loan expired. The first was that narratives around early specialization are over-represented and therefore poorly understood. The best piano players, scientists, and competitive athletes more often get to the top after a lot of organic sampling in different fields—delaying serious pursuit to assess their fit with the activity—rather than being coached from birth to do one thing to the exclusion of all else.

The second insight was that interaction with the modern world produces gains in abstract reasoning and general intelligence independent of schooling or formal education. The book presents an example in which folks were asked to identify which might not belong with the others:

  • axe
  • hammer
  • tree
  • saw

Isolated people had much more difficulty conceiving of the tool category, versus similarly-educated rural folks who interacted more with civilization. They would insist that the hammer didn’t belong, as the axe and saw were needed to cut down the tree.

Epstein’s description of such an inflexible “this is how it’s always done” mentality resonated a lot as something I’ve seen much more of in local Ecuadorians than in the U.S. population, even among folks with relatively lower income and education levels.

I would definitely recommend the book for anyone who wants the Malcolm Gladwell formula: punchy anecdote + summarized science = interesting insights.

I guess I’m at the stage in my life where these things get skimmed as entertainment. Since it’s unlikely to change how I live in a meaningful way, I’m comfortable moving on without finishing when the ebook loan expires.


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