Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World | David Epstein
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The #1 New York Times bestseller that has all America talking: as seen/heard on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS, Morning Joe, CBS This Morning, The Bill Simmons Podcast, Rich Roll, and more.
“The most important business—and parenting—book of the year.” —Forbes
“Urgent and important. . . an essential read for bosses, parents, coaches, and anyone who cares about improving performance.” —Daniel H. Pink
Shortlisted for the Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award
Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start. But a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule.
David Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists. He discovered that in most fields—especially those that are complex and unpredictable—generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.
Provocative, rigorous, and engrossing, Range makes a compelling case for actively cultivating inefficiency. Failing a test is the best way to learn. Frequent quitters end up with the most fulfilling careers. The most impactful inventors cross domains rather than deepening their knowledge in a single area. As experts silo themselves further while computers master more of the skills once reserved for highly focused humans, people who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will increasingly thrive.
“A well-supported and smoothly written case on behalf of breadth and late starts. . . . as David Epstein shows us, cultivating range prepares us for the wickedly unanticipated.” —Wall Street Journal
“I love this idea [Range], because I think of myself as a jack of all trades.” — Fareed Zakaria, CNN
“The storytelling is so dramatic, the wielding of data so deft and the lessons so strikingly framed that it’s never less than a pleasure to read. . . . a wealth of thought-provoking material.” —New York Times Book Review
“Range is a convincing, engaging survey of research and anecdotes that confirm a thoughtful, collaborative world is also a better and more innovative one.” —NPR
“For reasons I cannot explain, David Epstein manages to make me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong. I loved Range.” —Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers and The Tipping Point
“It’s a joy to spend hours in the company of a writer as gifted as David Epstein. And the joy is all the greater when that writer shares so much crucial and revelatory information about performance, success, and education.” — Susan Cain, author of Quiet
“For too long, we’ve believed in a single path to excellence. Start early, specialize soon, narrow your focus, aim for efficiency. But in this groundbreaking book, David Epstein shows that in most domains, the way to excel is something altogether different. Sample widely, gain a breadth of experiences, take detours, and experiment relentlessly. Epstein is a deft writer, equally nimble at telling a great story and unpacking complicated science. And Range is an urgent and important book, an essential read for bosses, parents, coaches, and anyone who cares about improving performance.” —Daniel H. Pink, author of When, Drive, and A Whole New Mind
“In a world that’s increasingly obsessed with specialization, star science writer David Epstein is here to convince you that the future may belong to generalists. It’s a captivating read that will leave you questioning the next steps in your career—and the way you raise your children.” —Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and Originals
“Range is a blueprint for a more thoughtful, collaborative world – and it’s also really fun to read.” —NPR, Best Books of 2019
“I want to give Range to any kid who is being forced to take violin lessons—but really wants to learn the drums; to any programmer who secretly dreams of becoming a psychologist; to everyone who wants humans to thrive in an age of robots. Range is full of surprises and hope, a 21st century survival guide.” —Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World.
“An assiduously researched and accessible argument for being a jack of all trades.” —O Magazine, Best Nonfiction Books Coming in 2019
“Range elevates Epstein to one of the very best science writers at work today. The scope of the book—and the implications—are breathtaking. I find myself applying what I've learned to almost every aspect of my life.” —Sebastian Junger, author of Tribe, War, and The Perfect Storm
“A goldmine of surprising insights. Makes you smarter with every page.” —James Clear, New York Times best-selling author of Atomic Habits
“Range will force you to rethink the nature of learning, thinking, and being, and reconsider what you thought you knew about optimal education and career paths—and how and why the most successful people in the world do what they do. It's one of the most thought-provoking and enlightening books I've read.” —Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind and The Confidence Game, professional poker player
“A fresh, brisk look at creativity, learning, and the meaning of achievement.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Brilliant, timely, and utterly impossible to put down. If you care about improving skill, innovation, and performance, you need to read this book. ” —Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code and The Talent Code
About the Author
David Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene. He has master's degrees in environmental science and journalism and has worked as an investigative reporter for ProPublica and a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He lives in Washington, DC.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Cult of the Head Start
One year and four days after World War II in Europe ended in unconditional surrender, Laszlo Polgar was born in a small town in Hungary-the seed of a new family. He had no grandmothers, no grandfathers, and no cousins; all had been wiped out in the Holocaust, along with his father's first wife and five children. Laszlo grew up determined to have a family, and a special one.
He prepped for fatherhood in college by poring over biographies of legendary thinkers, from Socrates to Einstein. He decided that traditional education was broken, and that he could make his own children into geniuses, if he just gave them the right head start. By doing so, he would prove something far greater: that any child can be molded for eminence in any discipline. He just needed a wife who would go along with the plan.
Laszlo's mother had a friend, and the friend had a daughter, Klara. In 1965, Klara traveled to Budapest, where she met Laszlo in person. Laszlo didn't play hard to get; he spent the first visit telling Klara that he planned to have six children and that he would nurture them to brilliance. Klara returned home to her parents with a lukewarm review: she had "met a very interesting person," but could not imagine marrying him.
They continued to exchange letters. They were both teachers and agreed that the school system was frustratingly one-size-fits-all, made for producing "the gray average mass," as Laszlo put it. A year and a half of letters later, Klara realized she had a very special pen pal. Laszlo finally wrote a love letter, and proposed at the end. They married, moved to Budapest, and got to work. Susan was born in early 1969, and the experiment was on.
For his first genius, Laszlo picked chess. In 1972, the year before Susan started training, American Bobby Fischer defeated Russian Boris Spassky in the "Match of the Century." It was considered a Cold War proxy in both hemispheres, and chess was suddenly pop culture. Plus, according to Klara, the game had a distinct benefit: "Chess is very objective and easy to measure." Win, lose, or draw, and a point system measures skill against the rest of the chess world. His daughter, Laszlo decided, would become a chess champion.
Laszlo was patient, and meticulous. He started Susan with "pawn wars." Pawns only, and the first person to advance to the back row wins. Soon, Susan was studying endgames and opening traps. She enjoyed the game and caught on quickly. After eight months of study, Laszlo took her to a smoky chess club in Budapest and challenged grown men to play his four-year-old daughter, whose legs dangled from her chair. Susan won her first game, and the man she beat stormed off. She entered the Budapest girls' championship and won the under-eleven title. At age four she had not lost a game.
By six, Susan could read and write and was years ahead of her grade peers in math. Laszlo and Klara decided they would educate her at home and keep the day open for chess. The Hungarian police threatened to throw him in jail if he did not send his daughter to the compulsory school system. It took him months of lobbying the Ministry of Education to gain permission. Susan's new little sister, Sofia, would be homeschooled too, as would Judit, who was coming soon, and whom Laszlo and Klara almost named Zseni, Hungarian for "genius." All three became part of the grand experiment.
On a normal day, the girls were at the gym by 7 a.m. playing table tennis with trainers, and then back home at 10:00 for breakfast, before a long day of chess. When Laszlo reached the limit of his expertise, he hired coaches for his three geniuses in training. He spent his extra time cutting two hundred thousand records of game sequences from chess journals-many offering a preview of potential opponents-and filing them in a custom card catalog, the "cartotech." Before computer chess programs, it gave the Polgars the largest chess database in the world to study outside of-maybe-the Soviet Union's secret archives.
When she was seventeen, Susan became the first woman to qualify for the men's world championship, although the world chess federation did not allow her to participate. (A rule that would soon be changed, thanks to her accomplishments.) Two years later, in 1988, when Sofia was fourteen and Judit twelve, the girls comprised three of the four Hungarian team members for the women's Chess Olympiad. They won, and beat the Soviet Union, which had won eleven of the twelve Olympiads since the event began. The Polgar sisters became "national treasures," as Susan put it. The following year, communism fell, and the girls could compete all over the world. In January 1991, at the age of twenty-one, Susan became the first woman to achieve grandmaster status through tournament play against men. In December, Judit, at fifteen years and five months, became the youngest grandmaster ever, male or female. When Susan was asked on television if she wanted to win the world championship in the men's or women's category, she cleverly responded that she wanted to win the "absolute category."
None of the sisters ultimately reached Laszlo's highest goal of becoming the overall world champion, but all were outstanding. In 1996, Susan participated in the women's world championship, and won. Sofia peaked at the rank of international master, a level down from grandmaster. Judit went furthest, climbing up to eighth in the overall world ranking in 2004.
Laszlo's experiment had worked. It worked so well that in the early 1990s he suggested that if his early specialization approach were applied to a thousand children, humanity could tackle problems like cancer and AIDS. After all, chess was just an arbitrary medium for his universal point. Like the Tiger Woods story, the Polgar story entered an endless pop culture loop in articles, books, TV shows, and talks as an example of the life-hacking power of an early start. An online course called "Bring Up Genius!" advertises lessons in the Polgar method to "build up your own Genius Life Plan." The bestseller Talent Is Overrated used the Polgar sisters and Tiger Woods as proof that a head start in deliberate practice is the key to success in "virtually any activity that matters to you."
The powerful lesson is that anything in the world can be conquered in the same way. It relies on one very important, and very unspoken, assumption: that chess and golf are representative examples of all the activities that matter to you.
Just how much of the world, and how many of the things humans want to learn and do, are really like chess and golf?
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