Range versus Depth

I pleaded with my brother to take a literature class. He flat out refused. MIT didn’t (maybe still doesn’t) have requirements resembling a core curriculum requiring literature, science, social science, and phys-ed, so he took as many computer science and electrical engineering classes as he could. He came home to tell me that I needed to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my major in English.

It’s worked out. We recognize each other’s strengths and faults, er, weaknesses, or rather, things we could improve…and I’m not just thinking of this because we spend more time together during the holidays. It’s because I read that Tony Gonzalez, the retired professional football player loves a book titled Range; How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein because he has found it interesting and challenging to transition to being a television football analyst. Gonzalez says that it is to be expected to become better at something through practice. A good summary of Range can be found here. Essentially the argument Epstein makes is that it is good to try different things in life before specializing. It is a concept in opposition to the 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert rule laid out by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers; the Story of Success. There is more than just the 10,000 hour rule to Outliers. A good summary of his book can be found here.

I’m on the side of the generalists. I have a liberal arts education and so does Range author, David Epstein. Mr. Epstein doesn’t know me and my brother, so he compares Tiger Woods who was a child prodigy and trained like crazy before becoming the best golfer ever, and Roger Federer who played a variety of sports before becoming one of the greatest tennis players ever.

Should you be worried if you have only ever focused on one thing or haven’t quite settled on what your specialty is yet, even if you are in your 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, etcetera? I am not selling a book (yet) so I am going to say, nope. I have a liberal arts education and have transitioned from being a retailer to a development officer by crafting my own story, but I think that there is a terza via, or third way/path. On my third way, it doesn’t matter whether you start as a specialist or generalist. In my third way what is important is focusing on process versus outcome. For an academic take on why process is important I refer you to Professor Joel Brockner who has studied how and why good process versus bad process can affect outcomes. For a less studied reasoning I ask you to recall times that you felt as if you were in the moment and everything fell into place. This could have been in a work meeting or a competitive environment/game where things worked out just as you saw them unfolding without thinking about the possible outcome.

Do you need to practice and prepare for these moments? Absolutely! Do you need to have 10,000 hours of practice? Not necessarily.

There is another aspect to Range, which is that the environment in which decisions are made has a bearing on whether it is better to be a specialist or a generalist. My brother and I have both become good at what we do by different paths. His environment is one where there are more defined circumstances and mine is one that has more optionality. Things are not black and white in either of our situations. I can recognize patterns and use them to predict outcomes while he has to take into account that patterns don’t always hold true to form. We’re only one pair of people, but if we weren’t able to recognize and act on these things, the holidays together would be much less fun.