Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein (2019) is a thoughtful counterpoint to the narrative that success is best achieved through hyperspecialization. Hyperspecialization is the idea that a singular-focus combined with deliberate practice is the optimal path to success in a given field. Epstein contrasts this with “range,” an alternative approach that integrates knowledge from multiple domains. Whereas hyperspecialization suggests a linear path from A to B, the narrative of range is more complex and circuitous, filled with detours and cul-de-sacs. Both specialization and range are necessary for human progress and fulfillment, but—as Epstein illustrates over the course of his book—range is uniquely positioned in the Information Age as a way to inject newfound creativity and outsized results for those who embrace it.
Range is divided into 12 chapters. Each chapter opens with a compelling story that serves as a springboard for the main point of the chapter (Epstein is an especially adept storyteller). I found the lessons of chapters 5 & 9 particularly impactful. Chapter 5, subtitled “Thinking Outside Experience,” explores the importance of analogies as a tool for problem-solving: “Analogical thinking takes the new and makes it familiar, or takes the familiar and puts it in a new light, and allows humans to reason through problems they have never seen in unfamiliar contexts. It also allows us to understand that which we cannot see at all.” Chapter 9 explores an idea called “lateral thinking with withered technology” (term used by Nintendo game designer Gunpei Yunkoi). Like analogical thinking, Yunkoi’s idea involves the reimagining of disparate ideas to synthesize new and innovative products (like the handheld Nintendo Game Boy). If you are seeking practical examples to improving your creativity and thinking, Range is filled with them.
Epstein is a particularly adept writer (his previous book, The Sports Gene, is also a worthwhile read); he interweaves stories, summaries of relevant academic studies, and meaningful insights effectively. Unlike other books in this genre, I didn’t find myself growing impatient with his pacing. As for the lessons of the book, there’s no doubt that the ideas of Range are more important than ever. “Mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power, and head starts are overrated.” It’s an empowering idea for those of us who have a hard time sticking to one thing.
Pros: Lessons from the book will resonate if you are a generalist like me. Epstein is a particularly skilled storyteller.
Cons: Like all books of this sort, it’s easy to become skeptical about the extent of “cherry picking” of anecdotes in supporting the author’s thesis.
Notes & Highlights
Introduction: Roger vs. Tiger
- The contrasting upbringings of Tiger Woods (golf) and Roger Federer (tennis) as respective examples of hyper-specialization and range.
The Tiger Woods case:
- Tiger as an example of early expertise. His father Earl Woods began training him as soon as he could walk.
- He engaged in “deliberate practice” (related to the “10,000 hour rule” which is the idea that a certain number of accumulated hours of specialized training are essential to skill development).
- “Tiger has come to symbolize the idea that the quantity of deliberate practice determines success—and its corollary, that the practice must start as early as possible.”
- The specialist view advocates that “the more competitive and complicated the world gets, the more specialized we all must become.”
The Roger Federer case:
- Roger as an example of range.
- Individuals that follow the Federer path undergo a sampling period. During the sampling period they try a wide variety of different activities.
- They typically operate in an unstructured or lightly structured environment early on.
- Their specialization occurs later in life.
- “The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands hyperspecialization.”
Chapter 1: The Cult of the Head Start
Story of Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian who decided to home-school his three daughters and make them chess experts.
The lesson of Polger’s “experiment” 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.”
Psychologists Gary Klein and Daniel Kahneman independently explored the link between experience and expertise. They both found that , in many real-world endeavors, repetition did not lead to improved performance or learning.
- They noticed this phenomenon specifically in domains where human behavior and patterns did not clearly repeat.
- Chess and golf are considered “exceptions” not the rule.
- “Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise, they agreed, depended entirely on the domain in question.”
Kind learning environments vs. wicked learning environments (coined by psychologist Robin Hogarth):
- Kind learning environments: Situations in which patterns repeat over and over and feedback is immediate and highly accurate. Certain sports, music and games feature kind environments (like golf and chess).
- “The learning environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better.”
- Wicked learning environments: “The rules of the game are unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns, and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.”
- “Experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons.”
- Kind learning environments: Situations in which patterns repeat over and over and feedback is immediate and highly accurate. Certain sports, music and games feature kind environments (like golf and chess).
A change in the status quo can change a kind environment into a wicked one.
“The reason that elite athletes seem to have superhuman reflexes is that they recognize patterns of ball or body movements that tell them what’s coming before it happens. When tested outside of their sport context, their superhuman reactions disappear.”
Author states the the hyper specialization can quickly be upended or rendered obsolete by changes in technology (for example: computer chess AI which excels at tactics).
“The more a task shifts to an open world of big-picture strategy, the more humans have to add.”
“Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.”
Gary Marcus (psychologist): “In narrow enough worlds, humans may not have much to contribute much longer. In more open-ended games, I think they certainly will. Not just games, in open ended real-world problems we’re still crushing the machines.”
“When narrow specialization is combined with an unkind domain, the human tendency to rely on experience of familiar patterns can backfire horribly…”
Experienced practitioners can often display a learned inflexibility or cognitive entrenchment which results in an inability to rapidly adapt to new circumstances and situations.”
“Creative achievers tend to have broad interests. This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.”
Characteristics of successful adapters (people with range):
- Ability to take knowledge from one domain and apply it to another in order to avoid cognitive entrenchment.
- Ability to draw upon outside experiences and analogies to provide creative solutions.
- Avoidance or lack of reliance on same old patterns.
Chapter 2: How the Wicked World Was Made
- The Flynn effect: Increase in IQ test scores with each new generation during the 20th century (3 points every decade).
- Improvements were seen in abstract concepts, problem solving and reasoning.
Alexander Luria (Russian psychologist) examined how work changed people’s minds.
- Luria studied remote villages not touched by the industrial revolution.
- “The greater the dose of modernity, the more likely an individual grasped the abstract concept of ‘shapes’ and made groups of triangles, rectangles, and circles, even if they had no formal education…remote villagers, meanwhile, saw nothing alike in a square drawn with solid lines and the same exact square drawn with dotted lines.”
- “The more they had moved toward modernity, the more powerful their abstract thinking, and the less they had to rely on their concrete experience of the world as a reference point.”
- “Rather than relying on our own direct experiences, we make sense of reality through classification schemes, using layers of abstract concepts to understand how pieces of information relate to one another.”
- “Words that represent concepts that were previously in the domain of scholars became widely understood in a few generations. The word ‘percent’ was almost absent from books in 1900. By 2000 it appeared about once every five thousand words.”
- Computer software and digital interfaces make frequent use of abstractions (e.g. the progress bar on your screen representing a file download).
- “Exposure to the modern world has made us better adapted for complexity, and that has manifested as flexibility, with profound implications for the breadth of our intellectual world.”
- “The ability to move freely, to shift from one category to another, is one of the chief characteristics of ‘abstract thinking.’”
- James Flynn (researcher) found that “the correlation between the test of broad conceptual thinking and GPA was about zero. In Flynn’s words, ‘the traits that earn good grades at the university do not include critical ability of any broad significance.’”
- Flynn found that, with the exception of economics majors, most students performed poorly in conceptual reasoning tests in fields not directly related to their own. In other words: students learned about their field without understanding the underlying epistemology of knowledge.
- “Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines.”
- “If students are to capitalize on their unprecedented capacity for abstract thought…they must be taught to think before being taught what to think about.”
- One good tool is insufficient for solving complex problems. We need to adopt the metaphor of a Swiss Army knife when approaching challenging problems.
- Arnold Toynbee (philosopher): “No tool is omnicompetent.”
Fermi problems: Interesting thought experiments or brain puzzlers that require back-of-the envelope estimations or thinking. “The ultimate lesson of the question was that detailed prior knowledge was less important than a way of thinking.”
- Example: How many piano tuners are there in New York City?
- Questions to ask to approach the problem: What is the population of NYC? How many households in NYC? How many are likely to have a piano? How often are pianos tuned? How many homes can one piano reach per day? How many days per year does a tuner work? Etc.
- Fermi thinking can be used to break down a quickly. You take stock of what you know and what you don’t. You leverage what you know to kickstart the process.
- “The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.”
Chapter 3: When Less of the Same Is More
- Story of the “Ospediale della Pieta” in Baroque Venice (17th/18th c.) which was an orphanage that trained abandoned girls in music. “Figlie di coro” were the all-female music ensembles trained by the Pieta that gained renown and were extremely popular. Defining characteristic of the figlie was the instrumental range of the musicians. Each musician was skilled in an assortment of instruments. Famous composers like Antonio Vivaldi taught and wrote music specifically for the figlie.
- “Today, the massively multi-instrument approach [of the Pieta] seems to go against everything we know about how to get good at a skill like playing music.”
- “In the genre of modern self-help narratives, music training has stood beside golf atop the podium, exemplars of the power of a narrowly focused head start in highly technical training…the message is the same: choose early, focus narrowly, never waver.”
- Yo-Yo Ma the cellist experience an accelerated “sampling period”: he started on the violin and then attempted piano before settling on cello.
- There is an error where we want to emulate the endpoint of high performers and not the early phase of their journey. Ian Yates (sports scientist): “Parents come to him and want their kids doing what the Olympians are doing right now, not what the Olympians were doing when they were twelve or thirteen.”
- “The sampling period is not incidental to the development of great performers—something to be excised in the interest of a head start—it is integral.”
- On research by John Sloboda (psychology of music): Found a “variety of paths to excellence, but the most common was a sampling period, often lightly structured with some lessons and a breadth of instruments and activities, followed only later by a narrowing of focus, increased structure, and an explosion of practice volume.”
- “Nearly all of the more accomplished students had played at least three instruments, proportionally much more than the lower-level students, and more than half played four or five.”
- Jack Cecchini is the example of a musician who is world class in both classical and jazz.
In contrast to classical music, improvisational forms have a different approach and less structured approach to development.
- Author cites several examples including Duke Ellington, Johnny Smith, Dave Brubeck, and Django Reinhardt.
- Of Django Reinhardt (whose left hand was injured in a fire): “He taught himself how to play chords with a thumb and two fingers. His left hand had to sprint up and down the neck of his guitar, the index and middle finger flitting waterbug-like over the strings. He reemerged with a new way of handling the instrument, and his creativity exploded.”
- “While improvising, musicians do pretty much the opposite of consciously identifying errors and stopping to correct them.”
- “Improv masters learn like babies: dive in and imitate and improvise first, learn the formal rules later…Cecchini told me: ‘You acquired the sound first. And then you acquire the grammar later.’”
- Old joke among jazz musicians: “Can you read music? Not enough to hurt my playing.”
- Jack Cecchini (musician): “It’s easier for a jazz musician to learn to play classical literature than for a classical player to learn how to play jazz. The jazz musician is a creative artist, the classical musician is a re-creative artist.”
- “The more context in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.”
Chapter 4: Learning, Fast and Slow
Two common pedagogical questions: Procedural vs. connection
- Procedural questions: Require the student to practice something that was just learned. For example: apply a formula learned to a set of different math problems.
- Making connection questions: Require the student to explain a broader concept (rather than just a procedure). For example: why does the formula work or why does it work in all situations?
- Making-connection questions can be thwarted by teachers when we opt for expedience over true learning. For instance, offering hints to students rather than letting them tease out the solution thwarts the students’ ability to generate a connection (instead students resort to rule-seeking and treat the exercise as a multiple-choice question).
- Parents and teachers are too focused on the results rather than the process (the latter is where much of the learning occurs).
- Desirable difficulties: “Obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower, and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long term. Excessive hint-giving…does the opposite: it bolsters immediate performance, but undermines progress in the long run.”
- The generation effect: Generating an answer on your own, even a wrong one, enhances learning.
- The hypercorrection effect: High-confidence errors are more likely to be fixed after feedback than low-confidence errors. “Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.”
- Distributed practice: Dispersing the study of a topic or concept over a longer period of time (with spaced intervals) results in more effective learning than fewer, highly concentrated, long session of learning.
- Spacing effect: The phenomenon where information is more effectively encoded into long-term memory by spaced study sessions (disturbed practice). Spaced repetition (spaced presentation) vs. cramming (massed presentation).
- “Learning is most efficient in the long run when it is really inefficient in the short run.”
Blocked practice vs. interleaving practice:
- Blocked: Studying a single thing repeatedly.
- Interleaving: Mixing multiple things together to study in tandem. For instance, to identify a single artist (Picasso), intermix works from other artists like Cezanne and Renoir.
- “For knowledge to be flexible, it should be learned under varied conditions.”
- “Blocked-practice students learned procedures for each type of problem through repetition. The mixed-practice [interleaving] students learned how to differentiate types of problems.”
- “Interleaving improves the ability to match the right strategy to a problem…a hallmark of expert problem solving.”
Chapter 5: Thinking Outside Experience
- Story of Johannes Kepler and the development of modern astrophysics. Kepler developed the Laws of Planetary motion after careful study of planetary data.
- “Each time he got stuck, Kepler unleashed a fusillade of analogies. Not just light, heat, odor, currents and boatmen, but optics of lenses, balance scales, a broom, magnets, a magnetic broom, orators gazing out at a crow and more. He interrogated each one ruthlessly, every time alighting on new questions.”
- “He [Kepler] did not inherit an idea of universal physical forces. There was no concept of gravity as a force, and he had no notion of momentum that keeps the planets in motion. Analogies were all he had.”
- “Deep analogical thinking is the practice of recognizing conceptual similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that may seem to have little in common on the surface. It is a powerful tool for solving wicked problems…”
- “Analogical thinking takes the new and makes it familiar, or takes the familiar and puts it in a new light, and allows humans to reason through problems they have never seen in unfamiliar contexts. It also allows us to understand that which we cannot see at all.”
Duckner’s radiation problem: A famous hypothetical problem in cognitive psychology.
- The problem: A doctor has a patient with a tumor the cannot be operated upon. The doctor can use a kind of ray to destroy the tumor if sufficient intensity of the ray is used. However, the intensity of ray needed will also destroy the healthy tissue that the rays must pass through.
- The task: Devise a procedure that might be used to destroy the tumor while preserving the healthy tissue.
- In some studies an analogy of a fortress is given to some study participants. The story is about a strong fortress held by a dictator that is in the middle of country. Many roads lead to the fortress. The roads are mines so that only small groups of soldiers can safely pass. A large force will detonate the mines. The leader fo the army divided the army into small groups and sent each on a different road. The armies recombined at the fortress together as a complete force.
- The analogy of the fortress provides the solution to the problem: “If you need a large force to accomplish some purpose, but are prevented from applying such a force directly, many smaller forces applied simultaneously from different directions may work just as well.”
Distant analogies can be helpful in solving problems. “In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.”
Tversky and Kahneman’s (psychologists) “inside view” vs. the outside view.
- Inside view: “When we make judgements based narrowly on the details of a particular project that are right in front of us.”
- Outside view: The outside view probes for deep structural similarities to the current problem in different ones. The outside view is deeply counterintuitive because it requires a decision maker to ignore unique surface features…it requires a mindset switch from narrow to broad.”
- “Psychologists have shown repeatedly that the more internal details an individual can be made to consider, the more extreme their judgement becomes.”
- Netflix improved its content recommendation algorithm by changing the locus of comparison. Instead of decoding a film’s traits to match with a viewer, Netflix considers customers with similar viewing histories. “Instead of predicting what you might like, they examine who you are like..”
- The optimal analogies are not close but distant. Moreover, many analogies should be employed and explored, not just singular, superficial or obvious ones.
- “Successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it.”
- John Dewey (philosopher): “A problem well put is half-solved.”
Chapter 6: The Trouble with Too Much Grit
- Story of Vincent Van Gogh: Tried a number of different lines of work and careers unsuccessfully. At the age of 33 he enrolled in art school but soon dropped out. Instead he developed his own unique artistic style. Final two years of life saw a tremendous output of creativity.
- The common narrative for people like Van Gogh, Gaugin (also a late bloomer) and JK Rowling is that “they all appear to have excelled in spite of their late starts…but they aren’t exceptions by virtue of their late starts, and those late starts did not stack the odds against them. Their late starts were integral to their eventual success.”
- Match quality: Term used by economists to describe the degree of fit between person and the work they do (who you are and what you do).
- When students focus early, they develop skills for a specific line of work. When students sample and focus later, they start work with fewer domain-specific skills but have a greater sense of personal work fit (abilities and inclination).
- Early-specializing students have greater difficulty changing careers due to sunk cost fallacy.
- Match quality improves as a student is exposed to greater sampling opportunity.
- “Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.”
- Restriction of range: Is a statistical phenomenon in which characteristics of a preselected or filtered group are not representative of a general population. For example, a study of success in basketball that only considered NBA players might show that height is not an important predictor of success since most players re tall men. The study might conclude that determination is a more significant factor.
- “The relative predictiveness of grit and other traits in West Point cadets and spelling bee competitors may not look quite the same in less restricted populations.”
- Seth Godin (writer): “We fail when we stick with tasks we don’t have the guts to quit.” We must be able to identify when a plan is not a good match for us.
- “Knowing when to quit is such a big strategic advantage that every single person, before undertaking an endeavor, should enumerate conditions under which they should quit.”
- “The important trick…is staying attuned to whether switching is simply a failure of perseverance, or astute recognition that better matches are available.”
Chapter 7: Flirting with Your Possible Selves
- Story of Frances Hesselbein who became the CEO of Girl Scouts and later of Peter Drucker’s Leader to Leader Institute. Her story is notable because she didn’t have any formal business training nor did her career follow a standard C-level position track. However, her wide-ranging experience and openness to new ideas made her one of the most respected CEOs of her time.
- “At the first ever Girl Scout training event Hesselbein attended, she heard another new troop leader complain that she was getting nothing from the session…[Another attendee told Hesselbein], ‘You have to carry a big basket to bring something home.’ She repeats that phrase today, to mean that a mind kept wide open will take something from every new experience.”
- The Dark Horse Project: A long-term study of how people achieve success found that many individuals had circuitous career paths rather than direct, linear paths.
- Short-term planning: A common strategy employed by dark horse participants. “Here’s who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, and here are the opportunities.”
- Long-term goals are only formulated after lengthy periods of discovery.
- The ”end of history illusion” is a concept coined by psychologist Dan Gilbert. It refers to our ability to comprehend personal change and growth in the past, but an inability to conceive that we, as individuals, will change in the future.
- “The precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been.”
- “Adults tend to become more agreeable, more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and less neurotic with age, but less open to experience. In middle age, adults grow more consistent and cautious and less curious, open-minded, and inventive.”
- The context principle: A finding that certain characteristics or traits are not uniformly applied or manifested across different context. For example, a child who is aggressive at home might be passive at school.
- “Instead of asking whether someone is gritty, we should ask when they are.”
- “Because personality changes more than we expect with time, experience, and different contexts, we are ill-equipped to make ironclad long-term goals when our past consists of little time, few experiences, and a narrow range of contexts.”
- Herminia Ibarra (business professor): “First act and then think. We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.”
- “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.”
- “Rather than a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly.” Per Ibarra: “Test-and-learn, not plan-and-implement.”
Chapter 8: The Outsider Advantage
- Story of Alph Bingham who worked at Eli Lilly (pharmaceutical company). In 2001, Bingham collected 21 problems that had stymied Eli Lilly scientists and posted them on the internet to see if outsiders might have solutions. The experiment resulted in a number of useful, creative and productive new ideas from outsiders.
- “Bingham had noticed that established companies tended to approach problems with so-called local search, that is, using specialists from a single domain, and trying solutions that worked before.”
- Outside-in thinking: Bingham’s terminology for finding solutions far outside the traditional training and methods for a given problem.
- Einstellung effect: A predisposition to solve a problem in a particular (often familiar) manner despite having better methods available. It is a kind of cognitive tunneling or failure to think more expansively.
InnoCentive is an open innovation and crowdsourcing company. They post “challenges” the public that allows people from around the world to solve hard problems that specialists have been unable to solve (founded by Bingham and Craig Jones).
- InnoCentive found that “the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.”
- “Our intuition might be that only hyper specialized experts can drive modern innovation, but increasing specialization actually creates new opportunities for outsiders.”
- Karim Lakhani (direct of Harvard’s innovation lab): “Big innovation most often happens when an outsider who may be far away from the surface of the problem reframes the problem in a way that unlocks the solution.”
- Pedro Domingos (computer scientist): “Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do somethings, but it also makes you blind to other things that you could do.”
Chapter 9: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology
Story of Gunpei Yokoi who went to work for Nintendo and developed some of its most successful new products (including the Game Boy). Yokoi was a tinkerer.
Lateral thinking with withered technology: Yokoi’s strategy for his new creations. It involves the reimagination and recombination of technology and information in new contexts. It is a way to draw together disparate ideas into a fresh, new product.
- Lateral thinking: The recombination of ideas from different domains.
- Withered technology: Tech that is old enough to be cheap, ubiquitous, and well-understood.
- Examples: In the 1970s LCD calculators were ubiquitous. Yokoi wondered if bored Japanese businessmen might enjoy a handheld game to play during their commute via train. Sharp, a manufacturer of LCD screens, was interested in expanding market share. Yokoi came up with the idea to create games with LCD screens for potable gaming. This became the Nintendo Game & Watch system (precursor to the Game Boy).
Functional fixedness: Is the tendency people have to consider only familiar uses for objects. Famous example is the “candle problem” in which participants receive a candle, a box of tacks and a book of matches and are told to attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn’t drop on the floor (the trick is to use the box as a shelf/holder for the candle and affix the box to the wall — but most people don’t see this solution).
Three types of inventors (according to Andy Ouderkirk, inventor at 3M):
- Specialists: Adept at working on difficult technical problems for a long time.
- Generalists: Add value by integrating domains, taking technology from one area and applying it to others. Get bored working on one thing for too long.
- Polymaths: Broad range with at least one area of depth. A sort of hybrid between specialist and generalist.
- Ouderkirk: “If you’re working on well-defined and well-understood problems, specialists work very, very well. As ambiguity and uncertainty increases, which is the norm with systems problems, breadth becomes increasingly important.”
- In studying the success in the narrow domain of comic books, two researchers found that “length of experience did not differentiate creators, breadth of experience did. Broad genre experience made creators better on average and more likely to innovate.”
Chapter 10: Fooled by Expertise
- Story of the bet between Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon. Ehrlich was a pessimist about the future. Simon was an optimist. Simon proposed that Ehrlich choose five metals that he expected to become more expensive as the Earth’s resources were depleted over the course of 10 years (presumably due to overpopulation and plunder of Earth’s resources). If prices went down, Ehrlich would pay Simon the difference. If prices went up, Simon would pay Ehrlich the net gain. In 1990 Simon won the bet: the five metals were cheaper. However, despite winning the bet, both men were mistaken. It turns out that metals prices had no clear correlation to population effects.
- “The variable that both men were certain would vindicate their worldview actually had little to do with them.”
- “As each man amassed more information for his own view, each became more dogmatic, and the inadequacies of their models of the world more stark.”
- Experts are terrible forecasters of the future (based on many studies).
- Experience, academic degrees and even access to classified information make little difference on the quality of the forecasts.
- “When experts declared that some future event was impossible or nearly impossible, it nonetheless occurred 15% of the time.”
- The “perverse inverse relationship” between fame and accuracy: the more famous the expert (and featured in newspapers and television), the more likely they are to be wrong.
- Integrators that combine the thinking from leading experts and synthesize the thinking into an integrated approach tend to generate better forecasts.
- Philip Tetlock (psychologist) uses the metaphor of hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs know one big thing. Foxes know many little things.
Tetlock ran a project called the “Good Judgement Project” which formed different superforecaster teams to determine the characteristics of top performing teams and individuals.
- Volunteers from the general public with fox-like breadth outperformed experienced intelligence analysts.
- Moreover: Top super-forecasters were also excellent collaborators. Together with other fox-like collaborators they reinforced the strength of the group dynamic while also increasing individual aptitude.
- “Tetlock described the very best forecasters as foxes with dragonfly eyes. Dragonfly eyes are composed of tens of thousands of lenses, each with a different perspective, which are then synthesized in the dragonfly’s brain.”
- “The best forecasters view their own ideas as hypotheses in need of testing. Their aim is not to convince their teammates of their own expertise, but to encourage their teammates to help them falsify their own notions.”
- Finding the right answer is more important than the idea of being right (or winning the argument).
- Most of us don’t spend time exploring why we are wrong or coming up with contrary ideas.
- “Hedgehogs tend to see simple, deterministic rules of cause and effect framed by their area of expertise…Foxes see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect. They understand that most cause-and-effect relationships are probabilistic, not deterministic.”
- Tetlock: “Good judges are good belief updaters. If they make a bet and lose, they embrace the logic of a loss just as they would the reinforcement of a win.”
Chapter 11: Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools
- Story about the Carter Racing case study used in MBA programs. A team of students must determine whether or not the Carter Racing team’s car should compete in the biggest race of the season. The team is given data about previous engine failures and the ambient temperature at race-time on those days. After making a decision, the teams are given missing data which nobody thought to ask for. Once the missing data is furnished, it becomes clear that engine failure occurs in every race below 65F.
- The Carter Racing case study is based on NASA’s 1986 Challenger shuttle explosion. The Challenger disaster exhibited the same phenomenon: nobody thought to look at data points where there were NO problems. [me: very similar to Wald’s bullet holes in WW2].
- “We often just use the data people put in front of us…we don’t do a good job of saying, ‘Is this the data that we want to make the decision we need to make?’”
- The Carter Racing case study is a “stark lesson in the danger of reaching conclusions from incomplete data, and the folly of relying only on what is in front of you.”
- Challenger disaster goes further than just being about missing data. “NASA’s real mistake was to rely on quantitative analysis too much.”
- Engineers concerns regarding the O-Rings lacked quantitative data but the engineers knew there was an issue (they just couldn’t back it up with data). When faced with this type of objection, NASA, which had rigorous procedures devoted to hard-facts and evidence based reasoning was unable to bend or adapt to the situation.
- People become rigid under pressure and regress to actions, tools and processes that they are most comfortable.
- Overlearned behavior: A behavior that is habitually used as a response to a given problem. Use of the response becomes automatic that it’s no longer recognized as a situation-specific tool.
- Richard Feynman (scientist): “When you don’t have any data, you have to use reason.”
- “There are no tools that cannot be dropped, reimagined, or repurposed in order to navigate an unfamiliar challenge…it is, of course, easier said than done. Especially when the tool is the very core of an organization’s culture.”
- “An effective problem-solving culture was one that balanced standard practice—whatever it happened to be—with forces that pushed in the opposite direction.” The pushback is called incongruence.
- “The trick was expanding the organization’s range by identifying the dominant culture and then diversifying it by pushing in the opposite direction.”
Chapter 12: Deliberate Amateurs
- Oliver Smithies (scientist): “Don’t end up a clone of your thesis adviser. Take your skills to a place that’s not doing the same sort of thing. Take your skills and apply them to a new problem, or take your problem and try completely new skills.”
- “An enthusiastic, even childish, playful streak is a recurring theme in research on creative thinkers.”
- Andre Geim (physicist) employs “Friday night experiments” (FNEs) as opportunities to work on wacky, seemingly trivial experiments. FNEs are not funded but sometimes inspire interesting leads for more serious developments.
- One FNE used scotch tape to rip thin layers of graphite. This experiment later played into Geim’s development (and Nobel prize) for the development of graphene: a material 100,000x thinner than human hair and 200x stronger than steel.
- Sarah Lewis (art historian): “A paradox of innovation and mastery is that breakthroughs often occur when you start down a road, but wander off for a ways and pretend as if you have just begun.”
- Geim: “I do not dig deep—I graze shallow. So ever since I was a postdoc, I would go into a different subject every five years or so…I don’t want to carry on studying the same thing from cradle to grave.”
- Max Delbruck (scientist): Uses the principle of limited sloppiness: “Be careful not to be too careful or you will unconsciously limit your exploration.”
- “The atypical combination of typical forms—say hip-hop, a Broadway musical, and American historical biography [e.g. Hamilton]—is not a strategy fluke of showbiz.”
- “Work that builds bridges between disparate pieces of knowledge is less likely to be funded, less likely to appear in famous journals, more likely to be ignored upon publication, and then more likely in the long run to be a smash hit in the library of human knowledge.”
- Arturo Casadevall (scientist): On our inability to predict or know in advance what scientific breakthroughs or human understanding will be useful at some future date: “When HIV arrived, society had right off the shelf a huge amount of knowledge from investments made in a curiosity that at the time had no use. It may very well be that if you were to take all the research in the country and you put it in Alzheimer’s disease, you would never get to the solution. But the answer to Alzheimer’s disease may come from a misfolding protein in a cucumber.”
- In contrast to Casadevall’s observation, Epstein writes about a Senate hearing he attends in which politicians are declining to fund grant proposals that, on the surface, lack any obvious commercial or technological benefits.
- Yoshinori Ohsumi (Nobel laureate): “Truly original discoveries in science are often triggered by unpredictable and unforeseen small findings…Scientists are increasingly required to provide evidence of immediate and tangible applications of their work.”
- “Explorers have to pursue such narrowly specialized goals with such hyper efficiency that they can say what they will find before they look for it.”
- “Applications are the end goal, but the question is how best to get there.”
- Casadevall: “When you push the boundaries, a lot of it is just probing. It has to be inefficient.”
Conclusion: Expanding Your Range
- “Told in retrospect for popular media, stories of innovation and self-discovery can look like orderly journeys from A to B.”
- “The popular notion of the Tiger path minimizes the role of detours, breadth, and experimentation. It is attractive because it is a tidy prescription, low on uncertainty and high on efficiency.”
“Creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton has show that the more work eminent creators produced, the more duds they churned out, and the high their chances of a supernova success.”
- Thomas Edison held more than 1000 patents (most of them trivial).
- Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens between King Lear and Macbeth.
- Andre Geim won both an Ig Nobel and Nobel prize.
- Howard Scott Warshaw designed both the award-winning Yar’s Revenge video game and the disastrous E.T. video game.
- Epstein’s one sentence of advice: “Don’t feel behind…compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you.”
- “Mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power, and head starts are overrated.”