After reading a few of these pop-social-science books, they really start to sound the same. It's a repetitive formula that becomes a chore to read through. Anecdote, explanation, anecdote, explanation, anecdote, explanation...It's just a bunch of stories that the author uses to enforce a vague, sweeping generalization about how the world works. Maybe with some "studies" thrown in to add some scientific credibility to the theory as well.

Range Book Cover

Range by David Epstein falls directly into this category. I listened to Epstein's previous book, The Sports Gene, as an audiobook and I realize that it's the best way to consume books like this—passively. I find them tiring to read because you're constantly throwing away all the details of the story you just read when the author moves on to the next one.

I should've known better when I saw Malcolm Gladwell had a blurb on the front cover ("I Loved Range!"). Gladwell is the king of this style of writing.

I don't have anything against this writing style per se, but I don't enjoy reading it anymore. It's hard to denounce guys like Gladwell and Epstein for trying to explain a sociological phenomenon in a way that will be accessible to a general audience; it's easy reading and you can learn a few things too. I just think they're forgettable, boring, and too long.

The thesis of this entire book could've been explained in a blog post with basically the same impact, if not more. If I could find some blog on the internet talking about Range instead, I'd get a basic understanding of what it's about and end up with the same "knowledge" of how the world works as if I'd read all 339 pages!

...I guess I could be that blog.


Mathematician Freeman Dyson1 explains what "Range" means below:

“Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon,” Dyson wrote in 2009. “They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.” As a mathematician, Dyson labeled himself a frog, but contended, “It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper.” The world, he wrote, is both broad and deep. “We need birds and frogs working together to explore it.”

— David Epstein, Range pg. 161

Dyson was concerned that modern science was overflowing with frogs, like an invasive species. Frogs have strong expertise in one specialized area and they place all their focus in this area. Birds have a more generalized knowledge of many different areas and they understand inter-connections and overall systems better. David Epstein wrote Range to explain the benefits of being a bird, and how to become one.

Epstein uses real-life examples to showcase the power of range and the pitfalls of over-specialization. From Roger Federer's late start in tennis to Van Gogh's lifetime of sucking at art, there are innumerable examples of people that have achieved great success in their fields despite having diverse backgrounds.

Then there's Tiger Woods, who was hitting golf balls when he was two years old. Sometimes hyper-specialization works too.

Parable Patchwork

Like I mentioned above, I feel like the book was probably twice as long as it needed to be. Epstein extrapolates on this "diversity = good" idea over many chapters; each one having a slightly different lesson.

One chapter is about the origins of Nintendo and how they relied on creativity instead of worrying about having the best technology. Another is focused on the "outsider advantage"—examples of people who have made important breakthroughs in a field without having expertise in the field. Chapter 5 talks about German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who used analogies from different areas of life to try to explain the planet's movement:

Kepler’s short Mars assignment (he guessed it would take eight days) turned into five years of calculations trying to describe where Mars appeared in the sky at any given moment.

— Epstein, pg. 95

Sounds like the size-of-work estimates in my sprint planning meetings.

All these stories are definitely, in some way, related to Epstein's range concept. But there was a lot of pigeonholing going on. It seems like Epstein starts with an interesting anecdote and then figures out how a lesson about range or diversity can be extrapolated from it. This sort of post-hoc rationalization is a common critique of other social-science authors like Gladwell.

The "glue" work that Epstein did to patch all these disparate stories together, so that he could present a consistent narrative, felt forced. But on the bright-side, the stories themselves were cool and I learned some interesting things. So it's not all bad.

Fly Like a Bird

Throughout Range, Epstein talks about how society is geared towards turning people into frogs, not birds. In other words, in life it's much easier to become highly-specialized at something than to develop wide-ranging knowledge and experience:

there is often no entrenched interest fighting on the side of range, or of knowledge that must be slowly acquired. All forces align to incentivize a head start and early, narrow specialization, even if that is a poor long-term strategy. That is a problem, because another kind of knowledge, perhaps the most important of all, is necessarily slowly acquired—the kind that helps you match yourself to the right challenge in the first place.

— Epstein, pg. 88

These incentives towards specialization start from our early childhood, as Epstein explains in Chapter 1. Parents are drawn towards stories like Tiger Woods', a child prodigy, so they believe if their child is to be successful, they must start practising as early as possible. Epstein calls this the "cult of the head start".

Epstein also spends a lot of time critiquing the education system, like how teacher's teach and how we measure aptitude. It's a problem of misaligned incentives; we want to see students succeed and get questions right on tests, but we need it to happen quickly. It leads to non-durable learning techniques:

Rather than letting students grapple with some confusion, teachers often responded to their solicitations with hint-giving that morphed a making-connections problem into a using-procedures one.

— Epstein, pg. 67

"Using procedures" means memorization, and "making connections" refers to a deeper level of understanding of the concepts that produce the right answer. It's harder, and it takes longer, to make connections and develop that sort of understanding.

I agree with Epstein that the school system doesn't provide most students with long-lasting knowledge. But mass education is an incredibly complex issue, so it's easy to critique its flaws but hard to provide any feasible solutions.

The push towards specialization continues as we approach graduation and must then choose if we want to pursue post-secondary school. When we go to college, we have to pick what we want to study and build a career out of for the next 40 years. Making that sort of decision when we're 17 is kinda crazy when you think about it.

Of course, by the time you're 10 or 15 years removed from your undergraduate studies, what you studied is often irrelevant to your current work. I don't have any numbers to back that up but so I guess take it as anecdotal evidence. Or this might be a case of the Igon Value Problem...

But the point I'm trying to re-iterate from Range is that life will be easier the more you specialize and stick to what you already know.

What the specialist misses out on is the increased perception and understanding of the world that's gained through diverse experience. You'll also learn more about yourself by diversifying, something that's hard to quantify:

Ibarra marshaled social psychology to argue persuasively that we are each made up of numerous possibilities. As she put it, “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.

— Epstein, pg. 130

It's just like going on vacation with a significant other for the first time. Being far away from your regular environment and routines with each other will be an invaluable test for the relationship. It could potentially make or break it—but it's better to know, isn't it?

In conclusion, I didn't hate Range by David Epstein. But it was too long and tiring to read. I'd recommend an audiobook version, or just find a good blog post online explaining the main concept.

Remember: If you're a frog, try to climb a tree once in awhile to check out the whole swamp. And if you're a bird, don't be afraid to swoop down and play in the mud sometimes.

1 No, this is not the guy that owns the vaccuum company, but he has invented some other wild physics concepts like the Dyson Sphere.