Are You a Roger or a Tiger? On Specialization vs. Variety
Hamilton Cain Considers David Epstein's Range
As an infant, my oldest son was diagnosed with a severely disabling neuromuscular disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, or SMA Type I. Babies afflicted with SMA Type I often don’t live to celebrate their second birthdays; and, if they survive into adolescence—rare, but the rate is creeping upward—they are frequent flyers in ICUs, requiring, even in good years, surgeries, therapies, nutrition and medication tweaks, around-the-clock care. Now 16 years old, my son is relatively stable, although, as a home-care patient, he depends on ventilators to breathe and feeding tubes to plump up his weight.
Those early years were dark. For months I’d hunker down, unshaven, on folding chairs at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of Columbia University, drool pooling in my mouth as I slept fitfully against the ICU’s xylophone of alarms or the animalistic shrieks of a woman whose child had just died across the hall. Each morning I sat in as the attending physicians, residents, and nurses “rounded” on my son, discussing, in periodic-table terms, his blood chemistry and other urgent matters.
Gradually I learned to speak Doctor: Na stands for sodium, while K is potassium and can impact the heart; the best way to prevent reflux is to vent his g-tube; electrolytes this, scoliosis that. A few residents used to joke that I’d made it through medical school without a dime of debt.
An ardent reader since childhood, I had time to kill in the wards. I couldn’t bear to immerse myself in novels and short-story collections—that pleasure belonged to a far-away galaxy—but I vacuumed up nonfiction, especially trade science. Francis Collins’ The Language of Life. James Shreeve’s The Genome War. David Eagleman’s Incognito. After my son stabilized enough to come home to Brooklyn, I circled back to fiction and poetry, my first loves. I was reading literature with a fresh pair of eyes, asking clinical questions I’d honed in the hospital and using skills to dissect texts like a surgeon, exuberant with my new tools.
It’s this unexpected acquisition of knowledge, a push outside one’s comfort zone, that David Epstein explores in his groundbreaking Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. In 2013, Epstein débuted with The Sports Gene, which tapped his dual interests of sports and science; it became a surprise New York Times bestseller. Six years later, Range, his sophomore effort, posits that those who sample across domains, whether athletic or academic, are statistically more likely to achieve at higher levels than those who specialize early.
Epstein opens the book with a beguiling anecdote on the trajectories of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, arguably the greatest of all time in men’s golf and men’s tennis, respectively. Woods learned to putt before he could talk. At age two he appeared on television, driving a ball past Bob Hope; the following year he shot a 48 on a nine-hole course, eleven over par. In awe of his son’s stunning talent, his father designed a schedule that would be all golf, all the time.
By contrast, Roger Federer grew up in Switzerland playing various sports—squash, handball, badminton, soccer—developing hand-eye coordination before settling on tennis at the comparatively late age of 16. Two decades later he was ranked the number-one player in the world.
Tiger vs. Roger? “While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose,” Epstein writes, “we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences while they progress. People with range.”
And from this trope, Epstein beautifully crafts an argument lush with graphs, data, and most of all, real people.
Epstein grew up in leafy Evanston, Illinois, north of Chicago. As a boy he dreamt of a career as a test pilot and astronaut, his heart set on an appointment to the Air Force Academy. Engineering would play a role in his future, or so he thought. But as he wended his way through high school, his interests shifted rapidly. He began to read fiction. By his senior year, his interest in aerospace engineering had waned enough for him to consider other universities. Columbia University’s prestigious reputation appealed to him, as did the sky-blue color in its crest, so he matriculated there, a somewhat arbitrary choice in keeping with the spirit of his second book.
At Columbia he initially felt adrift, intimidated by his private-school-educated peers as they eloquently debated texts and subtexts and ur-texts while reading the Iliad: “Man, of course Patroclus is gay!” He tacked across varied courses, from chemistry to political science to East Asian literature.
What centered him was track. He walked on as a freshman, the worst on the team, but kept at it with gusto, in love with the sport and the flow of thought and muscle as he raced. And he got better, graduating as a university record holder. An older teammate pointed him toward a summer at the old Biosphere 2 in Arizona, then leased by Columbia, which he now describes as “a transformative experience.” He tangled with diamondback rattlesnakes, marveled at the monsoon season, when the desert bloomed and suddenly teemed with life.
“I was also struck by the fact that you can see so far,” he says in a telephone conversation from his home in Washington, D.C. “Life is spread out horizontally, clinging to this or that vein of water for life. So I could literally see in a way I wasn’t used to.” He decided on geology as his major and applied to labs.
He spent a field season in the Alaskan tundra north of the Arctic Circle, studying plants and shivering in a tent, and although he loved the harsh beauty he saw that his future as a scientist would narrow. He headed to the Lower 48 and back to New York, where a piece on sudden cardiac arrest in athletes eventually landed him a full-time gig at Sports Illustrated, cobbling two passions into a paycheck and leading to The Sports Gene.
In 2014 he was invited to debate Malcolm Gladwell at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just after his book had come out and he had begun working at ProPublica. Gladwell was a proponent of the 10,000 Hour Rule: if you practiced something such as running or playing piano rigorously for 10,000 hours you’d become a master. “I suspected he was going to argue that early specialization—a head start—creates an insurmountable advantage,” Epstein says, “but that hypothesis was not supported by the data. In fact, among athletes who go on to become elite, early sampling across sports and delayed specialization is by far the most common path to the top.”
Gladwell acknowledged that Epstein had made a persuasive point, and the two became running partners. Afterwards, when Epstein looked closer at other professions, other domains, he saw Roger Federers everywhere.
And here’s where Epstein shines as a storyteller. The honor roll of generalists, many “slow bakers,” is breathtaking. Duke Ellington, who as a kid preferred drawing and baseball to music. Vincent Van Gogh, who flailed from vocation to vocation, painterly style to painterly style, until he found his own ecstatic vision beneath a starry sky at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Gunpei Yokoi, who serviced card-making machines at the Nintendo plant in Japan while bouncing among hobbies, from ballroom dancing to toy trains, and then created the Game Boy, the 20th century’s bestselling console. Charles Darwin, forever juggling scientific projects. Darwin “had at least 231 scientific pen pals who can be grouped roughly into 13 broad themes based on interests, from worms to human sexual selection,” Epstein writes. “He peppered them with questions. He cut up their letters to paste pieces of information in his own notebooks, in which ‘ideas tumble over each other in a seemingly chaotic fashion.’”
And then are the regular folks. The figlie del coro, or “daughters of the choir,” foundlings and orphans from the Venetian sex industry in the 17th century, who learned to play a spectrum of instruments, becoming the toast of Europe for a century and an inspiration to Vivaldi. Or Frances Hasselbein, the Pennsylvanian housewife who scaled the ranks of the Girl Scouts. “Frances Hasselbein is what I describe in the book as a ‘dark horse,’” Epstein says. “She,” he continues,
focused solely on the trait of short-term planning versus long-term goals. Each time she finished up something she’d shed it, looking around for the next thing. She just took advantage of opportunities as short-term commitments, from one to the next, and found a calling; consequently, she had the Grand Tour of all available jobs, from volunteer troop leader to CEO.
Range also delves into the limitations of hyperspecialization, which can have tragic results. “It doesn’t take much to throw experienced pros off course,” Epstein warns in the book. “Expert firefighters, when faced with a new situation, like a fire in a skyscraper, can find themselves suddenly deprived of the intuition formed in years of house fires, and prone to poor decisions.”
Perhaps the most compelling set piece here is Epstein’s backstory to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger just after launch from the Kennedy Space Center in 1986. With the temperature plummeting the evening before liftoff, NASA officials conducted an emergency conference call with engineers at Morton Thiokol, manufacturer of Challenger’s rocket boosters: would the O-ring seals hold in such chilly (for Florida) conditions? The engineers were wary. As Epstein argues now, “they were dealing with a question they’d never dealt with before, informed by two data points: how the O-rings seals would perform at either temperature extreme.” NASA made the wrong call: “They reverted to their old mantra of ‘In God we trust—all others bring data,’” Epstein says. “But they didn’t have the quantitative data to make a decision. They had photographs from two flights, and those photographs were telling a story. But they ignored them.” Key takeaway: specialization can lead to errors of conformity.According to Epstein, we should feel comfortable moving about in our professional lives. You can teach an old dog new tricks.
Epstein was often exasperated as he researched and wrote Range, which he calls “the most difficult organizational challenge I’ve ever faced.” He played with different reporting techniques and section breaks. Inevitably he hit the proverbial wall. “When I plateaued I decided to take an online fiction class to break me out,” he says on the phone. “It was uncomfortable! There were people with all different levels of experience, and my professional standing was irrelevant. And the exercises affirmed a sense of myself as a beginner again, which Jhumpa Lahiri discusses in In Other Words, her nonfiction book about learning to write in Italian. . . .Everything,” he continues, “about my taste and judgment was gone—a very unsettling feeling, but it motivated me.” He now reads more expansively, “seemingly without purpose.”
Ultimately range—or sampling across domains, or learning a little about a lot of things—cracks open our own confirmation biases. “It is not that we are unable to come up with contrary ideas, it is just that our strong instinct is not to,” Epstein writes in the book. And we should feel comfortable moving about in our professional lives; you can teach an old dog new tricks. “Switchers are winners,” he continues. “It seems to fly in the face of hoary adages about quitting, and of far newer concepts in modern psychology . . . Head starts are overrated. As Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a century ago, of the free exchange of ideas, ‘It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.’”