Range: Summary and Review

Range

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

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Range

Review

True to its name, this book is a collection of the connections between many lines of research that show you how to succeed in an unstable environment without clear feedback. This book is a fantastic synthesis of many fields on this topic into a cohesive narrative.

I liked the author’s term “analogical thinking” to describe the process of solving problems by looking for solutions outside your domain; I described research on how to do this in my undergraduate thesis: How To Get More Creative

Summary

1. The Cult of the Head Start

The common perception of achievement in Mozart or Tiger Woods is that it takes a long time, and the earlier you start, the quicker you will achieve success. Outliers claims that “child prodigies” aren’t smarter, they still need to put in the same amount of work, they just started earlier.

However, this assumption relies on deliberate practice which is possible only in stable environments with tight feedback loops. If you do not operate in such an environment, then it’s unclear if deliberate practice will help you due to the lack of frequent feedback.

2. How the Wicked World Was Made

Modernity is not condusive to deliberate practice, because modern civilization generally does not consist of stable environments with tight feedback loops; examples to the contrary are in artificially constructed environments like chess, structured sports, standardized tests, etc.

In every cognitive direction, the minds of premodern citizens were severely constrained by the concrete world before them. With cajoling, some solved the following logic sequence: “Cotton grows well where it is hot and dry. England is cold and damp. Can cotton grow there or not?” They had direct experience growing cotton, so some of them could answer (tentatively and when pushed) for a country they had never visited. The same exact puzzle with different details stumped them: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What colors are the bears there?” That time, no amount of pushing could get the remote villagers to answer. They would respond only with principles. “Your words can be answered only by someone who was there,” one man said, even though he had never been to England but had just answered the cotton question. But even a faint taste of modern work began to change that. Given the white bear puzzle, Abdull, forty-five and barely literate but chairman of a collective farm, would not give an answer confidently, but he did exercise formal logic. “To go by your words,” he said, “they should all be white.”

3. When Less of the Same Is More

Successful people often tried a bunch of different things before focusing intensely on the one thing they are really good at, they didn’t start focusing on their one good thing from the beginning. This is because if you don’t like the thing you are doing, you are less likely to be good at it. The people for whom excel at the first thing they do without trying anything else are only lucky that they immediately. happened upon the thing they liked.

In a separate study of twelve hundred young musicians, those who quit reported “a mismatch between the instruments [they] wanted to learn to play and the instruments they actually played.” Amy Chua described her daughter Lulu as a “natural musician.” Chua’s singer friend called Lulu “extraordinary,” with a gift “no one can teach.” Lulu made rapid progress on the violin, but pretty soon told her mother ominously, “You picked it, not me.” At thirteen, she quit most of her violin activities. Chua, candid and introspective, wondered in the coda of her book if Lulu would still be playing if she had been allowed to choose her own instrument.

4. Learning, Fast and Slow

Actually learning something for the long-term results in looking like you are not learning much in the short-term. Short-term progress is illusory because it just measures surface performance on quizzes and tests, not deep understanding of the topics. See: Guessing The Teacher’s Password. Students who look like they are succeeding in short-run metrics actually fail in the long-run.

The Calculus I teachers who were the best at promoting student overachievement in their own class were somehow not great for their students in the long run. “Professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement,” the economists wrote, “on average, harm the subsequent performance of their students in more advanced classes.” What looked like a head start evaporated.

[…]

The economists concluded that students were actually selectively punishing the teachers who provided them the most long-term benefit. Tellingly, Calculus I students whose teachers had fewer qualifications and less experience did better in that class, while the students of more experienced and qualified teachers struggled in Calculus I but did better in subsequent courses.

5. Thinking Outside Experience

Analogical thinking can help you solve problems by looking for solutions outside your domain.

Smells and heat dissipate predictably farther from their source, which meant that a mysterious planet-moving power from the sun might as well. But smells and heat are also detectable everywhere along their path, whereas the sun’s moving soul, Kepler wrote, is “poured out throughout the whole world, and yet does not exist anywhere but where there is something movable.” Was there any proof that such a thing could exist?

[…]

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 at a crowd, and more. He interrogated each one ruthlessly, every time alighting on new questions.

[…]

More important, Kepler invented astrophysics. He 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.

6. The Trouble with Too Much Grit

Personal match information (“match quality”) is important for success. This is the idea of “founder-market fit”, not just “product-market fit”.

West Point Cadets are quitting not because they lack sufficient grit, but because midway through the gruelling program the 20-year-olds realized it wasn’t what they actually wanted.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth conducted the most famous study of quitting. She sought to predict which incoming freshmen would drop out of the U.S. Military Academy’s basic-training-cum-orientation, traditionally known as “Beast Barracks.”

[…]

Beast Barracks is perfect for a multi-armed bandit approach to quitting. A group of high achievers, not one of whom has an iota of military experience, pulls the West Point “lever,” so to speak. That is, they begin a high-risk, high-reward program and from week one get a massive information signal about whether military discipline is for them. The overwhelming majority stick it out, but it would be unrealistic to expect every single member of a large group of young adults to have understood exactly what they were getting into. Should those few who left have finished instead? Perhaps, if they quit in a moment of simple panic, rather than as a reassessment of the future they wanted in light of this new information about military life. But perhaps more should drop out early too.

Similar to multi-armed bandit algorithms, you can’t just jump directly into “exploit” mode and try to exploit as much reward as possible, you’ll do better by having an “explore” mode first where you pull lots of arms. From the outside, this can look like quitting or a lack of grit, but is actually a rational decision in response to uncertainty.

Just because you stick through a program doesn’t mean “grit” is good—sticking to a poor match just kicks the quitting can down the road.

In return for a five-year active-duty service commitment, every West Point cadet gets a taxpayer-funded scholarship valued at around a half million dollars. That’s why it is particularly vexing to the Army that since the mid-1990s, about half of West Point graduates leave active military service after five years, which is as soon as they are allowed. It takes about five years just to offset the development costs for a trained officer. Three-quarters are gone before the twenty-year mark, which would bring them to their early forties having earned a lifetime pension.

7. Flirting with Your Possible Selves

“Personality” probably isn’t stable—you become a different person in different environments/contexts, so you want to put yourself in different situations to see if you like the person you become in that environment.

The crystal ball allure of the marshmallow test is undeniable, and also misconstrued. Mischel’s collaborator Yuichi Shoda has repeatedly made a point of saying that plenty of preschoolers who ate the marshmallow turned out just fine. Shoda maintained that the most exciting aspect of the studies was demonstrating how easily children could learn to change a specific behavior with simple mental strategies, like thinking about the marshmallow as a cloud rather than food. Shoda’s post-marshmallow-test work has been one part of a bridge in psychology between extreme arguments in the debate about the roles of nature and nurture in personality. One extreme suggests that personality traits are almost entirely a function of one’s nature, and the other that personality is entirely a function of the environment. Shoda argued that both sides of the so-called person-situation debate were right. And wrong. At a given point in life, an individual’s nature influences how they respond to a particular situation, but their nature can appear surprisingly different in some other situation. With Mischel, he began to study “if-then signatures.” If David is at a giant party, then he seems introverted, but if David is with his team at work, then he seems extroverted. (True.) So is David introverted or extroverted? Well, both, and consistently so.

8. The Outsider Advantage

Insiders usually can’t solve the hardest problems because they are too siloed. This is the problem with scientific fields requiring highly specialized results in order to advance, get a PhD, get tenure, etc. This is also why open competitions to solve problems like Kaggle are so successful, because they can tap “outsiders” who are not constrained by needing to climb the same status ladder that insiders do.

9. Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology

Breadth is undervalued in corporations because its benefits are subtle and long-term, and there isn’t any immediate harm from eliminating “unproductive” generalists in favour of specialists, who tend to move the needle more on short-term metrics. The problem with eliminating generalists is that you will do very well at maximizing shareholder return in the short-term, but then you will inexplicably be unable to innovate or respond to a disruptive upstart.

10. Fooled by Expertise

Like the planning fallacy, we think that we (or experts) have special information about a problem that makes “this project” going to be on time, even though other similar projects weren’t, or “this startup” will succeed, even though other similar startups haven’t.

Basically, avoid cognitive biases in general, and try to update your beliefs according to the Bayesian ideal.

11. Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools

Carter Racing: Given ambiguous data about head gasket breaks vs. air temperature, do we choose to race at 40 degrees and risk a head gasket break?

When the students arrive in class the next day, they learn that most student groups around the world who have ever been assigned the Carter Racing case chose to race.

[…]

“Okay, so, Dmitry, here comes a quantitative question,” the professor says. “How many times did I say yesterday if you want additional information let me know?” Muffled gasps spread across the room. “Four times,” the professor answers himself. “Four times I said if you want additional information let me know.” Not one student asked for the missing data. The professor puts up a new graph, with every race plotted. It looks something like this:

Turns out that “that there is a 99.4 percent probability of engine failure at 40 degrees”, and this is not actually about racing, but about the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

NASA relying too much on a data-driven culture meant that the feeling of lacking data was beyond something the engineers wanted to ask about.

In four separate fires in the 1990s, twenty-three elite wildland firefighters refused orders to drop their tools and perished beside them. Even when Rhoades eventually dropped his chainsaw, he felt like he was doing something unnatural. Weick found similar phenomena in Navy seamen who ignored orders to remove steel-toed shoes when abandoning a ship, and drowned or punched holes in life rafts; fighter pilots in disabled planes refusing orders to eject; and Karl Wallenda, the world-famous high-wire performer, who fell 120 feet to his death when he teetered and grabbed first at his balance pole rather than the wire beneath him. He momentarily lost the pole while falling, and grabbed it again in the air. “Dropping one’s tools is a proxy for unlearning, for adaptation, for flexibility,” Weick wrote. “It is the very unwillingness of people to drop their tools that turns some of these dramas into tragedies.” For him, firefighters were an example, and a metaphor for what he learned while studying normally reliable organizations that clung to trusty methods, even when they led to bewildering decisions.

12. Deliberate Amateurs

Innovation isn’t rewarded because amateurs look like they are wasting their time.

A curious phenomenon has appeared in recent years on a near-annual basis when the Nobel Prizes are awarded. Someone who receives one explains that their breakthrough could not have occurred today. In 2016, Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi closed his Nobel lecture ominously: “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.” That is head start fervor come full circle; explorers have to pursue such narrowly specialized goals with such hyperefficiency that they can say what they will find before they look for it.