A few weeks ago, I devoted a column to Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Rule,” a concept he explains in his book Outliers: people who master a craft or skill do so not simply because of their innate talents, or the fact they work hard, but through a combination of natural ability, luck (being in the right place at the right time), and a type of preparation that far exceeds that of their peers. The magic number of expertise is 10,000 hours of what Geoff Colvin calls “deliberate practice”—an activity designed specifically to improve performance, usually with a teacher’s help. At the end, I added a few comments about the importance of the “head start” and why—if we want to excel in a particular field—we should develop a craftsman mindset, examine our habits, and not waste time. (I pointed to a person’s twenties as being a critically important decade.)
Within hours, multiple readers (including my brother!) asked if I’d read David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Epstein’s work, I was told, pushes back on the idea that deliberate practice and the head start is the key to future success. Curious to learn more, I picked up the book for myself.
Specialization vs. Sampling
Epstein points to research and examples that question the notion that specialization results in success. He writes:
Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a “sampling period.” They play a variety of sports, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area.
It’s not that that specialization doesn’t matter or that the head start can’t help you. It’s just not the full picture, he says.
One study showed that early career specializers jumped out to an earnings lead after college, but that later specializers made up for the head start by finding work that better fit their skills and personalities. I found a raft of studies that showed how technological inventors increased their creative impact by accumulating experience in different domains, compared to peers who drilled more deeply into one; they actually benefited by proactively sacrificing a modicum of depth for breadth as their careers progressed. There was a nearly identical finding in a study of artistic creators.
Later in the book, in order to show the drawbacks to hyper-specialization, Epstein shows that highly credentialed experts who go deep in one discipline can become so narrow-minded that their performance worsens over time (even though they become more confident in their predictions). What we need most today is not for everyone to rush to one instrument, or one discipline, or one craft and bore down into deliberate practice for 10,000 hours (something that only works with certain activities anyway), but for people to embrace “breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration.” It’s great to have the specialist who knows well a particular field, but we also need “people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.” Speaking of humanity as opposed to machines and animals, Epstein writes:
Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.
Breadth of Transfer
You may have heard people talk about transferring skills of leadership from one domain to another. Leadership books point out how certain leadership qualities and attributes—the skillful application of sound thinking and decision-making—can bring about success in other fields, even if the leader faces a steep learning curve regarding the details of a new business. Epstein believes this is the case more broadly.
Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts 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.
Keep Open a Range of Options
Instead of going deep into one sport or instrument, Epstein says, we should look to sample a variety of areas in order to broaden our knowledge and training. Crossing disciplines will aid in our thinking and help us better assess contrary ideas. Don’t do what Graduation speakers say and follow your dream as if your goal is set in stone and can never change.
Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway…Don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.
Epstein isn’t against specialization. His point, though, is that many of the most successful people start out more generally. Only later in life do they figure out the domain they want to pursue specialization in, and the early sampling of various fields (in contrast to the “cult of the head start”) makes them better specialists later on.
I enjoyed Range. It provides a strong counterpoint to an uncritical acceptance of the 10,000 Rule, deliberate practice, and the importance of a head start. But I’m not convinced that when set in broader perspective Epstein is completely at odds with Gladwell, Colvin and others.
There’s no question that broadening one’s range of activities, and sampling multiple disciplines makes for a more well-rounded individual who can make better decisions in certain circumstances. Many of the greatest theologians and Christian thinkers have been pastors who did the hard work of counseling through crisis, or were avid readers of fiction and other genres outside their main field of expertise. Good preachers don’t just exegete the biblical text, but pursue breadth in a number of disciplines and hobbies, and that experience adds color to their sermons and can also aid in their biblical interpretation.
At the same time, certain fields demand a level of specialization. That specialization can become narrow and even backfire, and that’s why in real world decision making we need generalists and specialists. (In the past year, we too often looked solely to experts in epidemiology for decision-making when we needed to consider a wide range of issues—from mental health, to vaccine skepticism, to the economic toll of lockdowns, the psychology of mask-wearing, etc.) We need the specialists, but also the generalists.
Whether you fall more in line with Epstein’s Range or Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, whether you emphasize range and broad sampling or deliberate practice and the head start, you’re best off when you resist the temptation to skate through life, giving yourself to neither strenuous practice in a field nor broad training and knowledge across disciplines. I want Christians to be intentional, whether it’s in becoming strong generalists or specialists. Whatever philosophy you subscribe to (and I find these books to complement more than contradict each other), just make sure to do what you can with the gifts and opportunities you’ve been given, to the glory of God. Because one thing’s for sure: the best generalists and specialists never coast.
If you would like my future articles sent to your email, please enter your address.