Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World (Part II)

To roll right on from Part I, here are some more insights from David Epstein’s outstanding book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World:

  1. The Trouble with Too Much Grit
  2. You’re Not a Tree: Move
  3. Own Choices –> Ownership –> Intrinsic Motivation
  4. Flirt with Your Possible Selves
  5. Fooled by Expertise
  6. Teaching as Perspective Farming
  7. Communication Culture
  8. Deliberate Amateurs: Experiment and Play

1. The Trouble with Too Much Grit

‘Winston Churchill’s “never give in, never, never, never, never” is an oft-quoted trope. The end of the sentence is always left out: “except to convictions of honor and good sense.”’

“We fail,” he [Seth Godin] wrote, when we stick with “tasks we don’t have the guts to quit.”

James – I’m sure we all know relationships to which this applies. Anyway, as with the 10,000 hours rule discussed in Part 1, this led me to re-examine and ultimately re-calibrate one of my previously entrenched beliefs, that of the glory of grit. Angela Duckworth is the most famous academic supporting the idea that grit – a strength she defines as passion and perseverance for long-term goals – is key to achieving objects. However, as is actually detailed in Duckworth’s work but much less-often quoted in general conversation, which tends to strip nuance and detail from hard-earned academic literature for the sake of a soundbite, grit has its place in certain situations, but it doesn’t mean than stopping isn’t sometimes the much wiser option.

2. You’re Not a Tree: Move

‘He [labour economist Kirabo Jackson] found that teachers are more effective at improving student performance after they switch to a new school, and that the effect is not explained by switching to higher-achieving schools or better students. “Teachers tend to leave schools at which they are poorly matched,” he concluded. “Teacher turnover . . . may in fact move us closer to an optimal allocation of teachers to schools.” Switchers are winners. It seems to fly in the face of hoary adages about quitting, and of far newer concepts in modern psychology [e.g. grit].’

‘A recent international Gallup survey of more than two hundred thousand workers in 150 countries reported that 85 percent were either “not engaged” with their work or “actively disengaged.” In that condition, according to Seth Godin, quitting takes a lot more guts than continuing to be carried along like debris on an ocean wave. The trouble, Godin noted, is that humans are bedeviled by the “sunk cost fallacy*.”’

*In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Sunk costs are contrasted with prospective costs, which are future costs that may be avoided if action is taken i.e. “I’ve spent $200 and three weeks on this five-year course so far, so quitting now would mean I throw all that away.” (wrong! The time and money is already gone; don’t waste any more of it in the future!) I struggle with the sunk cost fallacy regularly when decision-making.

Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous, to use Darwin’s adjective, when examined in the light of more self-knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same…The precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been.

James – The majority of people are unhappy at work. We’re fortunate to work in a profession that can bring a lot of lessons, growth and satisfaction, but don’t be afraid to move around to find a school which fits you best. Hell, don’t be afraid to quit teaching when it’s no longer the best fit for you: there are tons of transferrable skills you can use in other industries, so don’t be dragged down by the ‘sunk cost fallacy’.

3. Own Choices –> Ownership –> Intrinsic Motivation

‘Very young people often have their goals set for them, or at least have a limited menu to choose from, and pursuing them with passion and resilience is the main challenge’

James – As soon as possible, we should give learners the framework to set their own goals, as this is where valuable, intrinsic motivation lies, and this gives them a path to make their own life decisions as they grow older rather than always relying on ‘elders’ (parents, teachers) around them. This is a vital public service, because as Jordan Peterson said, “there’s nothing uglier than an old infant.” Some useful resources to bring this concept to life with your learners:

  1. SMART goal-setting
  2. Please Think Responsibly: Teen Gasoline webinar
  3. WOOP your objectives

4. Flirt with Your Possible Selves

‘“It’s no use going back to yesterday,” she said, “because I was a different person then.” Alice captured a grain of truth, one that has profound consequences for the best way to maximize match quality.’

James – Alice in Wonderland is a beast for life lessons; this is only one. We often suffer from the ‘end of history’ illusion: the idea that who we are now is the finished product. But we are in fact in constant evolution. How often do we label our students with ‘this is what you are’ rather than ‘this is where you are right now, but where are you going next’? As usual, growth mindset plays a role.

For the language learner who is evolving towards something, the question is “Who do you want to be in this language?” (© Gianni Licata, my mentor and teacher training co-ordinator at IH Rome). It’s a really powerful motivator to pick a language model whose accent and linguistic mannerisms can be imitated; whether they a native or non-native speaker is irrelevant. We’ll all arrive at a destination with our language development; our choice is whether to make it deliberate or accidental. More details here: 

3 Key Questions at the Starting Gate

The concept of future selves applied to personality:

Future Authoring Lesson Plan

‘Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway.’

James – This doesn’t fly directly in the face of goal-setting, which I’m a huge believer in (see links above!). Instead, I hear it as an echo of motivational speaker Jim Rohn’s encouragement to use the future as a pull and the past as a push, rather than gravity pulling you back. In other words, learn from past experiences but start where you are with what you have and move forward step by step from there. 

5. Fooled by Expertise

‘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.’

James – This reminds me of the fish vs monkey analogy in Part I.

‘The integrators outperformed their colleagues on pretty much everything, but they especially trounced them on long-term predictions. Eventually, Tetlock conferred nicknames (borrowed from philosopher Isaiah Berlin) that became famous throughout the psychology and intelligence-gathering communities: the narrow-view hedgehogs, who “know one big thing,” and the integrator foxes, who “know many little things.

James – Fish vs monkeys; frogs vs birds; hedgehogs vs. foxes. Pick your animal analogy. In this book, Epstein argues for the advantages of the ‘fox’ who knows a bit about many different areas and can adapt and apply this knowledge. This is in direct competition to the often-used idiom ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, but if believed, has strong consequences for how we educate learners. 


6. Teaching as Perspective Farming

‘Eastman narrates his life like a book of fables…”I think that housepainting was probably one of the greatest helps,” he told me. It afforded him the chance to interact with a diverse palette of colleagues and clients, from refugees seeking asylum to Silicon Valley billionaires whom he would chat with if he had a long project working on their homes. He described it as fertile ground for collecting perspectives.’

James – Just as teaching, when we carefully observe and genuinely listen to our learners, opens up a range of life experiences to learn from. The range of knowledge and experience Epstein is encouraging is a part of our everyday working lives.

7. Communication Culture

‘“Can do” should have been swapped for what Weick calls a “make do” culture. They needed to improvise rather than throw out information that did not fit the established rubric.’

“Congruence” is a social science term for cultural “fit” among an institution’s components—values, goals, vision, self-concepts, and leadership styles.

James – If you don’t fit and can’t adapt, in the words of Oasis’s Don’t Look Back in Anger: find a better place to play (see point 2).

‘Wernher von Braun, who led the Marshall Space Flight Center’s development of the rocket that propelled the moon mission, balanced NASA’s rigid process with an informal, individualistic culture that encouraged constant dissent and cross-boundary communication. Von Braun started “Monday Notes”: every week engineers submitted a single page of notes on their salient issues.’

Rex Geveden, NASA Administrator: “The chain of communication has to be informal,” he told me, “completely different from the chain of command.”

Girl Scouts CEO Frances Hesselbein’s “circular management.” Instead of a ladder, the organizational structure was concentric circles, with Hesselbein in the middle. Information could flow in many directions, and anyone in one circle had numerous entry points to communicate with the next circle, rather than just a single superior who acted as a gate.

Gunpei Yokoi (Nintendo video game designer): “Once a young person starts saying things like, ‘Well it’s not really my place to say’, then it’s all over.”‘

James – Many schools could learn from and apply these concepts.

8. Deliberate Amateurs: Experiment and Play

‘We have long known the laws of thermodynamics, but struggle to predict the spread of a forest fire. We know how cells work, but can’t predict the poetry that will be written by a human made up of them.’

James – ‘We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance’ – John Archibald Wheeler. Keep learners curious.

‘“When you push the boundaries, a lot of it is just probing. It has to be inefficient,” Casadevall told me.’ (Arturo Casadevall is a Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins).

James – Always leave time to explore.

**Any questions or comments, please leave a Comment below or send me an email at jegerton89@gmail.com. Thanks for reading!**

Other books harvested for knowledge:


The Power of Habit

Ego is the Enemy

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Blindness (Part 1)

Blindness (Part 2)

Pour Me: A Life


4 thoughts on “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World (Part II)

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