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In David Epstein's 'Range', dabblers and dillettantes are ascendant.
- There are more paths to professional success than practicing for 10,000 hours, says David Epstein.
- In his new book 'Range', the author illustrates the benefits of being a generalist in a specialized world.
- While the conclusions are good news, they're not as surprising as Epstein might believe.
If you're a young person who hasn't yet figured out what to do with your life, or the parent of one, you'll likely hear that the most important thing for a young person to do is to find at least one area of interest and practice it endlessly — think "Tiger Moms" like Amy Chua — to become an incredibly talented X, where X is, well, whatever. Oboist. Snowboarder. Speller. You need to be great at something if you're to have any hope of standing out and succeeding in an increasingly competitive world.
In a new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World, the science writer David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, comes out hard against what he sees as a recent cultural trend toward obsessive training and narrow expertise. In our present, "10,000-hours"-obsessed age, generalist approaches to problem solving and personal growth are getting short shrift. Epstein argues that for individuals to thrive and society to solve pressing problems, we all need to move a step or two away from Chua and her ilk and more toward the sort of wisdom that prevails in Silicon Valley: "Move fast and break stuff." Try a bunch of different things and if something doesn't work, don't cling too tightly to it — move on to the next thing and learn from your mistakes. While Range occasionally get mired in its overreliance on anecdotes and what is actually not all that provocative a thesis, overall it works as an impressive collection of insights from art, history, and (most of all) social science.
Epstein opens with the very different stories of Tiger Woods, who was an uncannily talented golfer from toddlerhood, and his friend Roger Federer, whose path to tennis greatness was very different, and involved a significant amount of early-life flitting between sports and other interests. As Epstein explains, a lot more elite athletes follow a Federian path than one might think, and he soon expands this argument into a wide variety of different domains. Often, it isn't the obsessive nerds with encyclopedia knowledge solving difficult problems and helping human society to advance; it's the bigger-picture thinkers who might not be bona fide experts in any particular area, but who are adept at drawing surprising connections and discerning hard-to-see patterns.
Much of Epstein's argument hinges on the difference between kind and wicked problems. Kind problems are predictable. If your goal is to become good at shooting free throws, for example, you will benefit from the fact that the task you are performing is more or less the same whether you are performing it on an otherwise empty summertime blacktop or during an NBA playoff game. You can practice the same routine over and over again, with instant feedback along the way, and expect fairly consistent process toward expertise. But our trickiest problems and most impressive feats are different. "In wicked domains," Epstein writes, "the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both." This is where obsessively focusing on a narrow set of skills often isn't the best approach.
Epstein is an expert collector and synthesizer of miniature case-studies — he rolls out story after story covering various facets of the generalization-versus-specialization debate. They have a really high hit rate, in that they are mostly interesting or add some important bit of fodder to the book's overarching argument. I was particularly fond of his explanation of groundbreaking research conducted on peasant farmers in the Soviet Union comparing those who had already been connected, via the Soviet Union's ambitious development agenda during the socialist revolution, to modern society, with those who hadn't yet. When it came to basic cognitive tasks many of us take for granted — tasks along the lines of "Put all the circular objects in that pile off to the side, in their own pile" — the premodern farmers genuinely couldn't understand what they were being asked to do. They often didn't seem able to grasp that objects had properties unless those properties tied directly into their everyday uses in the farmers' lives. But as soon as people were exposed to modern society, the ability to think in more abstract, creative ways seemed to come with it. "Our most fundamental thought processes have changed to accommodate increasing complexity and the need to derive new patterns rather than rely only on familiar ones," Epstein writes. The best parts of the book, like this one, reveal surprising aspects of human cognition, or some field of expertise (cardiologists are obsessed with stents, it turns out, despite a horrifying dearth of evidence for their overall efficacy in many situations), or some real-world problem (an important advance in cleaning up oil spills was inspired by convenience-store slushy machines, it turns out).
But the book falters at times, too, and that's mostly because the underlying thesis isn't actually that surprising. If you sit and think about it for a moment, it probably won't surprise you that the most imposing challenges facing humans, or the most jaw-dropping works of art our species has produced, require a certain degree of borrowing from various domains, of understanding the universe's hidden connections. So, that high anecdotal hit rate notwithstanding, there are times when it feels like rather than advance or refine his argument, Epstein is just piling anecdote atop anecdote, occasionally giving the book a slightly saggy feel.
An easy way to address this would have been for Epstein to connect his book more to the contemporary world. Modern-day America is strangely absent from Range. That's unfortunate, because the themes Epstein discusses — dabbling in different areas before choosing a vocation, debating whether it's worth it to invest in narrowly specialized educational training, and the aforementioned child-rearing questions — matter a great deal given the country's current economic situation.
In short, the incentives for young workers are a lot different these days. It used to be, for a fairly large swath of the U.S. workforce, that if you found one thing you were decent-enough at — or even just had a cousin who worked at a factory who could get you an entry-level job there — you could build a decent life for yourself on the basis of that work. A large part of the story of the last half-century or so of American life has been the gradual unraveling of this arrangement as work has become more piecemeal and less likely to come with generous benefits. These days, we're in an increasingly gig-economy-obsessed society in which it's harder and harder for people to carve out decades-long careers at a single firm the way they used to (I'm sure by now more than one Generation Z kid has asked "Daddy, what's a 'pension'?").
How do the changing economic incentives affect the specialization-versus-generalization debate? What does it mean to encourage people to dabble and perambulate around different career possibilities at a time when economic insecurity is creeping up the American income latter and so many people are afraid of sliding down it, or of their kids doing the same? It's interesting to imagine how the new, less settled landscape has forced people in exactly the direction Epstein thinks is best, toward lateral thinking, exploration, a willingness to fail and move on, and so forth. It wouldn't be much of a silver lining to the many people languishing during these epochal shifts, but still: the economy is foisting upon people entirely new, rapidly changing notions of what it means to be a competitive worker, and many of those changes line up with Epstein's argument about what leads to success.
We don't hear much about any of this, nor about all the people who develop a wide range of skills and nonetheless falter — there's a bit of survivor's bias here, reminiscent of Angela Duckworth's Grit, a book that Epstein mentions.
Whatever his answer to these questions, had Epstein connected his argument more tightly to what's going on in the real world at the moment, rather than rattling off success story after success story of late-bloomers and polymaths with staggering intellects, it would have given Range just a bit more heft.
Another missed opportunity comes in Epstein's otherwise brisk and entertaining recounting of the famous wager between the doomsaying environmentalist and The Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, who built a career in the 1960s and 1970s arguing that the planet was heading toward a terrifying human die-off sparked by overpopulation and subsequent famine, and Julian Simon, an economist who thought he was dead wrong (as you can likely infer, Simon won the bet). Epstein deftly explains how certain thinking errors on the part of Ehrlich helped lead him astray, while also pointing out that Simon wasn't right about everything, either, but there's no mention of another burgeoning ecological panic — a contemporary one that feels like it has much more evidentiary weight behind it. How should we apply the lessons of the Simon-Ehrlich wager to the current political and policy debate over how to address climate change, which, after all, also relies a great deal on long-term forecasting? The question just sits there, obvious but unasked.
Overall, though, Range works well as a broad, highly readable exploration of some fascinating questions. Anyone with an interest in the peaks and valleys of human achievement and folly will gain some valuable insights from it, and there's definitely a subset of high-achiever types who could use its core message, which is that it's okay to dabble and to explore, and that doing so won't necessarily cause you to fall behind in the long run — even if that message isn't quite as groundbreaking as Epstein would like it to be.
Jesse Singal is a contributing writer at New York Magazine who is working on a book for Farrar, Straus and Giroux about why half-baked psychological ideas go viral.
A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
The tomb that held the cheese lies in the desert sands south of Cairo. It was first discovered in the 19th century by treasure hunters, who eventually lost the knowledge of its location, leaving the Saharan sands to once again conceal the tomb.
“Since 1885 the tomb has been covered in sand and no-one knew about it,” Professor Ola el-Aguizy of Cairo University told the BBC. “It is important because this tomb was the lost tomb.”
In 2010, a team of archaeologists rediscovered the tomb, which belonged to Ptahmes, a mayor and military chief of staff of the Egyptian city of Memphis in the 13th century B.C. In the tomb, the team found a jar containing a “solidified whitish mass,” among other artifacts.
“The archaeologists suspected [the mass] was food, according to the conservation method and the position of the finding inside the tomb, but we discovered it was cheese after the first tests,” Enrico Greco, the lead author of the paper and a research assistant at Peking University in Beijing, told the The New York Times.
To find out what the substance was, the team had to develop a novel way to analyze the proteins and identify the peptide markers in the samples. They first dissolved parts of the substance and then used mass spectrometry and chromatography to analyze its proteins.
Despite more than 3,000 years spent in the desert, the researchers were able to identify hundreds of peptides (chains of amino acids) in the sample. They found some that were associated with milk from goat, sheep and, interestingly, the African buffalo, a species not usually kept as a domestic animal in modern Africa, as Gizmodo reports.
Those results suggested that the substance was cheese, specifically one that was probably similar in consistency to chevre but with a “really, really acidy” taste, as Dr. Paul Kindstedt, a professor at the University of Vermont who studies the chemistry and history of cheese, told the The New York Times.
“It would be high in moisture; it would be spreadable,” he said. “It would not last long; it would spoil very quickly.”
The researchers also found traces of the bacterium Brucella melitensis, which causes brucellosis, a debilitating disease that can cause endocarditis, arthritis, chronic fatigue, malaise, muscle pain and other conditions. It’s a disease usually contracted by consuming raw dairy products.
“The most common way to be infected [with Brucella melitensis] is by eating or drinking unpasteurized/raw dairy products. When sheep, goats, cows, or camels are infected, their milk becomes contaminated with the bacteria,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control wrote on its website. “If the milk from infected animals is not pasteurized, the infection will be transmitted to people who consume the milk and/or cheese products.”
Dr. Kindstedt said one reason the study is significant is for its novel use of proteomic analysis, which is the systematic identification and quantification of the complete complement of proteins (the proteome) of a biological system.
“As I say to my students every year when I get to Egypt, someone has to go ahead and analyze these residues with modern capabilities,” he told the The New York Times. “This is a logical next step and I think you’re going to see a lot more of this.”
'The Great Pyramid of Chee-za'. An artist's interpretation of a very ripe, slightly deadly Egyptian tomb cheese. (Credit: Creative commons/Big Think)
However, Dr. Kindstedt did offer a bit of caution on the conclusions the researchers drew from the findings.
“The authors of this new study did some nice work,” he told Gizmodo in a statement. “But in my view, on multiple grounds (I suspect in their zeal to be “the first”), they inferred considerably beyond what their data is capable of supporting within reasonable certainty, and almost certainly they are not the first to have found solid cheese residues in Egyptian tombs, just the first to apply proteomic analyses (which is worthy achievement on its own).”
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.