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Not sure what to do with your life? You're on a path to success.
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.
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.
- Outplacement is an underperforming $5 billion dollar industry. A new non-profit coalition by SkillUp intends to disrupt it.
- More and more Americans will be laid off in years to come due to automation. Those people need to reorient their career paths and reskill in a way that protects their long-term livelihood.
- SkillUp brings together technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to help people land in-demand jobs in high-growth industries.
Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis [PDF]<p>Work in understanding the skills at the heart of the new digital economy is leading to novel assessments that allow individuals to prove mastery to faithfully represent their abilities—but also to give weight and stackability to the emerging ecosystem of micro-credentials that make education more seamless across time and education providers. And we are seeing the beginnings of a renewal in the liberal arts, focused on building human skills in affordable ways that are accessible to many more individuals and far more effective.</p><p>Amidst these dark times, there is much opportunity to refresh the nation's education and training solutions to support the success of individuals and society writ large.</p>
Do we really know what we want in a romantic partner? If so, do our desires actually mean we match up with people who suit them?
- Two separate scientific studies suggest that our "ideals" don't really match what we look for in a romantic partner.
- Results of studies like these can change the way we date, especially in the online world.
- "You say you want these three attributes and you like the people who possess these attributes. But the story doesn't end there," says Paul Eastwick, co-author of the study and professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychology.
Do we really know what we want in love or are we just guessing?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="204859156383d358652fda6f7eadda0f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/vQgfx2iYlso?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>More than 700 participants selected their top three qualities in a romantic partner (things like funny, attractive, inquisitive, kind, etc). They then reported their romantic desire for a series of people they knew personally. Some were blind date partners, others were romantic partners and some were simply platonic friends.</p><p>While participants did experience more romantic desire to the extent that these personal connections of theirs (people they knew) had the qualities they listed, there was more to the study. </p><p>Paul Eastwick, co-author and professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychology <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-07-romantic-partner-random-stranger.html" target="_blank">explains</a>: "You say you want these three attributes and you like the people who possess these attributes. But the story doesn't end there." </p><p>The participants also considered the extent to which their personal acquaintances possessed three attributes nominated by some other random person in the study. For example, if Kris listed "down-to-earth", intelligent and thoughtful as her own top three attributes, Vanessa also experienced more desire for people with those specific traits. </p>
Does what we want really match up with what we find?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0NDA4Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5NjM3NzY5OX0.gdUo-UbjYhKUDOL39BDZseRynbwaK2H5dfJtbV0nw8Y/img.jpg?width=980" id="ff376" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7c1e3a1bb9d576872ef5dce39b2e8e80" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="illustration of a man and woman matching on a dating app" />
What we claim to want and what we look for may be two separate things...
Image by GoodStudio on Shutterstock<p>So the question became: are we really listing what we want in an ideal partner or are we just listing vague qualities that people typically consider as positive?</p><p>"So in the end, we want partners who have positive qualities," Sparks explained, "but the qualities you specifically list do not actually have special predictive power for you." </p><p>In other words, the idea that we find certain things attractive in a person does not mean we actively seek out people who have those qualities, despite saying it's what we want in a love interest. The authors of this study suggest these findings could have implications for the way we approach online dating in the digital age. </p><p>This isn't the first study of its kind to suggest that what we find in love isn't really what we were looking for. The evidence suggests that we really are consistent in the abstract of it all: when asked to evaluate what you want on paper, you are more likely to suggest overall attractiveness in accordance with what you've stated are important ideals to you. But real life isn't so similar. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meet-catch-and-keep/201506/when-it-comes-love-do-you-really-know-what-you-want" target="_blank">Psychology Today,</a> who covered a 2015 study with similar results, initial face-to-face encounters have very little effect on our romantic desire. "When we initially meet someone, our level of romantic interest in the person is independent of our standards."</p><p>While you might have no immediate interest in John, he may fit your criteria of being kind, loyal, and intelligent. Similarly, someone may be attracted to Elaine even though she doesn't have any of the qualities they originally said were important to them. </p><p><strong>What does this all mean? </strong></p><p>The authors of both the 2015 and 2020 studies say the same thing: give someone a chance before writing them off as a poor match. If your initial attraction is independent of the standards you've set out, the qualities which you've listed as important to you, the first time you meet someone may not give you enough information to make an informed decision.</p><p>"It's really easy to spend time hunting around online for someone who seems to match your ideals," said Sparks, "But our research suggests an alternative approach: Don't be too picky ahead of time about whether a partner matches your ideals on paper. Or, even better, let your friends pick your dates for you." </p>