Marketing Thought

Do Generalists Triumph?

I am a marketing professor, who has been an accountant working in politics, and who was educated as an ancient historian. As such, it is perhaps no surprise that I am naturally drawn to the arguments in Range. In this David Epstein lays out his case for having a diverse range of skills. His argument is in contrast with the arguments of focused learning. The arguments for focus say something like: “You must do 10,000 hours of specific practice at this”. He poses the key question: Do Generalists Triumph?

Enjoyable Read With Cool Stories

Epstein’s book is in the tradition of the great popular science books. He weaves together interesting stories from many sources to form an argument. To make it readable he leaves his sources to the end. He clearly has done a lot of research and you can find it if you look. (Still I’ll be a bit academic and complain that the research isn’t perfectly clear in the main text).

Some of the stories he uncovers are great. The foundling orchestra, and the chess grand masters were great reads. Roger Federer versus Tiger Woods would have been more interesting if I could bring myself to care about golf or tennis.

Overfitting: Do Generalists Triumph?

Some bits seemed not perfectly connected to his thesis, at least from my perspective. He had a long discussion about hierarchies that I didn’t see as an effective story about the benefits of individual range. (Maybe it was just me though). Still his main point was an important one. Specialists face a similar problem to mathematical models. You can design them perfectly for one task. They can get brilliant at that task. Sadly, any small change can mean the model becomes largely useless. (For more on overfitting see here).

Looking at the US education system I appreciate the ability students have to defer specialization. In the English system when I was young one had to specialize ludicrously early. It never really made sense. This led to lots of humanities grads, otherwise intelligent people, whose knowledge of statistics, science, and math was, quite frankly, pathetic. Who wants those sort of people making any serious decision? Similarly I knew people doing science who could barely communicate. It wasn’t ideal for anyone, and it was easily addressable.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. Does, as the title promises, Epstein show that generalists triumph? I’m not sure he can demonstrate this without more math but it is surely a better world with these arguments in it.

Thoughts On Academia

On a side note Epstein was very much to the point in his assessment of academia.

“Academic departments no longer merely fracture naturally into subspecialities, they elevate narrowness as an ideal.”

Epstein (2019) page 181

He has a great point. Knowing nothing outside your narrow topic shouldn’t be praised. Instead, it should be mocked. If people don’t like learning a range of things why did they become academics? Not knowing anything beyond your specialism is a major problem and should mean you have to go back to school. (To learn not to teach).

People often talk about depth as an analogy for academic skills. In your research you want to go down a long way. To go the farthest down that anyone has ever gone.

I have a counter suggestion. Maybe we should reverse the analogy. In many ways this makes the analogy more natural. Academics should want to go up. To elevate knowledge to previously unseen heights. The reason this analogy is helpful is that it illustrates the importance point of range. It is hard to build up if you don’t have a very wide base. Without a proper base whatever you do just falls over. Building a base of diverse knowledge is precisely what allows you to build towards the sky.

The Base Of A Pyramid Needs To Be Wide To Support The Height

Read: David Epstein (2019) Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World. Riverhead Books


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