In Range, David Epstein makes a case for generalists

by | Apr 28, 2020 | Books, Commentary | 0 comments

Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hour rule’ as detailed in his 2008 book Outliers was, when it came out, a concept that many grasped onto in making sense of work and the world. The idea that putting in 10,000 hours brings us to mastery in our chosen field is nice, tidy and easy to buy into.

In 2009, he was on Reddit answering questions and wrote:

There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in Outliers. It doesn’t apply to sports. And practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest. Unfortunately, sometimes complex ideas get oversimplified in translation.

The Business Insider also expanded on this in an article titled Malcolm Gladwell Explains What Everyone Gets Wrong About His Famous ‘10,000 Hour Rule’. Why a focus on Malcolm Gladwell when writing about David Epstein‘s Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World? Well, on the cover of Range is a quote from Gladwell: “Makes me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong. I loved Range.”

And, early in the book, Epstein describes the ten-thousand-hour rule as follows:

The “rule’ represents the idea that the number of accumulated hours of highly specialized training is the sole factor in skill development, no matter the domain.

Specialisation has been well-branded with the figure of speech, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none‘ and stick used to beat some of us repeatedly. For years, I have had mentors and friends tell me I dabble in too many things and should pick one. And yet, the original saying is actually “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.


Range speaks to the original quote, demonstrating that, for example, specialisation has a place, within certain environments. Epstein writes, when talking about how the narrowness of experience and kind learning environments (coined by psychologist Robert Hogarth) come into play:

That is the very definition of deliberate practice, the type identified with both the ten-thousand-hours rule and the rush to early specialisation in technical training. The learning environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better. Kahneman was focused on the flipside of kind learning environments; Hogarth called them “wicked.”

In wicked domains, 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.”

At the heart of the book is the very simple argument that the world isn’t black or white. Something that living demonstrates every day without our actually learning. We view hyper-specialised, especially those who start from an early age, as superhuman beings above or beyond us mere mortals. And, often, we assume that those we admire for their mastery were always hyper-specialised, when, as Epstein demonstrates, it isn’t always so, using people like Roger Federer, Duke Ellington and Vincent van Gogh as examples.

Range is a great read. Well-written, easy to navigate with great insights from a variety of fields. Epstein always draws from various studies that reinforce is view. There is a place for those of us who are generalists.

Ps. I am a huge admirer and follower of Malcolm Gladwell’s thinking, writing and podcasts.


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