Range takes us on an expansive tour. We hear again the story of Steve Jobs dropping in to a calligraphy class and discovering an aesthetic for Macintosh computers; that Haruki Murakami wanted to be a musician; and that neither Django Reinhardt nor Les Paul could read a note. Amy Chua is quoted wondering, in the coda to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), whether her daughter might have continued playing the violin for longer if she had been allowed to select the instrument for herself, after a little varied experience. The argument is, essentially, that specialization leads to entrenchment, and the marrow of the book is quirky life stories of very successful people. For readers who already suspect that inter- disciplinary co-operation is a good idea, or that foisting violins on three-year olds is not, he might appear to be hammering at an open door.
Epstein attributes this success to the ability of economists to apply their principles “outside their area” and quotes approvingly Harding’s observation that “the terminology and reasoning processes of economics work their way into almost all topics”. But it seems not to occur to him that this extension of the writ of economic reasoning where previously it hadn’t run could be anything other than benign. Maybe, as Berlin observed of Tolstoy, in every fox there’s a hedgehog struggling to get out.
Epstein’s style is engaging and it is easy to lose oneself in the deceptive ease of his storytelling when he is in fact disassembling complex ideas that would otherwise remain hieroglyphs. He is clear in pointing out that there are certain domains in which a narrow range of experience has real benefits. In the game of chess, patterns are endlessly repeating and success is dependent on the ability to predict outcomes based on the memorisation of those patterns. However, in domains where the rules are less fixed – medicine, politics, finance – narrow experience can lead to dead ends precisely when a broader outlook is needed.
The author’s new book, Range, takes aim at another part of the 10,000 hours theory. He disputes the idea that to achieve excellence it is necessary to start very young, to specialise and to proceed by guided practice in which you relentlessly identify and eliminate your errors and keep on going. He argues the case for the generalist... Anybody contemplating a change of career later in life will find Range immensely reassuring. If you calculate that you don’t have 10,000 hours left in which you can reasonably practise, you can use your range to connect ideas and use your varied experience. Just don’t try to become a golfer or a chess player.
Epstein demonstrates the myopia of specialisation: a high-repetition workload negatively impacted performance in a study into the commercial creation of comic books; 284 experienced academics in Cold War modelling produced 82,361 predictions in the Eighties but were found to be “horrific forecasters”; the disastrous Challenger shuttle mission in 1986 made “mistakes of conformity”. The unusual answers, and ones from amateurs, are often the most fruitful. Life is an experiment, Epstein shows, not given to certainty. Assume nothing.