Breadth Before Depth

I’ve long recognized the value of broad experience, education, and interests. It enables us to see the world from multiple perspectives and to connect ideas from multiple domains. I’ve always felt that my own meandering path through multiple areas of study, interest, and work has allowed me to think in ways that a narrow path would have never produced. Deep experience and study are valuable as well, but without breadth, depth breeds myopia. Given this notion, I was thrilled to find a new book that articulates this case eloquently and backs it with a wealth of evidence. The book, written by David Epstein, is titled Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

It is, in my opinion, the most important book about thinking, learning, and problem solving since Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Back in 2008, when Malcolm Gladwell wrote the book Outliers, he promoted the value of narrow, repetitive, and extensive training. Gladwell highlighted the notion that genuine expertise in any endeavor requires around 10,000 hours of focused training. While it is true that some areas of endeavor can be mastered through extensive repetition of specific tasks (e.g., learning to play golf or chess), many others cannot. As it turns out, the notion that people learn best if they pick a specific area of endeavor when they’re young and stick to it with unflagging commitment and discipline is not a model that works in most cases. The skills that can be developed in this way are rather isolated. In fact, by gaining broad experience—generalizing—we can learn to think in ways that are more flexible and better able to fathom complexities. This is an important insight, for the world in which we live today is increasingly complex. The cross-fertilization of ideas that is nurtured by generalization prepares us to deal with modern challenges. You might find it interesting to note what Gladwell thinks of Epstein’s new book:

For reasons I cannot explain, David Epstein manages to make me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong. I loved Range.

This is a classy admission by someone who, as a generalist himself, is well positioned to recognize flaws in his former thesis.

Fairly early in the book, Epstein writes:

The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization. While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with…precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases—as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part—we also need more…people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.

There are “kind” learning environments, in which “patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid” (e.g., golf and chess). “The learning environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better.” There are also “wicked” domains, in which “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.” To an increasing extent, the modern world is not kind. To navigate it successfully, we need range. Computers are great at handling kind environments, hence the growing success of narrow AI. We humans, however, assuming that we cultivate the abstract and multifaceted thinking that our brains have evolved to handle, are much better at handling the wicked problems that pose our greatest challenges today.

“AI systems are like savants.” They need stable structures and narrow worlds.

When we know the rules and answers, and they don’t change over time—chess, golf, playing classical music—an argument can be made for savant-like hyperspecialization practice from day one. But those are poor models of most things humans want to learn.

Our educational system is not doing a good job of preparing future generations for the increasingly wicked world in which they will live, and employers often fail to recognize the benefits of generalization. This needs to change. David Epstein does a great job of explaining why and suggesting some of the ways to make this happen. It is never too late to broaden your horizons.

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