“Range” by David Epstein TLDR

Range: why generalists’ triumph in a specialized world. Epstein looks to expand upon the points from his previous book, “The Sports Gene”, by implementing stories from Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Malcolm Gladwell and more.

“and he refused to specialize in anything, preferring to keep an eye on the overall estate rather than any of its parts…and nikolay’s management produced the most brilliant results.” — tolstoy, war & peace

“no tool is omnicompetent. there’s no such thing as a master key that will unlock all doors.” — arnold toynbee, a study of history

chunking helps explain instances of apparently miraculous, domain specific memory, from musicians playing long pieces by heart to quarterbacks recognizing defensive patterns.

your restaurant server doesn’t have a superhuman memory, they’ve just learned to group reoccurring information into chunks.

studying an enormous number of repetitive patterns is so important in chess that early specialization in technical practice is critical. chunking comes from extensive, repetitive practice.

a grandmaster repeatedly recreated the entire board after seeing it for only 3 seconds. a master level player managed that half as often as the grandmaster. a lesser, city champion player and average club player were never able to recreate the board accurately. the grandmasters seemed to have photographic memories, but after this test was re-enacted by two carnegie mellon university psychologists (william chase & nobel laureate herbert simon) with an added wrinkle; this time the players were given boards with the pieces in an arrangement that would never actually occur in a game. suddenly the experts performed just like the lesser players. the grandmasters didn’t have photographic memories after all, it was through repetitive study of game patterns they learned to do what chase and simon called “chunking”. rather than struggling to remember the location of every individual pawn, bishop, and took, the brains of the elite players grouped pieces into a smaller number of meaningful chunks based on familiar patterns which allow players to immediately assess the situation based on experience. e.g. the diagram isn’t 28 items but instead 5 different meaningful chunks that indicated the game was progressing.

some stories give the false impression that human skill is always developed in an extremely kind learning environment. if that were the case specialization that is both narrow and technical and begins as soon as possible would usually work, but it doesn’t even work in most sports.

if the amount of early, specialized practice in a narrow area were the key to innovative performance, savants would dominate every domain they touched, and child prodigies would always go on to adult eminence. as psychologist ellen winner noted, “no savant has ever been known to become a big-c creator.”

there are domains beyond chess in which massive amounts of narrow practice make for grandmaster-like intuition. like golfers, surgeons improve with repetition of the same procedure. accountants and bridge and poker players develop accurate intuition through repetitive experience.

daniel kahneman pointed out those domains’ “robust statistical regularities” but when the rules are altered just slightly it makes experts appear to have traded flexibility for narrow skill. in research in the gam of bridge where the order of play was altered, experts had a more difficult time adapting to new rules than non-experts. when experienced accountants were asked in a study to use a new tax law for deductions that replaced a previous one, they did worse than novices. this phenomenon is referred to by university of rice professor erik dane as cognitive entrenchment. his suggestion for avoiding it are about the polar opposite of the strict version of the 10,000 hours school of thought: vary challenges within a domain drastically, and as a fellow researcher puts it, insist on “having one foot outside your world”.

professor flynn believes college departments rush to develop students in a narrow specialty area, while failing to sharpen the tools of thinking that can serve them in every area. he argues if students are to capitalize on their unprecedented capacity for abstract thought. they must be taught to think before being taught what to think about. students come prepared with scientific spectacles, but do not leave carrying a scientific-reasoning swiss army knife.

a class at the university of washington titled “calling bullshit” focused on broad principles fundamental to understanding the interdisciplinary world and critically evaluating the daily firehouse of information. when the class was first posted in 2017, registration filled up in the first minute.

like chess masters and firefighters, premodern villages relied on things being the same tomorrow as they were yesterday. they were extremely well prepared for what they had experienced before, and extremely poorly equipped for everything else. their thinking was highly specialized in a manner that the modern world has been telling us is increasingly obsolete. they were perfectly capable of learning from experience, but failed at learning without experience. faced with any problem they hadn’t directly experienced before, the remote villages were completely lost. that isn’t an option for us. the more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it’ll be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.

the ability to apply knowledge broadly comes from broad training. a particular skilled group of performers in another place and time turned broad training into an art form.

richland says “parents are always like ‘lemme show you, there’s a faster, easier way.” if the teacher didn’t already turn the work into using-procedures practice, well meaning parents will. they aren’t comfortable with bewildered kids and they want understanding to come quickly and easily. but for learning that is both durable (it sticks) and flexible (it can be alllied broadly), fast and easy is precisely the problem.

nate kornell, cognitive psychologist at williams college, says “some people argue that part of the reason US students don’t do as well on international measures of high school knowledge is that they’re doing too well in class. what you want to do is make it easy to make it hard.” he was explaining the concept of “desirable difficulties”, which are obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower, and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long term. excessive hint-giving, like in the eighth grade math classroom, does the opposite: it bolsters immediate performance, but undermines progress in the long run.

“generation effect” is struggling to generate an answer on your own, even a wrong one, enhances subsequent learning. socrates was apparently onto something when he forced pupils to generate answers rather than bestowing them. it requires the learner to intentionally sacrifice current performance for future benefit.

knowledge increasingly needs not merely to be durable, but also flexible— both sticky and capable of broad application.

blocked practice is practicing the same thing repeatedly, each problems employing the same procedure. it leads to excellent immediate performance, but for knowledge to be flexible it should be learned under varied conditions, an approach called “mixed practice” or “interleaving”.

interleaving has been shown to improve inductive reasoning. when presented with different examples mixed together, students learn to create abstract generalizations that allow them to apply what they learned to the material they’ve never encountered before. for example, if you visit a museum & want to be able to identify the artist of paintings there you’ve never seen. before you go, instead of studying a stack of single artist flash cards, instead shuffle them all together so they’re interleaved. you’ll struggle more during practice but surely be better equipped on museum day to discern each painters style, even for paintings they weren’t in the flash cards.

interleaving tends to fool learners about their own progress. in one of kornell & bjork’s interleaving studies, 80% of students were sure they’d learned better with blocked than mixed practice, whereas 80% performed in a manner that proved the opposite. the feeling of learning is based on ‘before- your-eyes’ progress, while deep learning is not. when your intuition says block, you should probably interleave.

interleaving is a desirable difficulty that frequently holds for both physical and mental skills.