Range — Book Review

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Cross-posted from Goodreads.

From our early days, we are taught the value of hard work. We are encouraged to specialize in whatever we are “passionate” about. Starting early in that specialization is offered as the only way to succeed. We are told inspirational success stories of rich businesspersons, extraordinary athletes, and hard-working celebrities, and how having a singular focus in life made them what they were. The mainstream media keeps playing on repeat the success stories of high-flying specialists.

But reading about the lives of some of the most remarkable people, like Da Vinci, Roosevelt, Jobs, and Curie, Nightingale presents a different picture. These men and women were famously multi-talented (read generalists) and had a more enduring impact on our society than any specialist. I had always wondered whether the stories run by mainstream media presented the whole truth.

Think about it: when was the last time you checked a famous person’s Wikipedia portrait and NOT found a list of diverse things that they were? Benjamin Franklin was a writer AND scientist AND inventor AND politician AND philosopher. Thomas Edison was an inventor AND businessman who dabbled in electricity, communication, sound, and motion pictures among other things. Elon Musk is a business magnate AND investor who has excelled in payments, automobiles, and space exploration.

Being a generalist myself, I was intrigued by the book’s title when I stumbled on it during my self-motivated research on the generalist vs. specialist debate. I was looking for confirmation that being a generalist could be advantageous if done right. I was also looking for real-world examples of people who have tasted success with a generalist approach, and take away techniques to bring a more disciplined structure to being a generalist. The book seemed to be exactly what I wanted, so I ordered it without wasting a minute.

Though the book did turn out as expected, it’s written in an overly journalistic style. Most chapters are like long essays in a Sunday newspaper. While I absolutely enjoyed learning key lessons from some of the most remarkable generalists, I was frequently too bored to continue. Perhaps I read it with the wrong expectation. I tried to speed read when I could, but constantly found myself slowed down by the scientific explanations. It took a lot of concentration to consume those parts. To be fair to the author, it’s good that every assertion is backed by a proper explanation. It was just too much to swallow for me.

In the end, I’d still recommend this book. Being a generalist in a highly specialized world is tough. It helps to have a mentor remind you about its virtues and give tips to improve. Epstein is that mentor.

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