Timothy's Blog

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Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

December 23rd, 2019 by

So I said I would write this review on this book I read, titled “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”, and I figured it was time to get to it. This book is pretty amazing in my opinion and I feel I learned a lot from it. I will share a few things I learned in the following review.

The book starts by talking about the “Tiger” syndrome (named after Tiger Woods) where kids are introduced early to the career they are going to pursue for the rest of their life and get going pretty early on it. This does lead to better initial results with their pursuits and even some people, like Tiger Woods who is very successful, for instance. But the book goes on to argue that this may not be the best way to learn.

It turns out people who don’t specialize early on actually get a deeper understanding of the subject they’re studying and do better in the long term. Data backs this up. It is shown that people who have a “sampling period” and study many subjects will actually do better in the long run.

The book then goes on to explain “wicked” vs “kind” problems. “Wicked” problems are those that require deep and analytical thinking rather than relying on the intuition which we value so much. I think such problems may also represent the lions share of really rewarding work that we do. “Kind” problems are those which are easily solved early and are easy for us to grasp.

The book also goes on to talk about how extracurricular learning actually helps to solve problems in the specialized space and how specialized “tigers” actually consistently fail or take much longer to solve a difficult “wicked” problem than their more generalized peers. The idea is that information and experience from outside your profession can often be the key that unlocks a “wicked” problem.

One “wicked” problem of this nature given as an example was when they were trying to clean up the Alaskan Valdez oil spill. The problem was that the oil they were trying to clean up could not be pumped into the barges because it was so stiff and unworkable. It was described as “chocolate mousse”.

So they started a contest to find a way to fluidize the oil and make it pump-able and eventually some guy with no experience in the area found that by spinning rods stuck in the stiff unrefined oil it would heat up and fluidize and become easy to pump. This is a good example of a “wicked” problem that was solved by someone with outside experience.

I will end by giving one more example of what I read in the book and that was the example of using lateral thinking with “withered technology”. The example was of Gunpei Yokoi who was a engineering graduate who was hired by Nintendo before they made video games. He used his creative thinking to combine technology that wasn’t that advanced or cutting edge to create products that were a hit on the market and innovated in surprising ways.

Yokoi started with no big ambitions but eventually ended up transforming the company from a failing company into a global giant. He started by inventing things like RC cars that only turned right and eventually went on to invent the Nintendo Gameboy which was a revolutionary product at the time not just for its technology but for how that technology was combined in new and surprising ways. His was a particular kind of genius and he is an inspiration to how I might like to innovate in my areas of expertise. He is what you would call a “generalist” who combines multiple disciplines.

So overall I’m very grateful I read this book and am trying to apply to my life what I have learned from it. One way to do this is to not be afraid to study many subjects at the same time which is something I’ve worried about in the past but now feel much more comfortable with.

Tell me what you think of this review and any questions you may have about the book and I’d be happy to answer! And if you want to see the price of the book on Amazon, you can see it here.

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