Book Club Review: Range - Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World

Written by Kristine Chadwick.

Author: David Epstein Range

Reviewer: Kristine Chadwick

I am not sure if I was more excited about the kedgeree brunch at Ozone or the discussion of the book.  As a specialist generalist, I love the idea that I wasn’t alone and that there was evidence that being a generalist wasn’t a draw back in a world seemingly dominated by specialists.  

While we waited for our brunch to arrive, discussion ensued.  We agreed that one of the best things about being a generalist was it gave us the freedom to collaborate with other disciplines and we could easily communicate across silos. If you do the hard graft, learn all the disciplines, then you’re in a position to ask for what you want, whether it be a promotion or to work on a specific project.

So, if generalists are more successful than specialists, how do we know when to stop being so focussed?  How will we know when to move on, try something else and develop new skills?  This was the million-dollar question.  We came up with two suggestions: to keep our hobbies broad and use experience from them and to give ourselves space.  Space to reflect and space to try different things to “get the match fit”.  Getting the match fit is important as if we’re going to spend time on something, we’d better enjoy it.

The one thing we all found fascinating was the inability of specialists to drop tools. The example of firefighters caught in a fire, clinging to their heavy rucksacks and chainsaws rather than abandoning them so they could run and escape really resonated, and a few remembered the fires on the Port Hills in Christchurch in 2017. 

With David Epstein’s research proving the importance of generalists, why are so many jobs still specialist?  The UK seems to still focus on specialist skills, making it very hard for us generalists to tailor our CVs and find the right examples for all those competency based interview questions.  And if you are wanting to recruit a generalist, how do you get the job description past HR?  

Our discussion only touched the surface - the book contains lots of anecdotes as David Epstein examines the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists.  He discovered that in most fields - especially those that are complex and unpredictable - generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel.  Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one.  They’re also creative, agile, and able to make connections their more specialised peers might not be able to.  He also gives a great precis on YouTube for those still not convinced

It really is a fascinating read, or listen, for those hooked on audible.


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