Book Review: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

Those who follow my blog don’t know what to expect. I write a lot of book reviews, but I don’t limit my blog entries to only book reviews. I don’t only read in one genre either. In fact, I try to diversify my reading as much as possible. I have a rough plan of alternating between fiction and nonfiction when I read, but I don’t always stick to that pattern. I’ll read anything that looks interesting to me.

The same goes with my writing. I’m always writing something. Often I write science fiction and fantasy, but I also write thrillers, mysteries, literary fiction, memoirs, and essays. I’ve read advice from other writers that it’s important to specialize and singlemindedly stick to a narrow genre focus in writing. If you deviate from that path, they say, your readers will become confused and perhaps stop following your work.

Personally, I give readers a little more credit than that. I admire writers who are versatile.

These thoughts came to me while reading Range, a well-written and well-researched book that goes against most trends in modern thought. Nowadays the advice that most pundits give is to specialize. Do one thing over and over and over until you have developed genius-level expertise.

In Epstein’s view, this can make you knowledgeable in one area but deficient in comprehension of the overall picture. Generalization, or the pursuit of a modicum of knowledge in a wide range of fields, better prepares people for decision making at high levels. Often people who take up and abandon careers one after the other achieve great success later in life because of their broad experience. And even when those career changes were involuntary, it’s possible for someone to take adverse circumstances and turn them around into significant gains.

This message made a lot of sense to me. I’ve certainly bounced around from one undertaking and/or career to another in my life: various odd jobs as a young man, itinerant traveler on several continents and in dozens of countries, husband, parent of five sons, teacher of English as a second language… And then, late in life, I went through one of the most traumatic changes of my life when I moved back to the States with some of my sons. I tried to find a conventional job but couldn’t. Desperate, I looked for freelance writing work and found one gig, then another, and another, and here I am several years later eking out a living as a full-time writer.

After I read about a chapter and a half of this book, I called up one of my sons who has recently gone through some major career changes. “I think you’re going to love this book,” I told him. It’s the type of book that people recommend one to another precisely because it flies opposite of conventional thinking. When only one standard line of reasoning is emphasized, a lot of folks to whom the conventional take on things doesn’t work are going to fall through the cracks.

This book celebrates the broad thinkers, the scholars who study in many fields, the artists who experiment with various forms and mediums, the people who think outside the box. It helped me feel okay with myself and what I was accomplishing artistically. It reinforced the gut-level feeling I already had that I didn’t have to do things like everyone else; I could go my own way and clear my own path. If I complete a string of science fiction short stories and then want to switch and write a memoir or literary novel or series of essays, that’s okay. I keep working; I have persistence; I never give up. However, I revel in the diversity of my efforts. I like attempting new and different things.

This book is a valuable counterpoint to current mindsets. It shakes things up and allows you to see things from a fresh and invigorating intellectual perspective. And that’s always a plus.

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