Reading Over A Smart Guy’s Shoulder

A very popular non-fiction book of the last few years was David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. I didn’t read the book. I’m lucky if I read 3 books a year and I have 75 books on my nightstand. And the nightstand stack has a growth rate too. It’s called life. Don’t feel bad. Anyway, I did the next best thing. I listened to Epstein’s interview on Invest Like The Best. It was outstanding so I took notes.

I’m generally skeptical of Gladwellian, Gritty, Mindsetty airport non-fiction. It’s not that there aren’t seeds of insight in them. It’s that they are oversold with a glossy “science” wrapper. They’re skim milk. You want protein without the work of trimming the fat that the real stuff puts on you. But with Epstein there’s a real commitment to scholarly integrity. He hired statisticians and academics to help him decipher the primary research. I’ve cited his newsletter in my writing. I’m a fan.

Now the twist.

One of my favorite bloggers, Cedric Chin, shares my respect for Epstein but is deeply critical of Range. He deconstructs the book and by following along you get to be in the passenger seat of someone who doesn’t stop at “that sounds like it makes sense”.

Let’s hop into select sections of Cedric’s summary of Range (Link)


  • First of all, “Epstein gets it.”

    If you read his newsletter (aptly titled The Range Report) Epstein regularly cites primary research, throws up graphs and charts with aplomb, and displays a grasp of the underlying science that’s second to none. It just doesn’t seem to come through in Range. I don’t know why. 

    At any rate, my recommendation, made at the top of this summary, makes more sense now: read this essay, skip the book, and subscribe to Epstein’s newsletter. The Range Report is great. It’s just a pity that Range is not.


  • Range is less than the sum of its parts.

    Good non-fiction books develop an argument systematically over the course of the book. Range does no such a thing. It is a collection of anecdotes that are strung together with the thinnest of connective tissue, and the arguments it develops has you no more convinced of its original thesis than when you began. It is simply not a good book.


  • So what is valuable about Range?

    I think that several individual ideas that Epstein covers in the book are interesting, and worth investigating further. These are, in no particular order:

    • The idea that ‘slow’ learning is what is valuable when it comes to developing foundational skills.
    • The whole notion of ‘match quality’ as a counterpoint to ‘grit’.
    • The idea that analogical thinking is powerful, and that it depends on a large-enough set of experiences and ideas to perform well. (This one is so interesting that I’m fairly certain I’ll write about it down the line).

My favorite sections of the review

  • The Trouble With Too Much Grit

    In Chapter 6, Epstein introduces what might be my favourite idea of the book: ‘match quality’. This chapter also happens to contain one of the most emotionally moving descriptions of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and career that I’ve ever read. If I could take one chapter from Range with me, this one would be it.

    Continue the rest of the grit section…(Link)

    I have a short post on grit if you want more (On Grit)

  • Flirting With Your Possible Selves

    From grit, Epstein moves on to the idea that it is ok to meander in your life. Chapter 7 is essentially his take on the whole “you’re not too late in your life to succeed” meme — which one may occasionally see on Facebook or Twitter with the heads of famous, successful people juxtaposed next to inspirational quotes, all of whom started in their 40s or 50s.


Wrapping up

Cedric’s review of chapter 11 captures much of how he felt about much of the book:

I think this was this chapter was where I set the book aside and sighed.

If you’re reading for entertainment, the stories in Chapter 11 are nice. But this is non-fiction, and I think most of us read non-fiction for education. We want arguments that challenge us, arguments that illuminate things we’d thought about but not had the right words to say; arguments that change our minds. I remember setting down The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker and feeling deeply exhausted — not because it was a bad book; but because it was a good one. Better Angels was a first rate argument executed over 800 pages of precisely tuned prose, written in a sure hand by a first-rate intelligence. I still do not want to agree with the conclusions, but I couldn’t find a single flaw in Pinker’s argument. It has challenged me to my core.

By comparison, I agree with Range’s core thesis. I believe generalists have advantages that specialists do not, and that these advantages have compounded in the age of the Internet. But Range’s argument is sloppy, even as it is wrapped up in pitch-perfect narrative. I wanted it to be better, but I was consistently disappointed.

I don’t have a strong stance myself on either Range, which I haven’t read, or Ced’s criticisms. I’ve read a lot of Ced’s work and have familiarized myself to his thinking and standards. Seeing it applied to an esteemed book offers a chance to get even more insight than the original author intended.

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