Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

by Braden

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My Thoughts

Key concepts in the book:

  1. Hedgehog: someone who knows one big thing — i.e. knowledge goes deep on a narrow topic
  2. Fox: someone who knows lots of little things — i.e. diverse knowledge across a range of topics
  3. Kind learning environment: Feedback is rapid and accurate, patterns repeat, and rules of the game are consistent and well defined
  4. Wicked learning environment: Feedback is delayed and often inaccurate, patterns are not obvious and/or do not repeat, and the rules are unclear/incomplete and/or changing

This. Book. Is. Awesome!

The main point of this book is that being an expert (a.k.a. hedgehog) is not necessarily better than being a generalist (a.k.a. fox). And that sometimes being a expert is a liability because it limits how we think about things. The most interesting example of this is a twenty years study by the National Research Council studying the ability of experts to forecast events compared to generalists. The results were that the average experts are horrific forecasters. “Their areas of specialty, years of experience, academic degrees, and even (for some) access to classified information made no difference. They were bad at short-term forecasting, bad at long-term forecasting, and bad at forecasting in every domain.” (Epstein pg 219)

Why? A lack of active open-mindedness. Generalists are less dogmatic about what they know, bring more diverse concepts from other fields, more willing to challenge their ideas and discard what doesn’t work.

The thing is that hedgehogs typically become expert through rote learning (i.e. habitual repetition) whereas foxes learn through eduction (i.e. deriving guiding principles through experiential exploration).

Epstein posits that individual greatness or step changes in the world are made by foxes who are able to make lateral connections or insights through abstract categorical thinking which is more flexible. The implications for how we learn, progress through our career, and even view ourselves are massive.

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