Range - the triumph of the generalist
I recently read David Epstein’s new book Range, where he debunks the narrative of the specialist and demonstrates that having a broad set of gifts, being a fox rather than a hedgehog, is more indicative of success in a field.
Hedgehogs often fail to see the wood for the trees, being myopic in their frame of reference. A fox has the benefit of poking its nose over the garden fence into a next-door discipline, to see if they have any better ideas or occasionally, a solution that to them is very obvious but to the hedgehog is totally obscure.
This is even borne out in the capture of Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht where to the authorities, envelopes coming through airport security with one pill in them were indicative of not much. It was only through collaborating across institutions that the genius of what Ulbricht had done; combined anonymity granting new technologies in Bitcoin and the Tor browser with traditional social architecture like the US Postal Service to provide individuals with globally sourced drugs delivered to their door.
It was only once they figured that they had to collaborate, to look outside their own spheres of knowledge, that they were able to apprehend him.
The benefits of combining the unusual are repeated in the work of other people. Naval Ravikant espouses the idea of creating your own niche by developing an unusual quiver of skills - combining them will put you in a category of one. He says to:
Escape competition through authenticity
Follow your own personal strengths and interests by accruing skills in those directions.
Turn what you know into something people can pay for.
Peter Thiel advocates a similar thing in his book Zero to One,
Competition means no profits for anybody, no meaningful differentiation, and a struggle for survival - monopoly is the condition of every successful business.
Thiel is talking about startups and an investor of his level is talking about finding the next monolith, the next Google, Facebook etc. The principle holds true though - combine disparate skills and you create your own category. There may well be a market for it.
One of my friends closed an account in his line of work, he says purely because his unusual sporting background gave him commonality with the client. He is unusual in his industry due to his range of talents. This is not something he’s made of course, but it is something he’s done, something that’s given him a competitive advantage by virtue of being in his own category.
Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, wrote that if you want to be successful you can either:
1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.
(1) is incredibly difficult. Your category is by definition, one large group of people. To stand out is incredibly hard, purely due to demographics.
Adams points out that his success is the result of combining 3 categories - reasonable comedic ability, reasonable drawing ability and his business background giving him a wealth of personal experience to use as a base for his art.
Now, he is unequivocal that he is not ‘excellent’ at any one of his disciplines. He’ll never go down as a ‘great’ artist or comedian. But he has created something wildly successful that has brought joy to millions.
Range’s initial comparison is between Tiger Woods, the poster child for 10,000 hours, and Roger Federer. While Woods had a putter in his hands almost immediately, Federer didn’t even specialise in tennis until his teens, instead participating in a variety of sports and activities, learning a combination of skills and athletic characteristics that came together to make an amazing tennis player.
He also seems refreshingly ‘normal’ for a sporting megastar and relatively unaffected by his extreme fame and status. Tiger Woods on the other hand, has had some dark times which he seems to be emerging from with some aplomb to the delight of fans.
Range makes people interesting. When was the last time you found someone interesting because they were obsessed with one thing? Most people are interesting when they combine disparate characteristics or interests. The doctor who went sailing round the world or the child actress turned social justice warrior.
Sometimes, Range allows you to see a solution from elsewhere but it also enables you to take principles from one discipline and apply them to another.
Kanye West is a man who straddles disciplines like a modern day Da Vinci. He will tell you about this, loudly, but his successes as a music producer, a rapper and latterly a fashion designer are undeniable. West is on his way to being a billionaire and is in the unusual position of owning a successful fashion business that has received no outside investment.
West has consistently transferred principles and learnings from his previous lines of work to inform his newer interests. His production was initially known for its soul samples, sped up to create the Through the Wire ‘chipmunk’ effect, while he later took to European techno, working closely with luminaries like French duo Daft Punk.
His magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is renowned for its maximalist melange of disparate influences while he went the opposite way with the followup Yeezus, eschewing his musical roots for harsh sounds, dead space and jarring transitions. He’s not afraid to learn from others and take risks with his own work.
He’s now funding lighting installation projects in the desert to the tune of millions of dollars and then remixing what he’s learned into his architectural designs, aimed at solving social housing and the barriers between classes. There’s no chance that these two initiatives are unrelated. The houses he’s designed are essentially excavated versions with a similar aperture opening for light to enter the structure
West uses subject matter experts in unaffiliated disciplines, now even financially supporting artists in the same way that he signed young rappers to his music label, and then remixes what he learns into his own work. He’s a creative magpie, unafraid of experimenting and learning from someone more knowledgable than him. Range enables his creative freedom.
So I don’t go on too long, Range not only makes you more likely to succeed and solve problems, it can set you free creatively and differentiate you from the herd. When you put it in these terms, why are we in such a hurry to limit ourselves?