Lessons From Range

I just finished David Epstein’s amazing book Range, and have been thinking about it non-stop for the past week.

Range serves as a counterpoint to the “standardization covenant” that is pushed upon us–the idea that it's better to pursue a rigid goal with a head start, than a winding path of self-exploration. It also dives into how to be a better thinker in environments where feedback is limited or deceptive. Epstein calls these “wicked” environments, and once you start looking, you find them everywhere.

Although I had listened to multiple interviews and even attended a live event where Epstein talked about the book, the concepts didn’t really land until I dug into the book for myself. Perhaps there’s an embedded lesson about great books. Yes, the bad ones can be summarized with a TED talk. But the great ones need 300 pages to adequately share the meat of their message.

The World is Wicked

My favorite concept from Range is breaking the world down into kind and wicked learning environments.

Kind environments provide immediate feedback and allow us to rely on pattern recognition to succeed. Sports like golf or tennis, or structured games like chess are examples of kind environments. You can swing a club, or make a move, and get immediate, non-deceptive feedback.

Wicked environments provide delayed or misleading feedback and have an inconsistent set of rules. Using past experience in these domains will lead to failure. Poker, fire-fighting, and entrepreneurship are all wicked learning environments.

The real world is full of wicked environments–it’s generally not a chess game, or at least not a chess board. The hyperspecialization that is increasingly common today is not the antidote for thriving in a complex world.

Categorical Thinkers Thrive in Wicked Environments

To succeed in wicked domains we need range.

This means we can’t just follow a set of pre-defined procedures and hope for success. Following rote procedures can deceive us into mistaking complexity for cause and effect.

We need to focus on learning and training across a variety of domains. By learning something in multiple contexts, we create more abstract models of concepts. These abstract concepts can then be applied in a larger variety of situations. The more contexts, the more abstract models employed, the more applicable they are across multiple problems. This can be referred to as "categorical thinking" or "conceptual reasoning".

Although Epstein doesn’t go into the tactics of how to get this breadth of training, the implications are clear. We need to expand our sources of input, the people we talk to, and the domains from which we can acquire knowledge from.

Maximizing Knowledge Acquisition

Even if we are exposed to a broad set of domains, that doesn’t guarantee that we will be able to derive usable knowledge.

The most valuable knowledge is both durable and flexible. Durable means it is sticky. Flexible means it can be applied to many new problems, even in entirely new domains.

Building durable knowledge is a slow process, but spaced-repetition and interleaving (mixed practice) can help with long-term retention. Oftentimes we mistake early success for true learning, when it actually means we are overly relying on procedures to make quick gains, but our performance will flatten out over time. There don’t seem to be many shortcuts here.

Flexible knowledge comes from struggling on our own and seeking to make connections, not memorizing a set of procedures. By decontextualizing concepts, we can form building blocks that can easily be combined with ideas captured in other places.

Ultimately, this helps us to become more T-shaped people: we have a speciality where we feel most confident, but we also draw on learnings from a wide variety of areas that can be applied at will to any problem we encounter.

Now What?

Given that we live in a wicked world that rewards conceptual thinkers, we need to level up our patterns of thought and the way we identify and explore opportunities.

Here are several tactical pieces of advice that I gleaned from the book (either directly stated, or inferred from broader concepts):

  • Seek a wide variety of inputs - books, people, hobbies, projects, media, and jobs. Remember that "Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer".
  • Maximize your output - you’ll fail more, but you’ll have more opportunities for runaway success.
  • Become a T-shaped person - great ideas come from T-shaped people, who integrate knowledge from many domains.
  • Test and Learn - undertake many life experiments and update plans based on learnings from those experiments.
  • Make short-term plans - don’t stress about not having long-term plans, as long as you are incorporating learnings from your tests.
  • Don't feel behind - Just keep experimenting in pursuit of match quality.