Skip to main content
Move the World.

In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, two-time New York Times bestselling author, David Epstein examines the generalist vs. specialist dichotomy in terms of how people learn, gain experience, and accomplish their goals.

Specialists are the child prodigies who fascinate us in their appearances on talk shows and viral videos. They possess natural talent, laser-focused goals, brilliant work ethic, and a seemingly clear trajectory or narrative path to future success.

But are these sorts of specialists really more successful than those who walk less-clear paths to success in their lives? Epstein's book asks and posits an answer to this exact question. 

Success Stories: What We're Told about Specialists

People love stories, especially success stories. They enjoy hearing stories about specialists who exhibit aptitude early, then follow the forward momentum to greatness.

Some specialists who were also child prodigies include famous artists like Mozart, who performed violin as a child and later became immortalized in his timeless compositions. Another prodigy, Tiger Woods, owned his first putter as an infant and played golf, dreaming of becoming the next Jack Nicholas as a toddler.

To achieve greatness, people like Mozart and Tiger spent thousands of focused hours, practicing a single skill. When narratives like these are told, it gives the impression that specializing is the only path with a trajectory that leads to success.

generalist vs. specialist in Epstein's range book

Epstein's book analyzes the difference between generalist and specialist to provide a more realistic path to success.

David Epstein's Range book looks at the specialist vs. generalist, and posits that in many fields being a generalist is actually a more desirable and likely path to achieving success. After all, how many Mozarts or Tigers are there in any given generation?

How many toddlers, teenagers, or even adults, actually guess correctly when they think about what they want to be when they grow up?

What Is a Generalist? 

Let's look at the difference between generalist vs. specialist. Generalists dabble in many areas, also called "sampling," and they possess a range of knowledge. Generalist athletes, for example, play many sports before they choose one in which they wish to excel.

Generalist musicians might possess a love for many instruments and perhaps a passion for mathematics, too. The generalist becomes a jack-of-all-trades before becoming an expert, and this well-rounded knowledge is their path to greatness. 

The Nonlinear Path to Greatness: Why Generalists Rule

Circulating stories about the Tiger Woods of the world leaves the impression that specializing is the only path to success.

To understand why generalists are more likely to be successful, you have to evaluate generalist vs. specialist learning environments and how they compare to the real world.

According to psychologist Robin Hogarth, learning environments exist on a spectrum, with "wicked" environments on one end and "kind" ones on the other.

Clearly defined rules and expectations characterize "kind" learning environments, in addition to a high probability of the future being just like the past.

At the other end of the spectrum, "wicked" learning environments may or may not have rules or clearly defined expectations. The environment's unpredictably is chaotic and the next steps a student should take are usually unknown.

Most prodigy success stories occur in kind learning environments, where rules and expectations remain certain. Kind environments, however, do not mimic reality. In the chaos of the real world, there's no way to predict what skills might be useful next or when a particular talent might be rendered obsolete.

Most prodigy success stories occur in kind learning environments that do not mimic reality.

In wicked learning environments and the real world, individuals with a broad range of generalized knowledge are able to adapt to unexpected, unclear situations. As a result, they tend to be more successful, as they have the potential for success in a range of positions.

For a ballerina, who has focused solely on dance and never considered alternative paths, a failed audition could seem like the end of a career. Generalists, who fail once, or several times, still have options. 

Generalist Success Stories from the Real World

Perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time, Roger Federer didn't start focusing on tennis until he was in his late teens. Although his parents were both tennis coaches, they encouraged and allowed him to try other sports and hobbies before he decided he wanted to specialize in tennis.

Epstein on generalists

Epstein shares about the unlikely creator of the Gameboy, and how his example sets the tone for modern-day generalists everywhere.

Roger's no anomaly, either. Unlike Tiger, most sports greats undergo extensive sampling periods, during which they play other sports before dedicating themselves to just one. For generalists, sampling is essential to success for people in all fields.

One of Epstein's favorite examples is Gunpei Yokoi, who didn't score well on his electronics exams and had to settle for a job as a maintenance worker at a playing card factory in Kyoto. Although he wasn't at the cutting-edge of technology, Gunpei ended up innovating the application of old tech to create one of the most popular gaming consoles ever made, the Nintendo Gameboy.

Although, he wasn't at the top of his field, Gunpei's range of generalist knowledge and innovative mind allowed him to see new ways for using the technology already in existence.

LinkedIn reported that each different position a person held shaved about three years off their path to the C Suite.

Data taken from social media networks also reveals how sampling and a range of generalist knowledge can lead to success. According to a LinkedIn study of 500,000 members, one of the best predictors for promotion to a future, executive-level position is the number of different job positions held in the past. Each different job someone held shaved about three years from their path to the C Suite. 

How to Be a Confident, Successful Generalist

In a world that celebrates specialists on national television, but rewards generalists more quietly, going through a sampling period can be frightening and disheartening.

In some sense, you have to give yourself permission to fail, to choose the wrong pursuit, or to work in a job that's not your ultimate dream career. These small failures are actually major learning experiences that will help you inch closer to greatness.

You have to give yourself permission to fail and choose the wrong pursuit.

When specialists almost always have the spotlight, you can't compare your journey to that of a six-year-old prodigy's. Rather, you have to try to keep sight of your own trajectory - no matter how squiggly it may be.

A generalist himself with two master's degrees, countless writing awards, broken running records, and experience as an ecology researcher in the Arctic, Epstein recommends that generalists compare today's version of themselves to that of yesterday.

By always striving to improve upon previous versions of yourself, you discover your passions, skills, and talents. You'll create your own narrative, as you author your own unique success story.

For more interesting news about the people and ideas that are changing our world, subscribe to Freethink.

Subscribe

Up Next

Music
Chance the Rapper is Bringing Music Back to Chicago Schools
Chance the Rapper is Bringing Music Back to Chicago Schools
Music
Chance the Rapper is Bringing Music Back to Chicago Schools
On the far South Side of Chicago, as far south as you can get — a traffic light away from neighboring Riverdale —...

On the far South Side of Chicago, as far south as you can get — a traffic light away from neighboring Riverdale — the Ira F. Aldridge Elementary School is offering its students something rare in the forever-strapped Chicago public school system: opportunity. With a grant from Chance the Rapper's charity SocialWorks, the school can now offer a more robust music program, ensuring an instrument in every student's hands. "I...

#fixingjustice - Re-entry
Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Break the Cycle of Violence?
Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Break the Cycle of Violence?
#fixingjustice - Re-entry
Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Break the Cycle of Violence?
CBT is a promising way to reduce violence, so why has it been so hard to scale?

CBT is a promising way to reduce violence, so why has it been so hard to scale?

What We Get Wrong About Love
What We Get Wrong About Love
Watch Now
What We Get Wrong About Love
Why are we so bad at love?
Watch Now

Love is important to all of us - so why aren’t we better at it? Nate Bagley, host of the Loveumentary podcast, interviewed hundreds of successful couples. He found many traditional ideas of love are wrong. In this interview, he explains how to have better relationships and reveals key insights about love that aren’t taught in school. He hopes that by improving our love lives, we can learn to foster better relationships with...

The Exotic Zoo Run by Prisoners
The Exotic Zoo Run by Prisoners
Watch Now
The Exotic Zoo Run by Prisoners
Could zookeeping turn an inmate’s life around? Jeanne Selander who runs the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm thinks so.
Watch Now

“People need to be cared for in order to keep them from corroding,” says Jeanne Selander, who helps run the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm. The farm functions as an zoo for exotic animals. But this isn’t a normal zoo. It’s staffed entirely by convicted felons. Selander has seen the experience transform the inmates. The work gives them purpose and being around animals seems to have a calming effect. Since she...

Pop Revolution
Skatepunks of Myanmar
Skatepunks of Myanmar
Watch Now
Pop Revolution
Skatepunks of Myanmar
Is the booming skating scene in Myanmar a sign of a more hopeful future for the once isolated country?
Watch Now

After years of repression, smartphones and social media are giving Myanmar a taste of the outside world. And young people are eager to catch up on what they missed. We join a group of skaters who are reimagining life in the once isolated society and shaping its future in the process.