There are multiple paths for success. Being a generalist is one of them.
Range - Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein is the most
impactful book I've read in the past year. Using great storytelling and research data, the author shows that generalists are more creative and innovative, as they are able to leverage knowledge in multiple domains to propose different ways to solve problems. He also demystifies the common belief that starting early and specializing is the key for success.
Reading this book made me feel good about my life path and more eager to try things outside of my domain.
Growing up, I loved learning about all topics at school and enjoyed artistic extracurricular activities. As I pursued Computer Science in college, I missed my biology and history classes, even though I knew I didn't want to become a biologist or a historian.* To fulfill my desire on learning about different topics, I had multiple activities outside of the campus. I studied music, languages, read about business - a topic I had limited access to in college, and that I was getting really fascinated about. My professors and colleagues didn't hide their disapproval of my choices (being the only woman in my class ended up putting me on an undesired spotlight). I am so glad I followed my diva instincts to pave my own journey and I didn't pay much attention to others' advice!
Fast forwarding over ten years, I have continued to hear advice towards specialization throughout my career, and I confess that they always brought me uneasiness. As I work in technology in a fast-moving industry in Silicon Valley, I agree that I need to be aware of the newest innovations in the market. But on my free time I enjoy listening to podcasts about entrepreneurship, leadership, business & investment news, health & mindfulness; reading books about behavioral economics, physiology, biographies of creative leaders; taking design thinking and ethics & political sciences classes; watching persuasion and negotiation masterclasses, learning how to play golf.
I used to feel guilty for not spending more time specializing on my industry and work field. After reading Range, I feel I should be even bolder about making career changes and learning about new areas.
Key takeaways from the book:
1 -Early specialization may not be the key for success
David Epstein provides multiple examples of extremely successful athletes, artists and musicians who experience multiple areas before choosing the path that will allow them to express their full potential and leave a legacy on their field.
My cousin started playing the violin at age 10, what is considered by some, as too old to master on an instrument. When he decided to apply to Music School for undergrad at age 17, he was advised by his music professors to go to traditional College and practice music for additional years to 'bridge the gap'.
He was accepted in one of the most reputable Music Schools in Brazil and also in one of the most prestigious Symphonic Orchestras a few years upon graduation and has become a successful violinist against all odds of his late start.
2- It's never too late to change
Epstein explores in the book how people can get anchored in the sunk cost fallacy and either delay or give up on the desire to explore different areas. They have already invested time (and money) to build their expertise and they'd have to restart as a beginner on a different field, which may also mean building a new network.
He talks about success stories on his book, but we know it takes courage, even for divas, to start fresh on a new career when you are older and more experienced than your new colleagues. It may also mean taking a temporary or permanent financial loss. In general, people are happier and more successful on the new field after the change, because they bring fresh perspectives and ways of thinking.
When moving to different industries, countries, areas of work, I sometimes had to step back on my career or delayed promotions while having to build new connections and strengthen my brand. Even though I have been very happy with my choices.
3- Analogies and lateral thinking drive innovation
Range of thinking and expertise can help to solve difficult problems, boosting creativity and driving innovation. Epstein provides multiple examples on how leveraging knowledge from different fields leads to more breakthroughs than relying on hyper specialization and that spending the appropriate time to dissect a problem from various angles.
As a consultant, my brain is wired in problem-solving mode. Some years ago, when working with designers, creatives and innovators, I was pushed to dis-construct the problem or the task and brainstorm for hours (or days) before starting building a solution. Needless to say that the result was much more innovative than if we had jumped to the build. I talk about the challenges and rewards to embrace creativity when used to an analytical mindset on a previous post.
I hope that you feel inspired to check out the book Range. What is the most inspiring book that you have read in the past few months? Leave your comment on Twitter or Facebook and share this post on your social media!
*For context, in Brazil, the higher education system is less flexible than in the US - you have to choose your degree before applying to college, with no opportunity to explore before choosing a major and minor.