A Review of David Epstein’s book “Range”

I’ve put a lot of quotes from “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.”  on my Facebook page Seanarthurart , in sequence too, that illustrates key ideas in the book.  Won’t repeat that here…

I was also wondering how these observations and ideas of learning and success in life might apply to one who is a Creative.

Not really that useful, turns out, because many of the ideas are already self evident to creative people.  And some athletes and certain researchers…

SO, broadly, the book is a great read, an eye opener for anyone interested in this sort of stuff.  The research is current, pulling together info across the various relevant fields.

In general, Range makes clear that our old style schools that resemble factory assembly lines, that teach / memorize and test then move on are useless (even in math and science), and that forcing young people to specialize as soon and as intensely as possible (the Tiger Mom approach) is basically a colossal waste of time.

The book has a premise:  the world is changing very rapidly now and will change even faster in the future.  Climate will change.  The world ecosystem is reaching capacity to sustain the human population and human society will change.  We need creative thinkers, people with deep understanding and wicked problem solving skills.

Thus, in order to thrive, we need to solve problems, we need to adapt.  We need to be creative in our lives and our work.  And creativity, invention, problem solving comes from slow learning, lots of trying and failing, experimentation and especially learning who you are, what you are good at and what you want from life.  From this you learn about yourself and where you best fit.

This is what our children’s education should be like, but it is not.

“Malamud’s conclusion (comparing focused to broad learning): “The benefits to increased match quality. . . outweigh the greater loss in skills.  Learning stuff was less important (for high school and college students) than learning about oneself.  Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.”

This, btw, is Sir Ken Robinson’s “The Element”.

Here are a couple of quotes:  “Learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.”

AND,  “Adam Grant noted that creativity may be difficult to nurture, but it is easy to thwart. He pointed to a study that found an average of six household rules for typical children, compared to one in households with extremely creative children. ”

ONE RULE!!  And which rule isn’t really important.  You want your children to be little marionettes, never to prosper in the world, and not know who they really are as persons, then pile on the rules!

I am especially opposed to religious or cultural / social restrictions of any kind.  If you can’t teach your children about your faith or your culture without imposing rules inside your own home, then there is something deeply and seriously wrong with your religion or your society. (Which is often both…)

There is no reason that inside each person faith, spirituality, worship and social mores cannot co-exist with freedom of thought and creativity.  If your religious practices or social rules cannot stand up to such freedom and scrutiny, if your community cannot tolerate experiment and change, you are in a cult or a socially repressive regime, not a community sharing cultural and spiritual values.

There, I’ve said it.

“Space between practice sessions creates the hardness that enhances learning…Repetition, it turned out, was less important than struggle.”

This is something I learned on my own, and I suspect that many creative people learn, especially musicians.  The harder the task, the more you learn. Hard learning followed by space (time) before returning to that same endeavour.  That is how skills develop.  Not endless (or mindless) practice.

I remember when I started to teach myself Scott Joplin piano pieces.  My parents got me a big book of all his songs, and I sat down to learn The Entertainer.  I had five years of piano lessons under my belt…I was 12, The Sting had just come out and I’d seen it and I wanted to learn that song.  It was actually quite a reach.  On one hand (pun!) I could easily span an octave and two keys, and you need big mitts to play Joplin, but on the other, I was just not developed enough as a player.

I practiced for an hour twice a day for weeks, to learn it for our year end music class recital.  It was unbelievably difficult.  Only got half way and it was pretty sloppy.  I didn’t want to play only half a song, but the class wanted to hear anyway.  Even without the music, I’d practiced so hard I’d learned by wrote.  I played what I knew and stopped and said, Sorry, that’s all I’ve learned.  It was nasty, I thought, barely hitting a couple of the deep bass cords and missing the timing on a couple of phrases.  I had to end the last few bars without the left hand, I just couldn’t do it.  There was a moment of silence and then the class applauded.  They thought it was great.

But I was disappointed that all the work I’d done hadn’t paid off.  I’d practiced until my fingers were raw.  So I stopped.  Summer came and went, and there was no piano at my Grandparents home in Muskoka anyway, where I spent the summer cutting grass, trimming trees and chopping wood.

After I’d settled into highschool (“A special torture!” – Grosse PointeBlank) I decided I could finish learning that piece.  Grade 8 already seemed like another life.  Almost a year had passed since I had started to learn it.


I was astounded.  Not only had I not forgotten anything, the four and five note cord progressions flowed from my fingers.  The transitions were smooth, and the syncopated stride bass line wasn’t a ball buster.  I learned the rest and half a dozen more I liked over the next couple years.  I’d learn chunks, leave it for a while and come back to put it together.

What had happened?  Slow learning.  Hard learning.  Repetition was less important than struggle.  Anyway, lesson learned.  Push and push hard.  And then stop.  Allow your body and your brain to integrate, to rest, to understand.

All in all, this is something people have learned themselves over the years, but in “Range…” it is not just here-say and anecdote, it is seriously researched and ‘proven’ ideas.