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5 Useful Ideas from Range by David Epstein

I’ve always enjoyed books that challenge prevailing wisdom.

Therefore, I was intrigued to come across Range by David Epstein. Drawing on a broad range of psychological and economic research, the book calls into question popular ideas such as career assessments, learning hacks, early specialization, and even grit.

Given that Range runs contrary to so many common pieces of advice about education and career development, I figured it would be useful to share some of the book’s best ideas. Below, I present some tips that can help you learn more effectively, choose a fulfilling career, and more.

Beware Early Specialization

Our current educational system focuses on specializing as early as possible.

It starts with the career assessment tests they give you in middle school. By the time you’re in high school, you’re already being told to consider not just the college you want to attend, but also the major you’ll pursue.

When you get to college, there’s pressure to pick a major and specialize as soon as possible. And from there, it’s about finding an internship that will help you specialize even further once you graduate and start working.

As Epstein points out, there are a couple of problems with this drive to specialize early.

To start, there’s the fact that our personalities change most between age 18 and our late 20s (157). Knowing this, it’s possible that the subject you start out specializing in might be a poor fit for you as your disposition and interests change.

Furthermore, encouraging people to specialize so early neglects the importance of exploration that’s so crucial for finding what work suits you.

It is, in Epstein’s analogy, like marrying your high school sweetheart: it may seem like a great idea at the time, but you have too little experience to make a smart decision (130).

Instead, he proposes treating careers more the way we treat dating: try out lots of different possibilities for a while before finding the person (or career) that suits you best (131).

To see what that process of exploration looks like in practice, keep reading.

Approach Life as an Experiment

“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”

– Danish proverb (130)

Growing up, our parents and teachers told us the importance of planning for the future. But while long-term planning is a wise idea when saving for retirement, it’s not such a great idea for finding work that suits you. As we discussed in the previous section, your changing personality and interests make long-term career plans unlikely to pan out.

Instead of “planning and implementing,” then, a better approach is to “test and learn” (164). Or, put another way, you should “flirt with your possible selves.” In practice, this means following whatever interests you at the moment, not sticking to a rigid career plan you made when you were eighteen.

Here are some ways you can try out different interests in college and beyond:

Slow, Inefficient Learning Is Often More Effective

From apps that promise language fluency in 30 days to boot camps that claim you can become a pro software developer in 6 weeks, there’s an entire industry around learning things as fast as possible.

While this all sounds appealing, the process of lasting learning is typically slow and inefficient (83). If you want to boost your learning, you should seek to make things harder and slower, not faster and easier. Psychologists call these types of learning techniques “desirable difficulties” (85).

For instance, there’s a phenomenon known as the “generation effect.” This effect, documented extensively in the work of cognitive psychologist Nate Kornell, says that struggling to come up with an answer on your own enhances subsequent learning. And this is true even if the answer you come up with is completely wrong (86).

Besides the generation effect, there’s also the spacing effect. With spacing, the idea is that you’ll learn more in the long run if you space out your study sessions (88).

As with the generation effect, adding space between practice sessions makes it harder to recall information. But this very difficulty, this struggle to recall the answer, is what enhances the learning process.

For more on the spacing effect, check out our article on spaced repetition.

Though effective, both of these techniques are slow and frustrating. They can seem like a very inefficient way to learn, particularly if you’re working on a short-term learning goal such as cramming for an exam. But if your goal is lasting learning, it pays to be “inefficient” in the short term.

You Can Have Too Much Grit

“Grit” is an idea popularized by psychologist Angela Duckworth in her book of the same name. It describes a combination of work ethic, resilience, and clear direction that makes people more likely to persist in the face of great challenges (133).

In theory, grit sounds like a desirable quality to cultivate. Particularly in a culture that warns people that “quitters never win, and winners never quit.” The problem, however, is that too much grit can lead you to persist in a job, relationship, or other endeavors even when quitting is the rational choice (155).

Ideally, you should have enough grit that you won’t quit for trivial or fleeting reasons. Grit is great, for instance, when you’re having a bad day at a job you overall like. But beyond that, you should practice strategic quitting. This is very similar to a concept discussed in Seth Godin’s The Dip, which you can learn more about here.

You can apply this strategic quitting in a variety of ways. It could be quitting a job because there’s a better opportunity at a different company. But it could also be a bigger change, quitting an entire field because you’ve discovered another that interests you more. Whatever the case, remember that quitting is sometimes the smartest thing you can do.

Become T-Shaped

The final piece of advice I want to share from Range is to become a T-shaped person. A T-shaped person has both a broad range of knowledge (represented by the top part of the “T”) and a deep specialty in one area (represented by the stem of the “T”).

There are many advantages to being T-shaped. To start, it makes you a more effective problem solver. You have a deep specialty you can apply when necessary, but you also have a broad enough range of knowledge that you can consider ideas from disparate disciplines. And in many cases, this combination of breadth and depth is what leads to great innovations (200).

Beyond the professional benefits, being T-shaped makes you a more interesting person with a more interesting life. Your breadth of knowledge helps you relate to a wide variety of people, able to converse intelligently about diverse topics. And the drive to pursue knowledge outside your core area of specialty ensures you won’t get bored (or become a boring person).

Because specialization is so common, the “depth” part of becoming T-shaped is relatively straightforward (though by no means easy). The tougher nut to crack can be breadth.

One of the easiest ways to expand the top part of the “T” is to read books and articles outside of your area of expertise (282). But that’s just the beginning. You can also attend talks, take classes, or even travel to expand your range of knowledge. Above all, aim to keep things interesting.

For more on becoming a T-shaped person, check out our article on the topic.

Expand Your Range

I hope some of the ideas in this article help you learn better, expand your interests, and overall lead a more interesting life. For even more, I encourage you to read Range in its entirety.

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