Book Review - RangeNovember 30 2019
Range by David Epstein is the most influential book I’ve read in some time. Range discusses the impact and benefits of generalized learning vs. specialization. In particular, it argues that waiting to specialize, and instead embarking on a general, varied field of study and experiences, will lead to better problem solving skills and eventual success.
I first heard of the book on Zach Lowe’s NBA podcast. When I first heard the concept of generalized vs. specialized learning, I was ready to disagree with it. A piece of advice that I give to first-time product managers is to go deep on a single topic when starting the job. I feel product managers cannot spread themselves thin, and instead must become an expert in something.
After reading through the book, I don’t think my thoughts are in conflict at all. My advice generally is to completely understand one product or one product feature, and understand its workings end to end. The book is trying to say that you should not be the owner of that one product or feature for your entire career. Instead, you should try to gather as many disparate experiences as possible, so that you will be able to generalize your experiences. Most developmentally-forward organizations, like Google, already understand this. This is why product managers are encouraged to take on additional projects and then eventually switch to new teams and areas completely after a few years.
Side note: I have been a product manager in the enterprise data analytics area for nearly five years now, and if it’s generalized to enterprise IT services, it’s nearly eight years. Perhaps it’s time for me to expand my range and try something totally different.
The book itself is very well written and well researched. Epstein writes in a page-turning, entertaining manner, by integrating lots of examples and stories with the results of academic studies. There are vivid anchor stories for each chapter, some of which I’ve jotted down down below.
More than anything, Range caused me to evaluate my life and career so far, and potentially strategize for the education of my children. I think on paper, my life can look very one-dimensional. I’m a Chinese-American who excelled in school. I studied computer engineering right after the dot com boom, got an MBA, and then ended up in software product management for some of the biggest tech companies in the world.
But I have always felt like there was a sizable outsider component to me. I grew up in a highly racially-uniform region (first Upper Michigan and then Minnesota), where the number of racial minority students numbered in the single digits in my high school graduating class of nearly 400. I studied violin and basically became entirely obsessed by it for a few years after college, trying to learn every piece there was and digesting every bit of classical music history. I seemed to accumulate odd jobs in high school, always willing to try new ways to make money (in order: paper boy, bag boy, soccer referee, Wendy’s, Subway, and that’s all before college). I decided to start pursuing an MBA mostly due to a one-off conversation I had with a stranger on an airplane, and entirely against the wishes of my parents. My breakthrough into product management at Amazon was mainly due to a risky job that I took with a payday lender.
I think the summary of this is that I was always open to trying new things (and oftentimes, diving obsessively into them). There was never any grand plan of where my career might end up. I didn’t even know what a software product manager was until a few days before my first Amazon interview, when I started reading about it on the internet. Range is a really neat and tidy summary of this. It turns out that most people don’t have that grand plan. Even extremely successful people often get there in a seemingly random manner, by first tackling one thing, then another, then another.
Below, I jotted down some of the notes I took down while reading the book.
In comparing modern people vs. isolated indigeneous peoples, the biggest takeaway is that the indigeneous peoples only know what they experience firsthand. They have trouble with abstract concepts. Whereas modern people necessarily need to classify and abstract to understand how pieces relate to one another. In fact, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any one particular example.
In that vain: teaching kids to read a little early is not a lasting advantage. Teaching them how to hunt for and connect contextual clues to understand what they read can be a lasting advantage.
Successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it. Less successful problem solvers are more likely to classify problems only by superficial, overtly stated features, like domain context. A brilliant example in the book is to consider two concepts: economics bubbles and Fed interest rate changes. Superficially, these two things are both about finance and economics. But another way of classifying them is as a positive feedback loop (economics bubbles) and a negative feedback loop (Fed interest rate change).
Analogies are really powerful in understanding new ambiguous ideas. The research labs that were the most likely to turn unexpected findings into new knowledge for humanity made a lot of analogies, and made them from a variety of base domains. Versus labs that had lots of specialists, where analogies were less frequent and varied.
The most momentous personality changes occur between age eighteen and the late twenties, so specializing early is like predicting how well a person will match with something when that person that doesn’t even exist yet.
Claude Shannon, the father of Information Theory (and, essentially, the internet) took a philosophy course to fulfill a graduation requirement in college. In it, he was exposed to the work of George Boole, who showed how Boolean logic (0’s and 1’s) could be solved with math equations.
The summary for all of the book’s findings into actionable advice: don’t feel behind; compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you.
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