Friday, June 21, 2019

The case for breadth over depth as the best path towards expertise

Here's an interesting new book by David Epstein, that posits in apparent contrast to Malcolm Gladwell's groundbreaking book Outliersthe key to developing expertise in one's chosen career is not 10,000 hours of mindful practice and specialization but one should instead strive for breadth and its companion serendipity.  Mr. Epstein's book is called Range Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World and here's an excerpt from the New York Times review:

Are you a generalist or a specialist? Do you strive for breadth or depth in your career, in your life? After all, you can’t have both. Your time on earth is finite, as are your energy and attention. If you concentrate on doing one thing, you might have a chance of doing it really well. If you seek to do many things, you’ll taste a wider variety of human goods, but you may end up a well-rounded mediocrity — a dilettante.


Folk wisdom holds the trade-off between breadth and depth to be a cruel one: “jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” and so forth. And a lot of thinking in current pop-psychology agrees. To attain genuine excellence in any area — sports, music, science, whatever — you have to specialize, and specialize early: That’s the message. If you don’t, others will have a head start on you in the 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” supposedly necessary for breakout achievement.


But this message is perversely wrong — so David Epstein seeks to persuade us in “Range.” Becoming a champion, a virtuoso or a Nobel laureate does not require early and narrow specialization. Quite the contrary in many cases. Breadth is the ally of depth, not its enemy. In the most rewarding domains of life, generalists are better positioned than specialists to excel.


If true, this is good news. It means that excellence and well-roundedness naturally go together; that each of us — in principle, at least — can realize the “comprehensiveness and multiplicity,” the “wholeness in manifoldness” that Nietzsche celebrated as the essence of human greatness. (Nietzsche, by the way, was himself quite the generalist, achieving distinction as a philosopher, a classicist and a composer before he came to a sticky end.)


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Continue reading the review here.


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