The stereotype of the philosopher is one who spends all day and night with their dense textbooks and their denser thoughts. But when we look at the Stoics, we see that that’s just not the case. Seneca was a philosopher and a playwright and a political advisor. Marcus Aurelius was dabbling in philosophy…as he had the most important job on the planet. Cato was a senator who led the opposition to Julius Caesar. Cleanthes was a boxer and a water-carrier. And Zeno, the founding teacher of the philosophy, began his career as a successful merchant voyager.
They, bestselling author David Epstein would say, had “range”—they were “generalists.” In his new book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Epstein puts to bed the myth that going all in on a particular field is the key to lasting success. In our interview with David below, he details why range trumps specialization, how to find meaning through the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles, and much much more. Please enjoy our interview with David Epstein!
Talk to us about your introduction to Stoicism. Was it in college? Was it a book? Do you remember how you first heard about them and your reaction?
I did have brief formal exposure to Stoicism in college, but I have to say that didn’t make a big impression on me. Maybe because it was very early in college and I definitely had some adjusting to do in terms of both the academic and athletic (I ran track) level in. So I was overwhelmed initially. In track, I was a walk-on, and was completely out of my depth at first. For a while, it was like I was running as hard as I’d ever run at least several days a week, which is not sustainable physically or emotionally. During that period, when I was a freshman, I connected with a senior who I initially looked up to as a runner, and then very soon as a friend and something of an intellectual guide—a little bit of my own personal Virgil. He was a biomedical engineering student who’d grown up in Europe and small-town Idaho, and was just ravenously interested in ideas. He could also be a bit of a loner. Not antisocial by any means, just more to himself than the next guy. We connected and started spending a lot of time together. I remember some instances where teammates would be gossiping, and he wouldn’t really join in much, and then later when it was just us two, if I asked him what he thought he’d basically say, hey, instead of talking about people or events let’s talk about ideas. And that was pretty unfamiliar to me. I was very achievement-oriented when I was young, but I wasn’t actually learning oriented. I wanted to do well on tests and all that, but had no orientation toward using knowledge to change my life in profound ways. And suddenly he’s pointing me to all this stuff to read, and telling me I’ll be a better runner if I know myself better. I think first it was existentialism—I remember he gave me an orange Sartre book, and I’m just struggling with it; what is this mumbo jumbo? But you start wrestling with it, you know, wanting to understand why it has made such an impression, and what it means. And more of that came from talking to this friend of mine than the reading. I only became a voracious reader later. But eventually these very amorphous ideas—existence precedes essence, says Sartre; ok, if so (or if not) what are the implications?—start to crystallize and become a tool, a mental model through which you can start to challenge the way you’ve been seeing the world. And that was sort of a revelation for me. So we would discuss philosophy, and that really was the first spark of my interest in Stoicism. So maybe in one of the old traditions of philosophy I was getting my introduction through discourse. (That said, I think Stoicism has some distinct differences from the traditional image some people may hold, of guys reclining on stairs eating grapes and talking about ideas that are very far removed from life applications.) But anyway, that was my first meaningful exposure. And I should say, it was very much tied up with running, because that was my most intense interest at that moment. And I was struggling mightily. In the end I got way better and was twice All-East, but early on all my friends are going on the team spring break training trip and things like that, and I’m left behind because I’m not good enough to travel. My first year I stayed on campus alone over spring break instead of going home, so I could train without distraction, and I had a lot of alone time to think. I was constantly thinking about how these ideas I was exposed to interacted with my effort at this thing I cared about but wasn’t doing well at. And when the team is your social circle, and your results are black and white, and you’re the worst person, it can really affect your identity. Things were going on that felt extraordinarily consequential to my identity, but that were out of my control. I was looking for a way to deal with that. And that’s where Stoicism started to make an impression on me. Both in a larger sense of how to deal with life, but also in very concrete ways having to do with running. Over the next few years, a minor epiphany for me was that the pre-race warm up was never going to go how I envisioned it. A track meet would be running ahead, or behind; the order of events would switch; there’d be no good place to warm up; a huge line at the bathroom; you can’t find your race number; you’re nervous and pull your shoelace so tight it rips off and you’re trying to tie your spikes with a half-inch of slack. Whatever. It never went as planned, never. And I was one of many athletes who would hold forth about how much that messed me up and that’s why things didn’t go well this time. And one of the first concrete applications of Stoicism for me was this realization that not one time, no matter how long I ran, would the pre-race stuff ever go perfectly. Eventually, my mindset changed to realizing that the unpredictability was predictable, and you have to control your response accordingly. I feel a little silly talking about running this much, but that was the lens through which I was processing things at the time. And that mindset change made a big difference for me. And from there, what started as a very practical application to my racing life became a view that I realized applied more widely. Like a pre-race warm up, the world is not so predictable, but you can work to control your response to those vicissitudes. And for me, that does indeed take work.
Let me just give one other experience, post-running, where my interest in Stoicism was sort of reignited. When I transitioned from science to trying to get into journalism, the first steady gig I could get was as the lone reporter who starts at midnight for the New York Daily News. As you can imagine, nothing happy that’s going in the New York Daily News happens between midnight and 10 a.m. Sometimes I was arriving at a scene where a person or people where in the midst of the worst moments of their lives. In other instances, they had narrowly avoided the worst moments of their lives, surviving some accident narrowly, perhaps. And sometimes they were completely euphoric. For example, I might be talking to a guy who gets lucky and escapes some sort of horrific accident unscathed, while other lives are lost. In these sorts of situations, I came to realize I could expect a certain reaction with some regularity. Something like, “I just want to go home as fast as I can and hug my kids.” It might even meander into sort of talking aloud to the heavens. “I’ll never ask for anything again, I just want to see my family.” Suffice it to say, my curiosity about this near-miss euphoria led to an interest in memento mori. These people had been reminded of their mortality in extraordinarily dramatic fashion, and it instantly threw their priorities and worldviews into stark relief. To maintain even a modicum of that once the post-drama euphoria fades, though, I think takes concerted effort. It also led me to reflect on the event that led to me getting into science writing in the first place, which was the sudden death of a friend and training partner a few steps after a race. I left my science track to get into writing to write about sudden cardiac death in athletes. That event threw me off kilter, and I was trying to figure out how to process it for quite a while. It was a stark reminder of the unpredictability of life, and the fact that tomorrow isn’t promised, and again Stoicism felt like something with tangible application to my daily mindset.
One interesting point about this idea of ‘range’—which you talk about so fascinatingly in your book—is just how diverse the interests and activities of the ancient philosophers we talk about were. Seneca was a philosopher and a playwright and a political advisor. Marcus Aurelius was dabbling in philosophy…as he had the most important job on the planet. It’s true for a lot of these guys we hold up as having made these brilliant insights into human nature and the human experience—it wasn’t the only thing they were doing or had done. Curious how you think about that now, where people get on these academic tracks and focus on nothing but that. Or someone is just an author. Or just an investor. Or just a strength coach for football players. (and of course none of these people have time to read dusty old philosophy). Are we missing out on wisdom because of this kind of specialization?
Marcus Aurelius is a great example here, not only because he’s so well-known, but something I think you’ve pointed out numerous times is that he had one of the most influential jobs in human history. And he’s taking time to think and write about things that for a leader today might be viewed as a distraction, at best, or more likely, an inefficient waste of time or even an aspect of his personality that doesn’t seem “presidential” or whatever. But clearly he felt it was so important that it was worth taking the time to do that. And I do think that as an individual becomes increasingly narrow, and too efficient in their thinking—so efficient that they are essentially closed to outside ideas—something is definitely lost. And I think that shows in some of the incredible impacts I write about in Range made by outsiders who bring a different approach that basically startles and surprises specialists, but solves their problem.
I really enjoyed spending time with a scientist named Arturo Casadevall. I don’t want to get too grandiose, so forgive me here, but to me he’s a bit of a modern Marcus Aurelius of science in a certain sense. For starters, he’s very influential. He’s an immunologist and microbiologist, and his h-index—a measure of a scientist’s productivity and how often they’re cited—is higher than Einstein’s. (This isn’t a fair comparison because scientists publish more now than in the past, but it still puts him in extremely rare company among all scientists who have ever lived.) And he went to Johns Hopkins a few years ago because they gave him an opportunity to start a new educational program for scientists in training that de-specializes their education. I love his description of what science has become: “a system of parallel trenches,” he told me, in which everyone is head down in their own trench, not standing up to look at what’s going on in the next trench, even though very often their answer is there. And he has documented the trend of increasing rates of retractions and decreasing rates of breakthroughs in science as this has proceeded. In this new program, which he runs with Gundula Bosch—a professor of both biology and education, who can talk philosophy for days—the early classes for future doctors and scientists have titles like, “How do we know what is true?” The classes include philosophy, history, ethics, statistics, communication, and leadership. In the first conversation I had with Arturo, very early on he mentioned that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz were philosophers as well as scientists. Then he mentioned Anna Karenina, the Federalist Papers, and made a point about mentoring in which he brought up the character Mentor from Homer’s Odyssey. (He also has a community degree in pest control operations hanging right by his certificate of election into the National Academy of Medicine. He has quite a varied background himself.) And this wasn’t the chit-chat part, this was the formal interviewing about the new program for scientists in training, because all these things were important to the concepts behind that program. As he told me, “I always advise my people to read outside your field, everyday something. And most people say, ‘Well, I don’t have time to read outside my field.’ I say, ‘No, you do have time; it’s far more important.’ Your world becomes a bigger world, and maybe there’s a moment in which you make connections.” Despite his scientific achievements, and being a department chair at probably the world’s top school of public health, he told me he considers this new educational program the most important work of his life, and hopes it will spread not just through science but to other areas as well. I could go on about this like crazy, because frankly several chapters in Range are responsive to the issues embedded in this question, but I’m assuming I shouldn’t do that. But the answer is that, yes, we miss out on wisdom if we’re too narrow and this shows up in shockingly concrete ways. Chapter ten is about how specialists become so narrow that they actually start developing worse judgment about the world as they accumulate knowledge. That’s obviously a bad situation for all of us. All that said, I think inside of being just a coach, or just an author, or just an investor, we can still harness the power of broader thinking. I sort of think of the best coaches as master generalists. And that’s the real challenge now, how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, and interdisciplinary thinking in a world that often incentivizes or even demands a form of frequently counterproductive hyperspecialization. I should add, this is not to say that having some hyperspecialists is not important. I like how the eminent physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson styled this: we need both birds and frogs for a healthy ecosystem; the frogs are down in the mud, seeing the granular details, while the birds are up above not seeing those details but integrating knowledge over a wide expanse. The problem, he noted, was that we’re telling everyone to be frogs, and that’s a hazardous situation…And by the way, you do have time to read dusty old philosophy, or talk about it, or listen to it in audio form. As Arturo implied, it’s a matter of what you prioritize and how willing you are to stay comfy in your current trench. When I talked to the economist Russ Roberts about this, he said “it’s actually a hammock, not a trench, because it’s so comfortable people don’t want to get out.”
I fear I’ve already rambled too much (what else is new?). But, lastly, this reminds me of a researcher at Northwestern who found that students who were basically the best problem-solvers were those who had no major, but were in this program where you basically have a handful of minors. But when I asked around at Northwestern about that program, I realized many faculty members aren’t fans, because they feel those students get behind since they aren’t focused in one department. So here you have this researcher—she’s possibly the world’s foremost expert on using analogies to solve problems across domains—saying that these students are the best problem solvers, and her own colleagues saying, “yeah they’re behind.” That doesn’t make sense to me.
Seneca said we should put each day up for review. When you looked at what makes great athletes great, you found that the magic word was “reflection”—they think about what they’ve done and ask themselves if it’s working. We’re big on journaling here, do you have any other tips or recommendations for how people can take their reflection and self-exploration to the next level?
I also, of course, wrote a lot about physiology that influences athletic achievement, but for that magic word I should give credit where credit is due. I interviewed a Dutch scientist named Marije Elferink-Gemser a few times for my first book, and she was studying the qualities that help learners get off of performance plateaus, whether that was on a soccer pitch or in a classroom. And in soccer, for example, she was tracking kids from age 12 to—in some cases—the pros. And they had certain physical traits, but they also displayed this self-regulatory learning, where they really take responsibility for their learning, and are constantly interrogating it. And this doesn’t even mean they had to be in technical training, but they were just taking time to reflect on what they did, and they would end up with more varied training activities instead of doing the same thing over and over. And, as I write in Range, there’s this classic cognitive psychology finding that breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer is your ability to take knowledge and skills and apply them to a problem or situation you have not seen before. And your ability to do that is predicted by the variety of situations you’ve faced in training. And again, this is true whether you’re training in soccer or math. As you get more variety, instead of learning just “using procedures” knowledge, where you learn how to execute certain procedures, you’re forced to form these broader conceptual models (in the classroom setting called “making connections” knowledge), which you can then wield flexibly in new situations. I may be off on a tangent here—I have a digressive brain that I have to organize on the page for my books—but the point is that Marije told me that “reflection” was the single most important word for these self-regulatory learners who end up continually progressing rather than getting stuck on plateaus. In the new book, that sort of behavior is extended outside of sports. For example, I go through the work of London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra, who studied how people make successful career transitions. And it’s not usually by flying leaps. It’s usually slow, because work is part of our identity, and identity doesn’t change overnight. The quote of hers that is on repeat in my head is: “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” What she means is that we are not as good as we think we are at just intuiting our interests and abilities, or simply introspecting and discovering them a priori. Our insight into ourselves is constrained by our roster of previous experiences. We actually have to do stuff, and then reflect on it, (“act and then think,” as she puts it) and that’s how we gain self-knowledge. The people who successfully transitioned to more fulfilling work (sometimes repeatedly), would basically start by running little personal experiments. Some new experience or acquaintance would give them a keyhole view into a new interest, and then in some way or another they would seek to learn more about it. And then maybe they take a class, or talk to people in the field, or find some way to learn a bit more. All along reflecting on each personal experiment to determine whether this new thing may be a better fit for their interests and abilities. And for some of them it gets to a point where the answer is very clearly that it is. Their friends will often advise, “just keep it as a hobby, you’ve already put in so much time on this other track.” Essentially the advice is to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. For me, as an inveterate career changer who has absolutely no idea what I’m going to do next, I started what I call my book of experiments. Running track in college, I kept a training journal with workouts and long-term goals and all that, and then used that outside of track when I got into the wider world of work. And I found it didn’t really help outside of running as much. I was not good at predicting valuable goals from far out like I was with track, where the goals are very clear times that you want to hit. So I got rid of that a long time ago. Now with the book of experiments (which, perhaps a little embarrassingly, has on the cover Alice peeking behind a curtain and the words “curiouser and curiouser”) I treat it like I treated my notebook when I was still training to be a scientist. I put down a hypothesis about some interest I want to explore or something I want to try, and what I think I’ll learn or hope to get, and then I come back and evaluate it. And that’s the reflection part. And it really keeps me doing these self-experiments. So it is journaling, it’s just a very particular form that I’ve found particularly helpful. Actually, one experiment in there occurred when I got stuck with structuring Range, and decided to take a beginner’s online fiction-writing class. I was looking for some new thoughts about structure. So I’m out of my comfort hammock there. Nothing I’ve done matters; I’m back with the zen concept of beginner’s mind. And one of the exercises in the class was to write with no dialogue at all. Having done that, I realized I had been reflexively relying on quotes to do explanation that is better and more clearly done in non-quote writing. I went back through the entire manuscript of Range and stripped a ton of quotes. The scary thing was that I didn’t even realizing how I was leaning on quotes as a crutch until I was sort of knocked out of my comfort zone. That’s not what I hypothesized I would get from that class, but it ended up being a very useful experiment.
There is obviously two uses of the word philosophy. When we speak of thinking about something philosophically, we mean taking the long view, not taking it personal, having some patience. You recently became a parent. How has that helped you become a bit more philosophical? Given your writing on sports and your own success, do you think you’ll be able to be a philosophical dad when it comes to your kids athletics or their hobbies?
First of all it’s funny to be asked about “my own success.” I realize that I’m in an absolutely incredibly privileged place as a writer now. My regnant work values are autonomy and competence. (I didn’t make that up—the late psychologist Thomas Oakland grilled me and informed me of this.) And I have a bunch of autonomy, which is such a tremendous gift. And sometimes I read just flat out brilliant writers who don’t have that degree of autonomy, and I’m aware that while I’ve worked very hard, I’ve also been plenty lucky. Hard work and luck are not in zero-sum competition. Point being, I still view myself as very much a work-in-progress as a writer. A fiction writer I admire, Jhumpa Lahiri, up and moved to Italy and learned Italian and started writing in Italian. I mean, you’re one of the writing voices of a generation, in English, and you up and leave to write in another language you don’t yet speak?! She said she wanted to get away from the sense of herself as an expert. I love that. She felt the need to get uncomfortable. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like, “Hey, I’ve arrived, I’m good here.” But this has nothing to do with your question!
I’m going to be honest here, even if it sounds shallow, and say that becoming a parent has mostly not changed how philosophical I am. Many of the feelings I’m experiencing as a new parent and the values that are hammered home are those I already held close from living and observing the world more generally. That’s why I sometimes sort of raise an eyebrow when someone says, “As the father of boys/girls, I [insert values pronouncement.]” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a single one of those grand pronouncements that conveyed something that seemed to stem from insight available exclusively to someone with children. That’s not to say there isn’t a tremendous amount of value from parents sharing their experiences with one another, in a more detailed and thoughtful way, because there a million percent is. In fact, just recently I’ve been discussing with friends that the literature available to prospective fathers is shockingly disappointing. …I will say, becoming a parent probably made me think more than I would have otherwise about the recent college admissions scandal. I understand wanting your kids to do well, but that scandal only makes sense to me if many of those parents are basically viewing their kids as jewelry, shiny objects that the parents can use to project whatever image they’d like to share of themselves. Their babies are their baubles, basically.
In any case, I am loving being a father. It’s such a trip, and opened a new level of team partnership with my wife that is both difficult and exhilarating. And, again, just frank honesty here, with the kid on the way, of course I started thinking about all the things I wouldn’t be able to do anymore, most of which I quickly realized I hadn’t been doing anyway. So I really don’t feel like I’m missing, only gaining. (Except some sleep, which I’m missing!) One thing becoming a parent has accelerated for me—although I’ve already been working on this for quite a while—is not “borrowing trouble,” as my wife puts it. Not worrying about problems that haven’t occurred yet, and focusing on the potholes right in front of my feet. The other aspect, well, my favorite Sports Illustrated editor once called me “the athlete who only hears the boos,” because even when something went well I might fixate on some criticism I felt was unfair. It stuck with me when he said that. Even pre-parenting I had already made a ton of steady personal progress on that front, but becoming a parent accelerated it. I’m just more worrying about the life in front of me. It’s really been showing up in how I feel about book reviews this time around. With my first book, I got some nice reviews but also sometimes fixated on aspects I felt were unfair. This time around, I read the reviews, and felt, “This is great. The critiques are totally fair and sensible. In fact, some of these are interesting, or even how I would criticize me. One couldn’t possibly ask for more.” That’s a mindset leaf I’m happy to have turned over. And I do think becoming a parent accelerated my progress on that front, just not taking those things as personally, and instead mining them for lessons.
Regarding the last part of the question—how I’ll behave in response to my own kid with sports or hobbies, I’m going to use an analogy from Range to something that made an impression on me: the Army’s talent-based branching program. Long story short, with the explosion of the knowledge economy, the Army’s up-or-out career structure started hemorrhaging the officers the Army identified as having the highest potential. (About half of West Point alums started leaving the Army as soon as they were allowed. One high ranking officer suggested defunding West Point because it’s “an institution that taught its cadets to get out of the Army.”) Suddenly, in an economy ripe for lateral mobility you can look for better career matching. (Match quality is the term economists use to describe the degree of fit between an individual’s interests, abilities, and the work that they do.) Conceptual skills and knowledge creation ability and creative problem solving are prized over experience in narrow procedural skills, which had been great for an industrial economy. At first, the Army tried to throw money at officers, and those who were going to stay anyway took it, and those who wanted to leave left anyway. Half-billion taxpayer dollars down the drain. Then they started programs like talent-based branching, where basically instead of saying “here’s your career track, get up or out,” they say: “we’re pairing you with this coach, and here are some career tracks, try one and reflect on how it fits you with your coach, then try some more and do that again, and we’ll triangulate better match quality for you.” And programs like that, which grant some agency in the search for match quality have been better for persistence among those officers than throwing money at people. Turns out that when you get fit, it looks like grit. I view my role with respect to my son’s activities as that of the talent-based branching coach. Facilitate a bunch of opportunities, help him see the possibilities, and then reflect on them as he tries. So my role really is helping with access to opportunities, and then helping him get the maximum learning or self-knowledge from each one. That’s the approach I’m aiming for. I’m confident that if I help him find a good fit, he’ll display the good traits we associate with grit, just like the West Point alums when they are allowed to find work that fits them. And plus, I mean, I was living in a tent in the Arctic studying the carbon cycle when I decided for sure to try to become a writer, so I’m not exactly credible if I tell him he’d better pick and stick with something early, or else. And also, I mean, I have no clue what I’m doing next, so I could use a talent-based branching coach too. But I’ve never really anticipated the projects that have become the most important to me, so I’ve grown comfortable with that. And by the way, maybe this is a coincidence with me writing about the research on sampling periods, but two days before my book came out, Angela Duckworth’s newsletter was titled “Summer is for Sampling.”
The philosopher Bernard Suits was responding to a contention by other philosophers that there is no core principle that is common to all games, sports included. In The Grasshopper, he disagrees and writes that the common principle is “the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.” That resonated with me, deeply. Sports are just contrivances. Take agreed-upon rules, add meaning. And whatever greater values we take from them emanate from that voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles. As I mentioned above, I was flat out the worst person on the college team when I started, and not by a little. And not that I’m anything special at all, because there are stories like this on every team, but by the end of my four years I was a university record holder on a relay and on my alma mater’s all-time top ten list for the indoor 800 meters. The entire endeavor was my own acceptance of unnecessary obstacles. And I think that’s a microcosm of life. Take life, add meaning. And for me that meaning frequently comes from the unnecessary obstacles I voluntarily accept. And I mean that broadly. Not all of the obstacles we voluntarily accept are so cut-and-dried as sports goals. Most are not. And perhaps we don’t think we voluntarily accept them at all, but that they are foisted upon us. But in a manner of thinking, if we decide to keep swimming—to quote the great philosopher Dory the blue fish—we are at some level choosing to accept the obstacle.
Your varied career would suggest that you’ve long rejected the idea of ‘specialization’. Has this always been a guiding principle in your life? What would you recommend to people who did specialize and maybe feel stuck or simply want to develop more range?
Not at all, I didn’t explicitly embrace it. I mean, I was set on being a scientist and did my undergrad and graduate research on some pretty esoteric stuff. You can see how rapidly I was changing careers by the fact that I have a paper in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research in which my contact information is listed at Sports Illustrated! I think like many of the people I write about, I didn’t set out to become broad, I basically was searching for better match quality, and since we learn who we are only in practice, that meant trying things and then zig-zagging until I found better fits. (Which I will continue to do.) So I was gaining breadth because of the process, not because I set out to gain breadth for its own sake.
One of the studies that deeply resonated with me was the so-called Dark Horse Project—a pair of Harvard researchers studying how people optimize their match quality. When they first started bringing in people who were exceptionally fulfilled in their work, most of those people would say things like, “Well, don’t tell anyone to do what I did, because I started on this one path, and it wasn’t right so I switched, and then was lost for a while, then did this other thing,” etc. These people who found fulfillment—sometimes by sort of creating their own jobs through merging knowledge from different domains—all viewed themselves as having come out of nowhere. (Not all, really. Some traveled a linear career path, but it was the very small minority.) That’s why the researchers ultimately named the study the Dark Horse Project, because most subjects viewed themselves as dark horses. The common trait of those folks was a focus on short-term planning. Instead of looking around and saying, hey, that person is younger than me and has more than me, they say: here’s who I am today; here are my skills and interests; here’s what I want to learn; here are my opportunities, and I’ll try this one, and maybe a year or two from now I’ll change because I will have learned something about myself. And they short-term plan and zig-zag their way to breadth and match quality.
That said, I also write about people who start out very specialized and then broaden, as opposed to the reverse, and their breadth among specialists becomes a source of power. If you look at Abbie Griffin’s work on serial innovators, for example, you see these phrases like, “knowledge from peripheral domains”; “needs to learn outside own domain”; “reads more and more broadly than peers”; “needs to communicate with experts outside own domain”; “makes connections among disparate pieces of information,” and on and on. Her warning to HR professionals is that they often accidentally screen these people out if they define a job too narrowly, because they aren’t the square pegs for the square hole. Another scientists studying a similar phenomenon described the “network of enterprise” that creative achievers have going. As Lin-Manuel Miranda put it, “I have a lot of apps open in my brain right now.” It’s not multi-tasking, it’s developing a network of enterprise, and eventually different aspects tend to inform one another. Maybe this is why Nobel laureate scientists are at least 22 times more likely than typical scientists to have avocations (often aesthetically oriented) outside of their vocations. As Spanish Nobel laureate Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, put it: “It appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality they are channeling and strengthening them.”
What books and writers have had the biggest influence on your thinking and how you live your life?
I’m sure this is not what you mean, but the first thing that popped to mind was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. At this recent Q&A we did, Malcolm introduced me this way: “This is David Epstein. In his first book he devoted several pages to attacking my work.” Ha! I mean, true. But that led to this debate we had at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference about athletic development, for which I read all the literature on athletic development and saw that future elites in most sports having a “sampling period,” where they do a wide variety of activities, often unstructured or lightly structured, learn broader skills, and learn about their interests and abilities, and delay specializing until later than peers who plateau at lower levels. After the debate, which is on YouTube, he said, “you know, you got me on that early specialization part.” That led to us becoming running partners and talking about it on our own time, and through a series of other experiences led to the project that became my most recent book, which changed my thinking in ways I’ve discussed above, and then some, including my approach to parenting. Malcolm and I were invited back to that same conference in March, and this time toward the end (also on YouTube), he says that he now believes he conflated two ideas—the idea that a lot of practice is required to become good in many domains, which is true, with the idea that that implies that in order to become good at X, you should do X and only X as early possible, which he now believes is false. I thought that was such a cool updating of his mental model. That first debate was the first time we ever met, and he could have viewed our ideas as in zero-sum competition. But he didn’t. He viewed it as an opportunity to engage in more discussion—often politely antagonistic but very productive discussion—and consequently we learned from one another. Outliers, while I stridently critiqued aspects, set in motion what became not only a really productive intellectual relationship for me, but also a model of how two people publicly associated with certain ideas can engage without forcing zero-sum competition. And that left a real impression on me, and has made me more productive with critiques, and I think a better learner and better user of feedback, and more appreciative of critique, and—perhaps most importantly—more willing to take on an ambitious project because I know I can’t get everything perfectly and have to be willing to update my mental models. So even though I came at Outliers from a place of criticism, it ultimately had a very tangible impact on my thinking and how I live through the experience of being criticized myself. I don’t think that’s what you were looking for, but that’s what came to mind. In a more traditional sense, Philip Tetlock’s book Expert Political Judgment had a big influence on my thinking, and on my decision ultimately to prioritize breadth of inquiry and interests because it leads to better judgment. After encountering that work, that’s when I more proactively decided to be a better generalist. Fair warning, that book is very dense, verbally and mathematically, and written for academics. But my feelings about it are one reason that I used chapter ten in Range to convey his work in an accessible way. It is partly about the qualities of people who develop good judgment about world events, and also about how we should hold ourselves accountable for our own thinking, such that we learn with experience, which turns out to be unfortunately rare. It turns out that, in many cases, experts become more confident but not more accurate in their judgments and predictions about the world as they accumulate knowledge. Some actually get worse as they accumulate knowledge, and Tetlock goes into the habits of mind that cause that perverse outcome.
Could you leave the Daily Stoic community with one message or piece of advice? It could be a question to journal on, a philosophical practice to try, or just something to think about as they go about their day.
Don’t feel behind. Keep the so-called “end of history illusion in mind.” That is, at every time point in life, we all recognize that we have changed a lot in the past, and then systematically underestimate how much we will change in the future. Even your basic personality traits change more than you expect. You don’t even know exactly who you’ll be or where you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help. Julius Caeser felt behind when he saw a statue of Alexander and supposedly cried that “Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable.” Well, pretty soon he was in charge of the Roman Republic, which he turned into a dictatorship and then got murdered by his boys. So, ya know, he peaked early. Just keep doing your little experiments in search of match quality, and responding to opportunities that arise. That gives you a proximate thing to do, rather than focusing on ironclad longterm goals which involve a lot of things you can’t really predict very well anyway—not the least of which is how you yourself will change.
Lastly, I want to share something about an individual who meant a great deal to the running community, of which I am an avid part, and who passed away recently at the age of 32. Gabe Grunewald was one of the best milers in the country for years, while living with a rare form of cancer. On any starting line, she stood out both because of her joyful grin and the crescent surgical scar across her torso that looked like a massive shark bite. She ran her last race at US Nationals, between bouts of chemo, and finished well in last; obviously it was very difficult for her to prepare. I think she embodied values that we should all strive to embrace. In a eulogy, one of her friends described Gabe’s attitude whenever she would get, shall we say, suboptimal news from her doctors: “It’s not what I expected, but I’ll adjust.” I just want to end on that.