David Epstein

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

David Epstein is on the podcast tour, talking about his new book Range, “why generalists triumph in a specialized world.” His advice isn’t to specialize or generalize but to have both, at the individual and community levels. He told Patrick O’Shaughnessy, “In areas where the next steps were clear, specialists were better. In areas where the next steps were less clear, people who worked across a large ranger were most effective.”

If you read Jack of all trades as a negative this book is for you. If it’s a positive expression then you’re rowing in the same direction as Epstein. Either way, seeing things from Epstein’s perspective is helpful. It’s what academics tend not to do. On Longform Epstein said, “The researchers (I cite) never come to the same place, they always go to their own conference where everybody believes their stuff.”

Yet a new POV is like a boost in IQ.

Michael Pollan saw this in his writings on homes, gardens, food, farms, – and most recently, hallucinogenics. “Doing it for the first time gives you a kind of wonder, of first sight, that you’ll never get again.” Even breaks from projects, relationships, or the simple crossword puzzle reveal solutions.

To make his perspective reflective Epstein does a lot of research. He tries to read ten journal articles a day early on, wandering into rabbit holes as needed. One tip he shared on Longform was to not dig into the method section unless the overall ideas look interesting.

Epstein also likes to talk to people. “I’m a reporter and I know if I talk to someone I’m going to find out things I’m not going to find out any other way.” In each of his interviews, he’s curious, which as Epstein notes, is a kind of ranginess itself. And he’s always been that way.

First, “I wanted to be an astronaut.” Then Epstein went to school at Columbia, started running track, and took a summer class because it would be easier to run track during that time.

That class was geology. Epstein loved it so much he went to graduate school for it. There he took a night class in journalism. That was fun too. With an eclectic mix, his job prospects were mixed. But he found one, the night shift, operating a phone for news tips and running out to report on stories as necessary. The experience was “a great boot camp.” It was his XMBA

Epstein followed other serendipitous moments to Sports Illustrated. His career was punctuated by that went well assignments and a focus on the truth rather than the conventional. Traditional answers are easy to tell ourselves and to tell others but traditional doesn’t necessarily mean true. Sometimes we have to find new, odd, and different solutions. Sometimes we have to show some range.

Rory Sutherland makes this point in his book, Alchemy. Terry O’Reilly’s does too, writing, “The difficult thing about counterintuitive solutions is that they are often difficult to swallow and hard to present, and are usually shunned by almost everyone initially.”

Epstein saw this too, telling Russ Roberts, “As one researcher told me, ‘The difference between cancer research and Jeopardy is that in Jeopardy we know all the answers.”

It comes up in so many domains of life that it’s hard to ignore. Part of life is making the trains run on time and part of life is laying new track. Part of life is efficient execution and part of life is non-fatal exploration.

One way to explore better is, the next time you make an analogy, “Instead of picking the first analogy that comes to mind because it has some surface similarities, create a reference class of analogies and think of what happens on the broad scale instead of the particular details.”

Exploration came up often in Epstein’s conversations. After his lunch with Russ Roberts, “I ended up with half a dozen new things on my reading list, which for someone who doesn’t know what they’re going to do next, it’s tremendously important to get suggestions to read things I wouldn’t have otherwise read.”

Epstein is also in a culture – writing – that allows this. You told O’Shaughnessy,

“Give people the liberty to start exploring.” Culture influences people. The Apple and Steve Jobs culture, said Ken Segall, was “a table, white board, and an honest exchange of ideas.”

So explore more. In his interviews Epstein mentions many different sources, here’s a few.

About To Youyou, the Nobel Prize winner with ‘No’ credentials. BBC.

About Wicked and Kind environments with the psychologist, Robin Hogarth. YouTube

About the book The Master and his Emissary, right brain and left brain, Iain McGilchrist. YouTube

About Dark Horse projects of self exploration with Todd Rose YouTube.

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