Lessons Learned From “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World” – Part 1

Growing up I would jump from interest to interest all the time. I thought this meant I gave things up too often, but perhaps I was a generalist. If, like me, you find that focusing on one path forever doesn’t suit you, then this book is for you. David Epstein teaches us why not wanting to specialise may be our biggest strengths.

The book had so many interesting ideas that I couldn’t summarise them all in one post. Instead, I will be splitting the summary into a mini-series, starting with this post.

Kind Environments and Wicked Environments

Careers are not made equal. You have Kind environments and Wicked environments.

Qualities of Kind environments:

  • Easy to define successes and failures
  • Clear feedback
  • Examples include games, music and sports

You can measure success in a game or sport by winning or losing. When playing music, you can hear if it is wrong. Sports have world champions, Orchestras have First Chair’s. In Kind environments specialising is better for success and outdoing the competition.

Wicked environments are the opposite:

  • No clear definitions of success
  • Feedback varies in usefulness and how often you get it
  • Examples include most knowledge work

You can’t win or lose at accountancy. How do you compare software developers? Who is the world champion at repairing cars? Where do you rank in your job?

Abstraction is a Skill

Abstraction is understanding connections and differences between things.

To give an example, you see a bike, a tricycle and a car. You can tell that the bike and tricycle are similar and the car is different. You pedal a bike and a tricycle, cars have engines.You can also tell what a car has in common with the bike and tricycle. They all have wheels and are all modes of transport.

You can access more information on your phone than your grandparents saw in their whole lives. You can categorise all this information. These categories allow you to say what is similar and what is different between billions of things. Your ability to do this would seem superhuman a few hundred years ago.

Epstein illustrates this with a tale of some remote villagers. They had lived in their small part of the world for generations, not having access to the outside world. They were the closest thing we have to humans before the modern world. Researchers asked the villagers questions, to see how they think.

The villagers were told “in cold, snowy weather, bears are always white, north of here it is cold and snowy” then they were asked “What colour are the bears?”

The villagers replied “I don’t know, I have never been there” – they decided they couldn’t know something that was outside of their direct experience. They couldn’t abstract information.

The villagers were asked to find the odd one out given the following items:

  • Bullet
  • Rifle
  • Dagger
  • Bird

The villagers said there is no odd one out, they are all connected. You put a bullet in a rifle, to shoot the bird, which you cut for meat with the dagger, it’s the only way – they didn’t see a difference between weapons and prey, but instead saw how each one connected to their daily experience.

Self-Taught Vs By-The-Book Teaching

If you want to learn an instrument, you may feel it’s best to get a teacher. It will be easier and at the beginning and quicker. But, if you are willing to struggle at first and take your time, you could become a better musician.

It is slow and difficult to learn to play music by ear, but it forces you figure it out for yourself.

You learn how to learn.

Musicians who learned by mimicking music they’ve heard, are often called “naturals”. They seem to have a way with the instrument. In truth, they have the hard won skill of learning how to learn effectively.

Many classically trained musicians, whilst being elite musicians, struggle to improvise. Classical training is very strict, there is a right way and a wrong way to play. Improvisation is more free flowing and it’s harder to define what’s “good”.

Classical musicians are specialists in their music, playing with discipline and precision. Improvisers are generalists, able to pick up any tune and make it their own.

Come back next time to see what Epstein can teach us about interleaving and analogies.

The Science of Getting Lost and Getting Found

Photo by Malte Schmidt on Unsplash

Getting lost, is terrifying.

If it’s ever happened to you, you will know what I mean. It was likely one of the most stressful days of your life. The terror is real, you can die if you get lost.


We humans, have evolved to find getting lost stressful. Once we realise we are lost, adrenaline sets in and we lose all ability to reason. This makes getting found difficult.


Rescued people have been asked to explain their actions when they were lost and they often can’t remember. The panic caused them not to make reasonable decisions.

Below are some tips on:

  • How to get found if you are lost
  • Understanding how to find someone else who is lost
  • How certain people react when they are lost (we don’t all act the same)

How to Get Found

Stop moving!

Wait 30 minutes.

Half and hour is enough time to calm down, then the rational part of your brain will work again.

Retrace Your Steps

30 minutes have passed, no one has found you…

Now, that you’re calm, retrace your steps. Your instincts might tell you this will get you more lost. But it helps, you may spot something you recognise and be able to find your way back to safety.

The Hub-and-Spoke Method

Retracing your steps hasn’t got you found.

Pick a landmark that stands out to you (a tree, a cliff or church) and treat that as a centre point. Something tall works best, so you can see it even as you walk away from it.

Now walk in a straight line away from it to see if you spot something you recognise or find civilisation. Each time, walk out only as far as you can still see the centre point. Then walk back and head out in a different direction. Your footsteps will follow spokes on a wheel, where the middle of the wheel is your centre point.

The hub-and-spoke method

Head to High Ground

Climb high (if it’s safe to do so). Look for a known landmark, like a particular building or rock formation. If you have a map, even better, this can help you figure out which direction you’re facing and where you need to go.

It’s Not Safe to Go Alone, Take One of These

Preventative measure, bring someone with you. Pairs are less likely to panic and so more likely to make good decisions.

Finding a Lost Person

You may be the person who is safe, but you have lost a loved one. A little understanding of the mindset of a lost person will help you find them and get them back to safety.

Go to the Edges

Humans love boundaries, so even if we don’t know we are doing it, we will head to the edges of things. Depending on the general area the person got lost, check the nearest:

  • Roads
  • Hedges
  • Edges of fields
  • Buildings
  • Shorelines

Who did you Lose?

A Child

Children are generally easier to find as they are more likely to stay put. Head to the last place you saw them and call out to them.

An Autistic Child

Autistic children tend to take shelter in structures.

The structure could be as complex as a building or shed or as simple a bush.

A Person with Dementia

People with dementia tend to head in one straight line and keep going. Even pushing through obstacles.

If you know where their destination, keep going in that direction. If you are in the woods, look for broken up bushes or trees where they may have barged through.

A Solo Male

These are the worst! I don’t know why, but us men move the most. We tend to keep moving non-stop until we are found. If you are looking for a man on his own, you’re in for some trouble, he could be anywhere.

These tips come from a NewScientist article on the psychology of people who get lost: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532710-800-people-who-get-lost-in-the-wild-follow-strangely-predictable-paths/#