Great Antidote Extras: David Epstein on Range

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10,000 hours of deliberate practice is only one way and according to David Epstein not the most common or best way to get to excellence. Plus, where did that suspiciously round number even come from?!?
How did you get where you are and why do you do what you do? Great Antidote host Juliette Sellgren’s curiosity on this topics is clear and guest David Epstein has some ideas about how necessary specialization is to success and where even did the number 10,000 come from (warning: the answer might depress you), 

This Great Antidote podcast covers a lot—clocking in a little over an hour—talking about the benefits to generalization. David Epstein is the author of New York Times #1 bestsellers, Range and The Sports Gene, and an investigative reporter at ProPublica. Today, he talks with Sellgren about Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. You can also read Epstein's newsletter Range Widely and his writings at ProPublica.
What does Epstein want young people to know? You don’t need to pick a lane early and stick with it. Change will happen and that’s not a bad thing, it’s a natural thing. 

The podcast is not all about sports but as you might expect from a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, he opens with sports and spends some time there: Tiger Woods; Roger Federer; Serena Williams. But there’s also surgeons, Nobel laureates, and the military. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
If I had to pick what I think would be the most accurate, but maybe less marketable subtitle, of Range, what really the most pervasive theme is, sometimes the things you can do to get a head start will actually undermine your long term development, whether that's learning a sports skill, whether that's choosing what to study in college, whether that's settling down in a career, whatever it is, sometimes the thing that you can do that'll cause immediate progress…can undermine your longer term development. So our intuition, I think, leads us astray.  

One of the most interesting parts of the podcast is when Epstein shares his experience talking to a group of specialized medical professionals about the ideas in his book. It begins around 17:20. He talks about how increasing specialization is beneficial but that specialists also have a tendency to do procedures that might not be necessary or to continue to do them even when new research suggests they shouldn’t be done. While Epstein anticipated push back he was pleasantly surprised that they seemed to agree that this does happen… with their colleagues. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
I think the problem comes when, like the Tiger story, we try to extrapolate that story to everything else that we want to be good at in our own lives, because in some ways golf and chess are uniquely horrible models of most things that people want to learn. So extrapolating is a problem and that's because they are what the psychologist, Robin Hogarth, termed “kind learning environments” and that means that the next steps and goals are sort of clear for you. The rules are clear and don't change patterns. Repeat feedback is quick and accurate, not tons of human dynamics involved, et cetera. 

On the other end of the spectrum would be what Hogarth is called wicked learning environments where like work next year, won't look like work last year. Feedback is delayed or in accurate, patterns don't just repeat et cetera. 
Epstein also talks about the work that lies behind the famous 10,000 hour rule starting at about 29:02 and raises questions about the methodology and how it hides the variability that exists in the world. At 33:08 Sellgren raises the question that all number crunchers have: where does the 10,000 come from? It’s too round. It’s too perfect. Epstein agrees and explains. 

Around 39 minutes we also get a personal example of Sellgren and her guitar. What does a skills acquisition expert suggest? TL;DL: Take some lessons but intersperse it with other genres, do things on your own, and get a lot of sleep.  

Key Quote (lightly edited)
About whether to get lessons or not, it really depends… I write about some of the differences between classical and jazz in Range. And as it turns out a lot of the best jazz players ever, not only never got lessons, they didn't even learn how to read music, but they did a ton of playing in groups where they would kind of respond to each other and imitate one another. And so, I think the question more than if you're getting formal lessons or not is like, what kind of developmental environment do you have? I think getting lessons could help you learn some depending on the kind of playing that you're doing. 

There's a section in the book where I talk about an eminent, professional guitar instructor and he advocates for initially letting people do some fooling around, even though that will slow them down early on, he likens it to language learning where, you know, your parents don't start by teaching you grammar. They start by throwing you in and you struggle and you learn some things. And then later you learn the grammar when you're kind of perfecting it. 

He says that the people who go the other route, learning the rigorous, classical rules, they get a head start, but later on, they become sort of less flexible in the things that they can learn. So, I think what I would want for you would be a situation where you can learn some of the basics, but that you don't become like beholden to them...

The big thing was there was a tremendous amount of individual variation, but things that set them apart [were]... they slept more so they got more sleep, that's good for learning stuff. And they spent a lot of time on their own, just like playing and trying on their own. And so I think it's really, it's really a balance. I don't think there's a problem with engaging a teacher. I just would make sure you have plenty of variety and also leave some time for yourself to do semi-structured lightly structured activity. 
Sellgren starts wrapping up with what these ideas mean for the process of education in the US. Epstein’s response focuses on K-12 education and, of course, it’s complicated. But one realistic proposal he gives based on a recent study about middle school math is to think about activities that provide a mix of problems as opposed to more similar structured activities. For the bigger picture, he suggests an important role for people to help students match themselves to areas and for providing students with opportunities for long-term reflection using journals or other tools.  

Around 56:30 Epstein gets more personal about his “Dark Horse” path and how he zigzagged during his career to where he is now. 

Finally, what has Epstein changed his mind about? He used to think he was great at predictions (until he started keeping track of them). He’s also become more skeptical about the ability of individuals to predict what will and won’t be successful in advance of experimentation. 

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