We often think that to become a success in today’s modern world, you have to specialize and specialize early. My guest today makes the case that, actually, the most creative, innovative, and successful people don’t specialize. They’re generalists.
His name is David Epstein and he’s the author of the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. We begin our conversation discussing two different paths to success as embodied by Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, and why we’re naturally drawn to the former’s specialized approach even though the latter’s generalized approach is in fact the most common way to success. David then explains why our increasingly complex and abstract world requires not only having a depth but a breadth of knowledge, and how our education system hinders us from gaining such. David and I discuss why you shouldn’t expect to know exactly what you’re going to do for your career when you’re young, why you should dabble in lots of different activities when you’re first starting out in life and even when you’re older, and why there’s a correlation between having hobbies and winning the Nobel Prize. We also dig into why intrinsic motivation is often mistaken for grit, why you shouldn’t be afraid to sometimes quit things, and the importance of finding pursuits that fit you if you want to achieve success. We end our conversation, with David’s argument that our increasing specialization is not only stifling individual flourishing, but also getting in the way of scientific advances that would benefit society.
- How a debate with Malcolm Gladwell led to this new book
- The differing approaches of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer
- Why do we believe in youth specialization in the first place?
- The domains where early expertise does work
- Kind vs. wicked learning environments
- Why IQ test scores are going up (and why that’s not necessarily an unmitigated good)
- The correlation between tests/grades and real-world success
- Why procedural learning isn’t always best
- Classical vs. jazz music, and how those genres are learned
- The importance of sampling skills and interests
- Why do we overlook the idea of fit?
- The danger of career selection in one’s teens and early 20s
- How David Epstein became Sports Illustrated’s youngest Senior Writer
- What’s the role of deliberate practice in light of all this?
- Why you should keep multiple career streams open
- The important role of serious hobbies
- What role does grit play?
- The broader cultural and scientific effects of downplaying breadth and accentuating specialization
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with David about The Sports Gene
- David’s debate with Malcolm Gladwell
- Our interview with Gladwell about why smart people do dumb things
- To Succeed in Work and Life, Be a T-Shaped Man
- Ernest Hemingway as a Case Study in Living a T-Shaped Life
- Tiger Woods
- My interview with Anders Ericsson about expertise
- Myths About Kids and Sports
- The Flynn effect
- “Let It Go” + Vivaldi mashup
- The Amazing Powers of the Twentysomething Brain
- Finding the Work You Were Meant to Do
- The Ultimate List of Hobbies for Men
- Got Grit?
Connect With David
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. We often think to become a success in today’s modern world, you have to specialize and specialize early. My guest today makes the case that actually most creative innovative and successful people don’t specialize. They’re generalist. His name is David Epstein. He’s the author of the book Range: Why Generalist Triumph in a Specialized World. We begin our conversation discussing two different paths to success as embodied by Tiger Woods and Roger Federer and why we’re naturally drawn to the former specialized approach even though the latter’s generalized approach is in fact the most common way to success. David then explains why our increasingly complex and abstract world requires not only have any depth but a breath of knowledge and how our education system hinders us from gaining such.
David and I discussed why you shouldn’t expect to know exactly what you’re going to do for your career when you’re young, why you should dabble in lots of different activities when you first started out in life and why you should keep doing that even when you’re older and why there’s a correlation between having hobbies and winning the Nobel Prize. We also dig into why intrinsic motivation is often mistaken for grit. While you shouldn’t be afraid to sometimes quit things and the importance of finding pursuits that fit you if you want to achieve success. We begin our conversation with David’s argument that our increasing specialization it’s not only stifling individual flourishing but also getting in the way of scientific advances that would benefit society. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/range. David joins me now via clearcast.io. All right. David Epstein. Welcome back to the show.
David Epstein: Thanks for having me again. Only six years after my agent told me not to let it be five years before I have another-
Brett McKay: Well your last book that we had you on to talk about was the Sports Gene which discusses why some people are just great at certain sports. You got a new book out. You said it’s a left turn but I think there’s a connection. It’s called Range” Why Generalist Triumph In a Specialized World. Did the Sports Gene begin that thinking about this book?
David Epstein: It absolutely did. In fact it led to this book. Even though this book is departs from sports after the introduction it really grew out of the Sports Gene in the sense that after the Sports Gene came out I was invited to the MIT Sloan sports analytics conference to have a debate with Malcolm Gladwell. It’s on YouTube titled the Sports Gene versus 10000 hours even though we actually have significant middle ground. Because he’s very clever and I didn’t want to get embarrassed and I’d never met him before. I guessed that he would argue about the importance of a head start in athletic development in very narrow technical so-called deliberate practice. I went and gathered up all the studies I could find that track, the development of future lead athletes. What I saw was a pattern where in fact rather than doing they Tiger Woods where they specialize very early they have what scientists call a sampling period earlier, they gain a breadth of general skills try an array of sports learn about their own abilities and their own interests and systematically delays specialization until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels.
I brought that to the debate saying this is your hypothesis and here’s the data that cannot fit with that hypothesis. Afterward we became running buddies and would talk about it on our own time. I filed it away in the back of my brain until this point I described in range where I got involved with the Pat Tillman Foundation that basically helps military veterans career change and gave a little talk about this. They were so hungry for information about how to bring diverse experiences to bear on whatever they were going to do because they felt they were behind when in fact they actually had all these powerful experiences and skills that their peers didn’t. I started to think I should really investigate this far outside the sports world and see if we see the same pattern of an advantage accruing to people who go broad early and maintain breadth even as everyone around them is rushing to specialize.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about how you started off with a sports … The sports stick … The sports analogy. You mentioned there’s two approaches to how we go about or people have about going … Becoming an expert and the one you said there’s the Tiger Woods method and then you also say in the book there’s the Roger Federer way. Talk about let’s say you say Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Can you do a compare and contrast between those two approaches?
David Epstein: Sure. Originally I titled the book proposal Roger Versus Tiger. Tiger Woods I think his development story is pretty well known. He was physically precocious. He could balance on his father’s palm at six months old. They’re pictures of this and his father’s book. By the time he was two, he was on television golfing. By the time he was three his father was already giving him media training for his future. By the time he was four he was hustling adults at golf courses and by the time he’s a teenager he was famous and went on to become the best golfer in the world. That is very early specialization. It’s very 10000 hours rule centric specialization became the analogy for a huge number of books that write about performance and how to get good at stuff saying just extrapolate this to whatever it is that you want to do. Meanwhile, Roger Federer, his story is much less well known. He played a huge array of sports as a kid. His mother was actually a tennis coach and refused to coach him because he wouldn’t return balls in a normal way and do structured practice.
When he actually got good enough to get bumped up a level he declined because he just wanted to talk about WWE with his friends after practice. Actually when he first got good enough to get interviewed by a local paper and the reporter asked him what he would buy with his first paycheck if he ever became a pro. He said a Mercedes. His mother was totally appalled and asked the reporter if she could listen to a recording of the interview and he obliged. When Roger and Ashley said it was mere CDs in a Swiss German accent. He just wanted more CDs. Unlike Tiger he didn’t have these big dreams of being a tennis pro. He’s didn’t specialize. His mother forced him to continue playing badminton, basketball and soccer long after some of his peers were not only specialized in tennis but working with sports psychologists and nutritionists. Of course Rogers rose to the pinnacle of his domain as well. My question was which model the Roger model or the Tiger model is the more common one on route two to expertise.
Brett McKay: It’s interesting because you mentioned ever since Tiger Woods there’s all these books put out about how his approach is the way. If you want to become an expert in your domain, you’ve got to do the Tiger approach. I feel this existed even before Tiger. That we had this idea that if you want to become the very best you had to get started young. People use examples of Mozart. Who started composing music when he was three or four and say well if you want your kid to be great and whatever you got to get them started young. Why do you think that makes sense and why do we think that the Federer approach we dabble and it’s is looked down upon.
David Epstein: The Federer approach by the way turns out to be the normal one for athletes who go on to succeed. I think it’s multifaceted. First of all it’s not that intuitive. We are absolutely not programmed to think that there could be anything wrong with a headstart or that there is … If you want to be good in X that you should do anything other than X In order to become the best at that. It’s not intuitive. I also think it’s partly a holdover from the pre knowledge economy era where the structure of most every organization that people were involved with was very upper out. It was the tasks that people had to do for work were much more standardized and they could do similar things over and over and over again. They were used to being narrow and quite specialized. Then I think these things like Tiger and this whole genre of books that picked on Tiger and Mozart essentially and also some chess players stoked our obsession with precocity.
What those books do is they use these prodigies to say, this, anybody can do this in any domain. The reality of it is that they pick very particular domains that people who study skill acquisition know are horrible models of almost everything else people want to learn. It’s like this magic trick where they say look at this classical music prodigy. Look at this golf prodigy do this in whatever you’re interested in. That’s where the slight of hand happens because if you look into the research of how people get good at things, golf is a uniquely poor model of almost everything else that people want to get good at.
Brett McKay: Well so yeah. It’s not to say the Tiger Woods approach does not work. It only works in specific domain. Golf would be one. I think you mentioned chess is one, music possibly. I guess what all of these have in common is that they’re very procedural. Once you learn the steps, you just keep doing the steps over and over again and you can get better at it.
David Epstein: People who study skill acquisition basically classify golf as an industrial task where you’re not really dealing with much human behavior. You’re not dealing with teammates. It’s non dynamic. Essentially you’re trying to do the known movements like you know the answer and you’re trying to execute it over and over with as little deviation as possible. That is the epitome of what psychologists call a kind learning environment basically. As is chess to a less degree but it’s still very much so. As our certain aspects of classical music but not music overall. It’s very telling that basically child prodigies always come in a very small range of domains that psychologists who study skill acquisition classify more industrial domains and things that are easily to automate essentially. It’s a very small … It’s the minority of domains but this … A half dozen bestsellers at least that I can just think of off the top of my head use them to extrapolate to everything else. That’s where these inappropriate conclusions are made.
Because in fact the Tiger model may well work for golf. There’s actually a surprising dearth of research on golf compared to other sports. I don’t know. The jury’s out but because of the structure of the domain I can definitely believe that early specialization is the way to go in golf. In sports where there are other people involved, where the situations are much more dynamic, where you have to react to things quickly. It is absolutely not the way to go. You want to think of it more studying language so we know people who grew up multilingual are better able to learn a third language. Even a made up one if scientists give it to them and experiment without being told the rules and that looks the same for people who play multiple sports that involve anticipation of what other people are doing or a flying objects. If you do a bunch of different things early you’re better equipped to be able to pick up any new skills going forward. That’s what you really want. That general framework that allows you to become a master learner basically.
Brett McKay: Procedural skills there those are kind learning environments. You just learn the things then you can mask them. Then I guess the other domains that aren’t like that where they’re complex, dynamic you call these wicked world or learning … Or skill acquisition they call … It’s is called a wicked world.
David Epstein: Define the kind learning environment. It’s basically a task where patterns repeat over and over. The task itself is very constrained by very clear rules. Every time you do something you get feedback that is both immediate and fully accurate. We can think of … If you think of something like chess it’s very constrained. People aren’t allowed to move at the same time. You have to pause before another person does something. There’s an enormous database of previous games patterns repeat over and over. In fact grandmasters rely on pattern study to do what they do and the feedback for a move comes quick and all the information is available. This happens to be what makes it so easy to automate which is why computers, one of the first things they mastered was chess because it’s a kind learning environment. On the other end of the spectrum are most of the things that humans want to learn where not all the information is available. You’re dealing with real time human behavior and lots of things moving at once. Not all the information.
There’s information that’s hidden from you. You may get feedback but you might not get it all the time. It may be delayed, it may be partial, it may be inaccurate. Robin Hogarth who coined this, a psychologist who coined this kind wicked learning environment used as an example a famous physician who was renowned for being able to diagnosis typhoid weeks before a patient had any symptoms at all. He would do that by palpating their tongue or feeling around their tongue with his hands and over and over he could predict who was going to get typhoid before they had a single symptom. One of his colleagues later pointed out that he was a more prolific carrier of typhoid then typhoid Mary because he was the one giving typhoid to these patients by feeling around their tongues. In that case, the feedback, the positive feedback reinforced the exact wrong lesson. That’s a super … Most of the things we’re doing are not quite that wicked but they’re more toward the wicked end of the spectrum.
Tennis is further from the kind end of the spectrum than golf. Sports are still far, far from the wicked end of the spectrum compared to most of the things that people are trying to do in the world of work.
Brett McKay: Business is a wicked world because there’s so many constituent parts and they interact with each other in complex ways that you can’t predict. Politics would be one. Just management like working in organizations. There’s all these different people with different interests and you don’t know what their interests are. You can’t come up … You can’t develop a system to manage that.
David Epstein: That’s a great point. This shows up so in that … In more wicked learning environments what you want is breadth. There’s a classic finding again in people who study how we acquire skills that goes like this. Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. What you want to do in a world where you’re not repeating the same thing over and over. The trick is to be able to apply your knowledge and skills to situations you’ve never seen before. Not like golf, not like chess. If you want to be able to do that, you want to have really broad training because instead of learning procedures what you’re trying to do is learn these general abstractions that are frameworks that you can apply going forward. To use some research that I cite in range is training people to respond to well training on simulations to respond to naval threats essentially, training commanders.
They tested all these different methods of training and some of the people would practice a certain scenario over and over and over and over and over and all over again until they got really good over the course of day on responding to a certain scenario. Other people saw a different scenario every time in training. At the end of the training period the people who are always seeing a different scenario were frustrated. They felt they hadn’t learned much because they weren’t performing that well whereas the people who saw similar scenarios over and over and internalized those procedures, got better and better. Then when they bring them back and show them situations they’ve never seen before the people who were frustrated in training and had this broad training destroy the people who are doing this … Who are mastering specific scenarios over and over. These are again on situations that none of them have ever seen before.
The breadth of their training predicted how well they could transfer their skills to totally new situations. That’s the theme in the more wicked end of the learning environment. I was just reading some LinkedIn research you mentioned in business that looked at half a million members and what was the best predictor of someone going on to become an executive? It was the number of different job functions they had worked across in their domain. Actually if they’d gone to a top five MBA program was almost as about as influential but that they couldn’t tell if that was because of the school or just because of the student selection or whatever. In terms of things that were more in people’s control the number of different job functions they had worked across. I think that’s a similar finding. It’s their breadth of training gives them the ability to manage situations they’ve never seen before.
Brett McKay: Well I’d like to talk about some research you highlight in the book that I thought was really interesting that highlights the need of more breadth in your thinking and your skill acquisition. You talk about the Flynn effect. This is the idea that over the past few decades IQ scores have been going up every year. They’re just trying to figure out why is that happening? Why is it that we’ve been getting better at IQ tests? Are we getting smarter or is it just the way that we think is changing that make us do better IQ tests?
David Epstein: It was over most of the course of the 20th century a rise of about three points per decade. That’s so much that our great grandparents would look handicapped compared to us if the tests weren’t re standardized. The tests are always re standardized. A hundred is the average. We’re not … We don’t have better brains than them. The question for psychologists who saw this pattern is well why are people getting more questions right? Not only getting more questions right but getting more questions right in the places where the test was least supposed to change over time. The most abstract questions. The IQ test that showed the biggest change over time was one called Raven’s progressive matrices where you just get … This was designed to be what’s called a culturally reduced tests. Nothing you learn in life or school should affect your performance.
If Martians landed on earth this is the test you’d give them. It could show how clever they were because it doesn’t involve any learning. It just involves these abstract patterns and one’s missing. You just have to look at the ones that are there and try to fill in the missing one. Scores rose extremely rapidly on that test where it was … Where the least change was expected. It turns out that that’s the case. Even if you look at the more concrete tests we aren’t doing that much better on specific subjects, vocabulary and that stuff. Wherever they’re more abstract questions people are doing much, much better. Even in cases where test scores in some countries have gone backward on specific learning in things math and vocabulary they’ve still in improved on these more abstract questions. The evidence suggests that that’s because as we moved from a less … From a world where we were less focused on the concrete in front of us and focus on our experience where we moved to a world where work is much more interconnected it’s much more based on knowledge that you have to transfer.
We get by transferring our skills to different situations all the time and to different jobs. We take that for granted now. That’s not something that people a hundred years ago we’re as capable of. The world didn’t demand it of them as much. They could be much more comfortable staying in a very narrow lane of knowledge and repeating known tasks and procedures. As the world has become more complex, we have adapted to that by becoming better at abstract thinking which means it’s not that one type of thinking is better than the other per se but we’re much more adapted to an environment where we can laterally transfer our knowledge to totally new tasks very effectively.
Brett McKay: Well can you give us an example of let’s say an abstract question you would … If you ask say someone in 1875, they would have a hard time answering it because they would be thinking in concrete terms.
David Epstein: There are for example in range, I write about this through a Russian psychologist who goes … Who when the Soviet Union is undergoing socialist revolution and they are nationalizing this remote farmland in what today is Uzbekistan and these …. These people who’ve been subsistence farmers and been able … Had to be very, very good at the things they know but didn’t have to know much else are suddenly being connected to the rest of the world. Some of them are … They’re having to manage a work with other people not just with themselves. When you ask them things first of all if you ask them to classify things, like objects or colors they basically are unwilling to do that. Whereas some of the people who have had some exposure to modernity they can classify if you give them shapes they will always liken it to an object. If it’s a circle then it’s a coin. If it’s a dotted circle then it’s a watch whereas the people who have been exposed to some modernity can classify all the different types of circles together in a group.
Even if they don’t know the word circle, they’ll recognize that there’s some abstract commonality. That thing shows up all the way up to formal logic where if you ask some of these more pre-modern people for example who are not working in the world of connected work, things like … They’ll say well cotton grows well where it’s hot and dry. In England it’s cold and wet. Does cotton grow well in England? They will basically refuse to answer and say things like, “Well you’d have to ask someone who’s been there.” In the case where those questions were asked of people who were experts in cotton growing. If you really push them they might say well it probably shouldn’t grow there if it’s cold and wet. You can push them. If you use a question that uses the exact same logical structures but something they’re unfamiliar with they can’t answer it. One of the questions that was asked was this logic problem where he says something like when it’s cold and there’s snow. All the bears are white.
Then he says in this town in the far north there is always snow. What color are the bears there? They can’t answer it. They’ll say I don’t know I haven’t been there. Well you’d have to talk to someone who’s been there. They’re unable to transfer knowledge to situations they’ve never seen before which again doesn’t mean that their thinking is worse per se. It is not well adapted to the transfer between domains that we’re very well equipped to do today.
Brett McKay: Most of the thinking we do in the modern world, if we live in the western modern world is abstraction. You think a lot of our work is just abstract even way you interact with the world like a video game is an abstraction. You understand it’s not actually you’re playing red dead redemption, not actually writing a real horse. It is pixels of a horse. That helps us think that. Despite this more abstract world how do we school? Are we educating kids and young people to do well in this abstract world or do we go back to that very concrete you need to learn these vocab words and you need to know this information et cetera.
David Epstein: Yes that’s a great question. To pick up on what you mentioned about red dead redemption not to go backwards but just for a sec. We are so accustomed to abstraction, so good at it. We don’t even … We totally take it for granted. When you are whatever downloading the latest flash update or whatever it is on your computer and you see some bar that’s filling up a progress bar to 100% that’s a massive series of abstractions. That bar is some representation of time which itself is some representation of these huge number of underlying instructions that the computer is carrying out which itself is an abstraction that’s actually just a bunch of Zeros and ones that the computer is using. There’s all these layers of abstraction. Computer programmers do really well on cognitive tests of abstraction because they have to come up with stuff like this.
I think in the sense in one way I think we are doing a good job preparing people for this world in the sense that if you think about video games and you think about the way we deal with apps and computers now we’ve gotten really used to doing things without instructions and trying to deduce the rules and just start learning something by using it. This is what Robin Hogarth, the kind wicked psychologist he says, “Never mind golf and tennis. Most of us in the world are playing Martian tennis where there’s something going on but you don’t know the rules. Nobody has told you and they’re subject to change without notice.” You just have to deduce them and they could change at anytime soon. You may have to deduce them again. I think the world at large is doing a decent job but school wise, not great. I think if you look at people always complain about the school system today compared to yesteryear. If you look at tests of basic skills without questions students now do way better than our parents did. No question.
The problem is the challenge has gotten much more difficult because our economy is so based on transferrable knowledge. The improvements aren’t keeping pace with what’s really needed in the world basically. If you look at tests that were given a generation ago to sixth graders it’s very procedural. If you look at them now, it requires a lot more abstract thinking. I think there’s some movement in that direction but it’s not fast enough. What James Flynn the discoverer of the Flynn effect describes in range is this problem where teachers and professors tend to lean toward didactic information. Filling people with information or with procedures on how to do things because it’s easy to conceptualize that. It’s easy to teach and you see a media progress. The problem is it doesn’t build these more fundamental general skills that allow you to then better learn anything later on.
He was … He describes in the book this study he did looking at how well grades in college at an elite college corresponded to the ability of the student to do well on a really important abstract thinking test that test the critical thinking that you need in the world. The correlation was zero between grades in college and the scores on that test which suggests that there’s a real disconnect. If you look at some of the data he’s collected it suggests that the work world is doing a decent …. Is having a larger input into making people better abstract thinkers than school is. I think we’re missing an opportunity there.
Brett McKay: Or we can keep talking about school because you have a chapter about approaches teachers take to teaching students. One way that when you’re sitting in on a class and you listen to a teacher interact with a student, you see this interaction take place where the teacher is asking questions but also giving hints and trying to help the student feel some success early on as they don’t get discouraged. What’s the study? What does the research say on that teaching method?
David Epstein: Yes, similar to some of the sports research what it says and what you’re describing is this scene from this international Math study that that opens chapter four where this really charismatic teacher is teaching Math to young students. What happens over and over is the students learn to play a form of multiple choice where she’ll pose a problem to them. That road might require some abstract thinking or some conceptual thinking or it might not. Either way the way that they interact with the teacher will cause her to give so many hints that they can always turn what’s called a making connections problem where you’re forced to connect different ideas into a using procedures problem where they just figure out rules that they can apply over and over. When you do using procedures practice which you need some of for sure but the problem … The good thing about using procedures practice is you see progress right away.
The bad thing is it undermines future progress because you’re not learning how to connect ideas in a much larger system. The countries that do better in Math education like Japan instead of having practice over and over and over again in … To practice procedures on problems, you go into a classroom there. I’ve been there and seen this and the whole class period might be one problem where there’s a huge blackboard that’s the size of an entire wall. All the kids have name magnets. The teacher will do one problem that can connect a whole different … A large number of different concepts. At each stage he asked students for ideas. They come up write their idea down; they stick their magnet next to it. It may be or wrong and then other students try different ideas. At the end of the class you have this captain’s log of the intellectual journey of the class as they connected a bunch of different ideas and went through false starts in one problem.
Japan actually has a word that means this writing on a blackboard that connects ideas and tracks the thinking through the classes called bancho. Japan does much better using these making connections questions whereas the US is much more focused on using procedures. That’s just like golf. Using procedures is fine as long as you’re going to face the exact same problems over and over again. What you really want is not to teach the students how to use procedures but to teach them how to pick the right strategy for a type of problem. That’s a totally different thing. This actually relates I don’t want to go on too long on this but this relates to what I thought was the single most surprising study in the book for me if you want me to share that one.
Brett McKay: Yeah, go ahead.
David Epstein: The single most surprising study to me was this one in chapter four done at the US Air Force Academy because I don’t think you could set up this … There would be no other way to set up this study. What happened was, these researchers wanting to look at the impact of teaching on student achievement over time not just in a single class. The air force has this incredible setup for this experiment because it brings in students every year. They all have to take a certain sequence of Math courses and they are randomized to their professor in the first class and they all have to take the exact same test, is created the exact same way. It’s basically the whole grade for the course and then they are re randomized the next year to the follow on course, calculus two or whatever it is, and then they are randomized again the next year. You get these multiple steps of randomization, and the students’ abilities coming in are spread evenly across these classes.
You can really see the effect of professors. What the researchers found was that the teachers, who are the best at promoting good test scores in their own class, systematically undermined the future performance of their students in future classes. Those teachers would teach more narrowly because they knew what the students had to learn to do well on the test. The students would rate those teachers really well, because they could see instant progress, they would do well on the test, and then they would underperform in all their future classes. Whereas the teachers who students rated lower because they were more difficult, they taught much more broad concepts, connected ideas. Those students often struggled on the calculus one exam and then over performed in all the subsequent courses, which is really counterintuitive. We’re not programmed to think that we could be making progress before our eyes and that could be undermining our long-term development.
Again, it’s the same thing you see in the sports literature and the math learning literature and then a whole bunch of other domains that I talk about in range.
Brett McKay: Well, it’s like that navy study. The group that learned the procedure on that, how did handle a certain situation, a certain war game. They did well initially, but when they got put in something different, they just … They got tanked.
David Epstein: Exactly. If you want somebody, if your goal is for the individual to be able to respond well to situations that aren’t exactly like something that’s come before, what you want to do is force them into an environment where they have to learn to connect ideas and build these abstractions that they can fit to new situations. As opposed to giving them procedures that they know how to execute as long as they’re seeing exactly something they’ve seen before.
Brett McKay: I imagine kids are really good at finding procedures. If you have your … If you’re a parent with a kid in school and you notice that, man, they’re doing really well all the time. Well it might be because they just figured out a procedure. They have a knack for finding the procedure and they’re just following that procedure, and it might not benefit them in the long run.
David Epstein: One of the things that cognitive psychologists Nate Cornell says in that chapter is that ease … Difficulty is not a sign that you aren’t learning, but ease is a sign that you aren’t learning. If something is too easy for you, then you’re not really learning. It’s when progress is made to fast, that should actually be a warning sign. The problem is we’ve set up our evaluation systems, and we’re just oriented. It’s more intuitive. Just be oriented toward before your eyes progress. What could be bad about that? What could ever be bad about a head start? It turns out that whether it’s in math or sports, the way to develop the best 10 year old is not the same as the way to develop the best 20 year old.
Brett McKay: If we want to excel in this world of abstraction where you’re going to be faced with problems you’ve never encountered before, we want to get a broad range of skills a broad range of things we can make connections. Let’s talk about some ways we can do that. You gave this great example. I never heard of this group.
This was a group of musicians at basically a convent, in France in the 1700s where they became world renowned and famous. It was counterintuitive how they got to that point.
David Epstein: In Italy, they were in Venice. They were, in the 17th and 18th centuries, and not just musicians, but … which means, and it just means daughters. It means daughters of the choir technically. They were actually … Basically, so Venice had a very vibrant sex industry at the time. That led to a problem which was babies, especially baby girls who didn’t have fathers, would end up in the canals sometimes. This was recognized as a social ill that needed to be fixed. These institutions were established, they weren’t technically convents, they weren’t technically religious, but they sort of had quasi monastic rules that they ran by, and they were attached to churches. Basically they had the most famous one called, they were called hospitals, but they weren’t really hospitals because the, the house of mercy basically. It had like a luggage check thing. When you go to an airline and if you can fit your carry on in that check thing, then you can bring it on.
They had one in the door where if you put the baby and the baby fit in there, you can ring a little bell and they’ll come pick it up and they’ll raise it, no questions asked if it fits in the carryon luggage thing, that they called the…. They would try to raise these girls to become self sufficient. It was it’s own internal economy and all these things. At a certain point people started … They would pay the girls as they’d want to make themselves sufficient for learning different skills. They’d give them a little money reward, and at a certain point people started donating used instruments there. The girls would realize, hey, they can … One, its fun and also it counts as new skills if they learn a different instrument. They would start trying to learn a whole bunch of different instruments. Some of these instruments used in colleges no longer even know what they were because they were these experimental instruments.
In the course of learning this large number of instruments, the people who ran the ospedali started to notice that they could pick up anything really, really quickly. They had built these models of how to learn music, and so they started having them perform in the adjoining churches and they were so good that money started pouring into the ospedali. They started having more performances. Antonio Vivaldi, the composer of the four seasons, which is probably now the most famous … Arguably the most famous … It’s almost a pop hit and it’s 300 years old basically. There’s a mash up with the song from Disney’s frozen, that has a hundred million views on YouTube or something. They became Vivaldi’s muses. He recognized their ability to pick up anything, to pick up new forms of music and they became his muses. He became their composer, and they became the greatest musicians in the world. These orphans of the Venetian sex industry, who’s training consisted of attempting to learn as many different instruments as they possibly could.
Which equipped them with disability to learn entirely new types of music and new instruments, like on a whim. For a hundred years until Napoleon came and his troops took over Venice, they were the greatest musicians in the world.
Brett McKay: One of them, I think you gave an example of this. She got too old to play particular instruments, so she just, okay, I got to play this instrument now. She was able to do it really easy. The transition was smooth.
David Epstein: Her teeth fell out. She couldn’t play the wind instrument. She didn’t play anymore. She just switched to one of the other ones and kept performing.
Brett McKay: These are people who didn’t get that headstart training where the mom and dad was having them sit down and do scales from morning until night. They were just messing around with these instruments. Then you also … Jazz musicians were the same way. Some of the greatest jazz composers, most of them didn’t get any formal training. They just picked up a guitar and then figured out how to play it. They came up with this really complex new ways of playing music.
David Epstein: Yeah, two different jazz people that I interview in the chapter on music, one … Two jazz players and instructors told me the same joke one time when I was interviewing them. It goes like this, if you’re a jazz musician, you ask one of the guys you’re about to play with if they can read music. They’re supposed to respond, not enough to hurt my playing. A lot of them do in fact learn how to play music, but they learn … They do what I call learning like a baby. When you learn language, you don’t learn the grammar first. You learn the sound, you get thrown in, you’re immersed, you struggle, you fail and then you learn the grammar much later, if at all. That seems to be the way. The sort of 10,000 hours school has focused very narrowly on a certain type of classical playing. I mentioned in range, the Cambridge handbook of expertise, which is like the Bible of the 10,000 hour rule school, has an entire chapter on music and it’s all on a very particular type of classical music.
Then there’s just one off handed mentioned where it’s like, in jazz and modern music it seems actually the people are much broader and start later and sampled more stuff. Then it just goes back to it … It basically just gives that short trip. Most of the types of music that everyone listens to and plays now. Those musicians develop much more along the Roger model than the Tiger model. Where they sampled different instruments, their practice doesn’t explode until they find an instrument that fits them. If you look at this research over time, it’s not that the musicians who end up practicing a lot, who are exceptional generally are just practiceaholics, if they go through more instruments than their peers. Some of their peers will stick with their first instrument, even if it’s not a great fit. They feel like they have a head start and can’t switch. Whereas the students who go on to become exceptional, they sample instruments until they find one that they think is a fit and then their practice volume explodes.
It looks more like … Less like they personally are just practice fanatics and more like they’re maximizing what economists call their match quality. The degree of fit between who they are, their abilities and interests and what they do. That seems to be the rule for most of music development with some exceptions.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that idea of fit because people have this idea that, clearly if you’re a young person, you’re in college, you’re 20 years old. You’ve got to pick a major. You have to know whether you’re going to go to medical school or law school. Even if you don’t even know if you like medicine or law and then use it to grind it out until you get there. You might find out, man, I just don’t like doing this. Why do we overlook that idea of fit? You’re finding something that we’re actually good at.
David Epstein: It’s interesting you mentioned that because Theodore Schultz, Nobel laureate economist chastised his field for overlooking fit. We had studied higher education and saw that, it makes people more productive by giving them some skills. He said, we’ve overlooked studying the effect unmatched quality, which is that because people come out of high school, they know very little about the world. They know relatively little about themselves. It’s all, everything they know is constrained by their very, their roster of previous experiences. What about when they get to have a sampling period like the athletes? Does that influence how good they become, and how well they fit with what they’re doing? The answer is it absolutely does. In range, I discuss research on an economist who found a natural experiment by looking at school systems where people are made to specialize at different times, some in their teen years and then some can delay until later.
What he finds is that the people who specialize earlier jump out to an income lead, but by about six years into their work, they later specializes catch and surpass them. The earlier specializes start quitting their careers in much higher numbers because they didn’t have enough time to sample and figure out a good fit in the first place, or to optimize their match quality. There’s of course, nothing wrong with getting a law degree or getting a medical degree, but I think the research suggests it’s actually a dangerous thing to decide to do before you really know if that’s a good long-term goal for yourself. You need a little sampling to maximize your match quality. All the research in this area suggests that when people change careers and jobs, they’re set back a little bit in certain specific skills, but their growth rate becomes much higher because each time they do it, they are responding to match quality information, optimizing their fit with what it is that they’re doing.
Brett McKay: Well, going back to the Sports Gene. It’s made me think of, why some athletes do well in certain sports is because their body is fit for that sport, like Michael Phelps. Of course he works hard, but his body is designed for swimming. If he decided I want to play whatever sport and just grind it out, he might’ve been okay, but he probably wouldn’t have been … Reached a level as he did in swimming.
David Epstein: He obviously has these traits like willingness to practice and all these things. Again, that usually follows match quality, not preceding it, so there’s no evidence that he would have been a fanatical trainer if you he were a runner, for example. That’s a lot of research I discussed that suggested that once someone finds a fit, it just looks like they’re fanatical trainer, or like that’s their personality. If you look at the guy who’s the world record holder in the mile, who’s seven inches shorter than Phelps, they wear the same length pants because their bodies are conducive to different types of performance. I think one of the many reasons why we see that Roger pattern in the development of sports is that as we pushed selection earlier and earlier, people aren’t even biologically mature yet. The earlier you push selection in anything, the more likely you put the wrong person in the wrong thing.
That’s also why in sports we see this so called relative age effect, where unlike junior national teams, you see this incredible concentration of kids who were just born early in whatever the selection year is because they’re more biologically mature than their peers and their coaches mistake that for their potential. Then that effect disappears at the elite levels, which suggests to me that it’s a really bad system and causes us to deselect a lot of people who would potentially go on to become a lead.
Brett McKay: This dabbling period. It allows you to find what you’re good at. You said these guys who in sports, they dabble, they eventually find their fit. Like Michael Phelps finally find swimming, Roger Federer finally finds tennis. This can also apply to just personality or your brain. I think they’ve done studies that the human brain isn’t fully formed until like 25, 26 so you might be almost a completely different person when you’re 26 than when you were at 18 when you were deciding your life trajectory.
David Epstein: In fact you’re getting an important concept in range called the end of history illusion. This is the psychological finding that when we all look backward we say, oh gosh, we really changed a lot because of all our experiences in the past. We think that we’re mostly done we won’t change that much in the future. It turns out that we’re wrong at every stage of development. Personally, the time of most rapid personality change is from about 18 through your late twenties, and so if you are picking what you’re doing at age 16 or 17 or 18 you’re absolutely selecting a career for someone that you don’t even know yet. That the correlation between someone’s teen years and middle age for a particular personality trait for the statistically inclined is usually like 0.2 or 0.3, which means there is absolutely still signs of the previous you in the later you that are distinguishable, but you are a very different person.
That’s like a low, low, moderate kind of correlation. We all change more than we expect, which leads to some really funny results by the way. When people are … People think their preferences will stay the same. When they’re asked how much they would pay to see their favorite band today in 10, 10 years from now, $129 is the average answer. Asked how much they would pay to see their favorite band from 10 years ago. Today, the average is only $80 because we underestimate how much our preferences will change. The way that I discussed this in range is that, because we underestimate personality change, we really need to be ready to adjust a lot going forward. Because we’re facing the challenge of how to behave when we don’t know the future us, or the future world that we’ll be living in, and what’s the best approach to take when you’re facing that problem.
Brett McKay: Basically if you are 22 years old listening to this podcast and you’re worried you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing with your life, that’s okay. You’re going to be fine.
David Epstein: I think there’s a great … The Y Combinator investor, Paul Graham. I excerpt a little bit of a graduation speech that he wrote but never gave in the book where he basically calls this idea that you should have a long-term plan and know exactly what you’re going to do. He says computer scientists call this premature optimization. He says all the successful people he knows take this approach of short-term planning. Looking at the opportunities in front of them, taking them and being ready to adjust. He was saying that just based on his experience with startups and people he knows, but that turns out to be like the seminal finding of this research discussed in range called the Dark Horse Project. These Harvard researchers who wanted to study how people find fulfilling careers, and their surprising finding was that those people are systematically averse to rigid long-term planning. Their main common trait is short-term planning. What they do is they say here’s who I am right now. Here are the skills I have.
Here are the things I want to learn, the interest I want to explore. Here are the opportunities in front of me. Here’s what I’ll do. Maybe a year from now I’ll change because I will have learned something different and see a better fit. They just do that and they zigzag their way to a place where they uniquely can succeed and feel fulfilled. The reason this study was named the Dark Horse Project that wasn’t what it was called initially. Was when they were studying these people who find fulfillment, all of those people would come in their initial interviews and say, well, I know you’re trying to tell people how to go about finding a career, but don’t give them the advice to do what I did because I changed paths a whole bunch of times and I didn’t … Wasn’t one for a long-term goal setting. They found 90% of the people say that. They’re like, well, I’m not a good model. In fact that is the good model, but they think they’re all odd balls or exceptions, because it’s hard advice to give. When I was at Sports Illustrated, I would get contacted by students all the time asking, I want to, if I want to be a sports writer, should I major in English or journalism?
I studied geology and astronomy so I have no idea. I was still inclined to give them the advice that was like, start doing your journalism internships right now. Even though the source of power for me that allowed me to become the youngest senior writer there was the fact that I had this science background that was totally average when I was a science grad student, but totally exceptional when I was at a sports magazine. It’s hard advice to give.
Brett McKay: We’ve been dogging deliberate practice. I guess dogging it, starting it too early. You don’t want to start it too early. The idea is like you’re going to dabble for a couple of years, may be into your early 20s, and then once you find something, that’s when you start seeing these high performers starting the deliberate practice.
David Epstein: Deliberate practice is great. You want to do deliberate practice. I think, and this is … Malcolm Gladwell and I were just invited back to MIT Sloan conference recently. What he said, and again this is on YouTube, he says, I changed my mind. I think the fact that to be great requires a lot of practice. I thought that implied that you needed to focus narrowly and start early and now I feel differently. I think that was … I thought what he was saying to and my idea has evolved since starting with my first book, but even more so now. I think it’s the implication that that means that you should, to be great at X you should only do X as early as possible is not supported by the research. You still need to do a bunch of practice. I think even after the dabbling, you should keep career streams open. There’s early in range.
I mentioned research on people who go from becoming great performers essentially, whether that’s an athlete or a musician or a surgeon or whatever to being people who are great at running an orchestra or managing a sports team or running a hospital. One of the features of those people, again, it’s just another finding of the breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Is the scientist studying that says, they keep multiple careers streams open. He says they’re traveling in eight lane highway instead of a one way street. Even once they get more focused, they keep other interests around a little bit and eventually they’re able … Better able to transfer into these management positions. I think even there, this breadth continues to be important. You shouldn’t get totally, totally blinkered even once you become, even though at some point or another, all of us are specialized to one degree or another, of course.
Brett McKay: Well, even highlight research that people who win Nobel prizes, because they’ve specialized in one particular area of science or mathematics. They are more likely to have a hobby, improvisation or painting or music than just the average population.
David Epstein: Way more likely. They’re 22 times more likely than other scientists to have a serious hobby that usually deals with like aesthetics, music, magic, writing, art, glass blowing, all these sorts of things, generally tinkering. They’re much more … So national level scientists who get inducted in national academies are much more likely to have serious hobbies than the average scientist. The Nobel laureates are much more likely still. One of the researchers, one of the phrases that I loved in range was this researcher who studies scientific creativity called the network of enterprise. They have a network of enterprise where they’re doing all these different things that from afar might look like it’s diluting their thinking. In fact, a lot of this stuff ends up informing their ability to find problems that nobody else was looking at. The father of modern neuroscience, the Spanish Nobel laureate, Ramón Santiago y Cajal, sorry, Santiago Ramón Cajal, he has a quote that I loved.
That’s something like, from afar it looks as if they are dissipating their energies when in fact they are channeling and strengthening them. It’s striking to read Nobel acceptance speeches in recent years, which I did a lot of, and see that almost every year, a scientist who’s accepting an award says something to the effect of, I wouldn’t be able to do my research now because you have to be so narrow in looking for applications. That strikes me as something that’s worrisome.
Brett McKay: No, we can talk about that in a minute. I like this idea that these are individuals who have gone deep in one area, but they continue that breadth. I think there’s that guy from the design school, IDEO calls him like T-shaped people.
David Epstein: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: They’ve got the vertical going up and down is the depth, and then they have the horizontal part of the T, which is breadth.
David Epstein: Totally. There’s … That comes up in range in a section about inventors where this woman who rose up to what’s called corporate scientists of the company, 3M. Corporate scientist is like the highest title. She talks about how she’s never … People kept telling her not to change directions and she’s basically never worked in anything she was educated for. What she does is she knows how to draw on her peers in order to assemble the I part of the T essentially. She’s very broad. She basically spends their time figuring out what everyone else is doing. She’s obviously very science literate. She has a PhD, just doesn’t work in her own area, and makes sure to know what everyone else around her is doing and uses them to help cobble together the trunk of the T, but her contribution is more like the crossbar of the T. She and other people like her have been able to use that kind of breadth with a grounding in a certain area, and also drawing on other specialists to be really high impact.
I think that’s why you see in some of the research I cite that the highest impact inventors are not the deepest specialists, but the inventors who do have an area of expertise where they have some depth. Then they spread their career over the largest number of different classes of technologies as defined by the patent office basically.
Brett McKay: I want to talk about one more thing in terms of fit, because I think it’s very counterintuitive and it goes against what you hear growing up as a kid, and is this idea that you should never quit anything. Once you start something, you got to see it through. You have to develop grit, which there has been a lot of talk about Angela Duckworth in her research in her book. This idea of finding fit, finding that and you’re dabbling till you find the thing that you’re good at and that that’s made for you that requires you, you’re going to have to quit stuff.
David Epstein: I think one of the underlying messages of range is, when you find fit, it will look like grit. I think we’ve made a mistake in the way we think about the study of personality, where we look at what people are now and assume that’s who they are. We change not only over time, but with context. I think in emerging promising area of the study of personality studies, what’s called if then signatures. Where you might say if David is at a massive party, he’s an introvert. If David is with his team, small team at work, then he’s an extrovert. It’s turning out that personality is much more complicated and that we look different in different scenarios. The same for grit or conscientiousness it’s like the psychological construct of conscientiousness, where if you get fit, it’ll look like you have grit.
The same with the musicians, where they weren’t practiceaholics until they found an instrument that really fit their skills and their interests, and then they became practiceaholics. The study of … The famous studies of grit, all involve subjects really short-term. It’s like people trying to get through six weeks of physical rigors at the US military academy, or kids who are already in the final, the National Spelling Bee and trying to get farther. The studies are always done on a very select population of people who have a very narrow, well-defined, very short-term goal right in front of them. The problem has been we’ve extrapolated that to all of life where it doesn’t make as much sense. Where a lot of the research shows what you want to do is constantly be evaluating your opportunities. Steven Levitt, I quote him saying, well, one of his main talents, the freakonomics economist as people know him. One of his main talents is been to identify when he should abandon a project or a whole domain of study and move to another one.
That motivated him to do a study of job quitting. He found that when people are thinking about quitting, basically they should because they move on to something that’s a better fit. Seth Godin, that’s given some of the most popular career advice ever I think says, not only should you be willing to quit, not just because something is hard. You don’t want to quit just because something’s hard. When you start something, you should basically always have in mind criteria under which you would decide to quit. I think while preaching, grit is incredibly intuitively appealing. I critique the science of grit at a lot more length in range, but I think the way that we’ve extrapolated what it means does not comport with a huge body of research on how people find the areas where they can become the most productive and fulfilled.
Brett McKay: You might not be telling world-class gritting yourself into something you’re not a fit for. Once you find yourself that is a fit for you, the grit will just come naturally because actual you want to do it, and then you can become a world-class because you’re just riding that wave of internal motivation.
David Epstein: That’s right, and you can think about, things that were viewed by parents as the total opposite of grit, maybe not so long ago, like playing lots of video games, now our careers where they’ve drawn enough interest from people that may not have that grit in other areas. I was a college athlete, and there were … I think it’s demonstrably false that grit is just a stable characteristic in people. There were people who were … I was a track athlete, 800 meter runner, and there were guys I trained with who are absolute competitive demons would claw your head off in a race. Who had not a sign of competitiveness … Not a competitive bone in their body when it came to the classroom and vice versa. I think we all recognize these things, but we don’t really have good shared language for talking about them. We don’t think very deeply about them.
Brett McKay: Again, if you’re a 20 something, don’t feel bad if you’re going to make a change in your manger, or you decide you’re going to quit law school. Because after the first semester then you realize, I don’t like law. Even if you’re 30 or 40 and you decide to quit your job, do something else. That’s okay. It might actually … It probably will turn out better for you.
David Epstein: It’s psychologically unsettling. It’s riskier, as the Dark Horse Project researchers say. It’s riskier to stick with that long-term goal before you really have sampled enough to formulate a good one than it is to abandon it. We always feel like we’re in a rush, but I think you notice as you get a little older, you weren’t in as much of a rush as you think you are. It’s well worth it to put in a little bit of time investment in figuring out who you are and where you can make the biggest impact. I do this going forward. I started what I call a book of experiments where there are things like, and in 2018, one of my experience was I spent some time volunteering. I wanted to figure out where could I make the biggest impact and where would I learn the most. I spread my time over about a half dozen different organizations, that year found the two where I think I can actually contribute uniquely and also learn something, and now I’m focusing on those.
I’m now based on the research that went into the book, constantly running experiments. Setting up experiences in a way where I have a hypothesis. The experience can help me test that, reflecting on it and then just keep zigzagging and triangulating my way to a place where I think I can uniquely succeed and feel good about what I’m doing.
Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about, so this idea of range on an individual level, you want to dabble in lots of things so you can find fit. That means you’re going to have quit things. Once you’re learning something, you want the learning in the beginning to be hard, not easy. Because if it’s easy, it means you’re probably not learning. I want to go back to something you said about … You read all these acceptance speeches from Nobel Prize winners. I want to talk about how this idea of specialization and downplaying the importance of range is affecting us on a broader skill. You highlight research or just ideas from Nobel Prize winners that our specialization that we’ve been doing, our hyper specialization we’ve been doing in science and in other areas, it’s actually preventing breakthroughs from coming through. They’re actually diminishing over time.
David Epstein: You can see that even as funding has gone up, breakthroughs have not basically, have gone backward. You can also see this in outcomes. We cared more about even and then breakthroughs. We’re the most medically advanced country in the world and life expectancy is going backward, the same thing in the UK. What these scientists highlight is, and some of them study the science of science. Like how can we have good science get done? What they find is basically that you don’t want to force people to be too narrow. You basically, we’ve created a system where we’re so focused on applications that we require people to narrow their research such that they can quickly come up with applications, and that’s when they’re applying for grants. That is pretty much exactly contradictory to the history of science in where impactful discoveries come from.
They typically come from someone who has some question, they’re curious about there. There may not be any real clear application. Just in investigating that question leads to these huge breakthroughs. Because the biggest breakthroughs tend to come where you don’t really know what the right question is. You have to allow people to explore pretty broadly. The problem we have now as one of the characters in the last chapter, is this guy who’s is arguably the most influential immunologist in the world. He’s starting a program that’s meant to de-specialize the education of future scientists. Because he says what we have now is what he calls a system of parallel trenches where everyone is in their own little trench and they’re not usually standing up and looking at what’s going on in the next trench, even though that’s where their answer is. What he’s seen in immunology is everyone is studying one tiny part of a complex system in such isolation that we’ve failed to understand how these systems work and connect ideas.
You can write a grant that is for the study of some system of the body and you can’t even get it funded because the people who are reviewing it only know about one little aspect. Say, well, we don’t really know about the rest of that. What we really … The world is divided up into disciplines. Not because that’s the way we divide the world into disciplines. Not because that’s the way the world really is. It’s a necessary evil for just categorizing the studies we do. We’re in the place of putting the world back together after we study things in individual disciplines. I think what he and other scientists who are paying attention to this want to do is make interdisciplinary research, interdisciplinary thinking systematic because the world is interdisciplinary and we’re going in the wrong direction on that as we force people to be more and more narrow. They see a smaller and smaller part of complex systems.
Brett McKay: Do think there’s hope? Is that a growing idea or growing movement within science that we need to get interdisciplinary if we want to make breakthroughs, or people are really entrenched in their little silo?
David Epstein: I think there are people like that. Scientist name is Arturo Casadevall who are so prominent in their area that they are bringing some attention to it, but I still think it’s going against the grain. I went to a panel that he was on about … There’s a thing going on in science right now called the replication crisis. That has to do with a huge number of scientific findings turn out not to be true basically. Part of the reason for that, Arturo, argues is because of this certain type of specialization where people are doing science before they’ve really been taught the broader concepts of how scientific thinking should even work so they essentially don’t know what they’re doing and end up with bad results. By the way, in the book, I confess to the fact that when I was a science grad student, I did the same thing. I didn’t realize it until much later when I was a journalist writing about bad science, just disappointing.
Arturo is on this panel talking about how we need to specialize science education. The editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, arguably the most prominent medical journal in the world says, no, you can’t do that. There’s already, it already takes way too much time in education for students to become MDs or PhDs. We can’t add time with this broader conceptual stuff and having them do things that aren’t exactly where they’re going to work. Arturo’s response was, yeah, get rid of all that didactic stuff that we teach them that goes in one ear and out the other ear in two weeks anyway, and that they can find on their phone. What we’ve got, he said is a bunch of people walking around with all the world’s knowledge on their phone and no ability to integrate it. His feeling was, you can get rid of that stuff. Our tools, our information finding tools have allowed us not to worry as much about teaching that didactic stuff because we can find it.
Meanwhile, we’ve skipped over teaching people the broader concepts of how to even do science, and its helped land us in this replication crisis where it’s turning out that most scientific findings are probably not true. Because I was a grad student at Columbia University, which is obviously a reputable institution and skipped straight to learning the particulars of Arctic plant physiology before I learned how science and statistics actually work for me to draw a true conclusions. I have published research out there now that I’m quite sure would fall to the replication crisis if someone tried to replicate it.
Brett McKay: Well, it’s probably an example of learning a procedure shallowly, superficially. You do it and then you get the … It looks like science, but not really.
David Epstein: The thing is, one of now with computers, anyone can get a huge data set and run statistical programs on it and you’ll come up with some positive results. The fact is, like myself, most of the scientists out there don’t really understand what they’re doing when they’re running those statistical tests, because we’ve never even been taught to think about it basically. Again, only as a journalist was I made to reflect on what I’ve been doing in the past. That’s what I think Arturo wants to do. Is he wants to teach thinking, and that’s what James Flynn of the Flynn effect suggests in the second chapter, is we have to teach these varieties of thinking. Otherwise, none of this didactic information and procedures really make sense anywhere except for these incredibly narrow applications.
Brett McKay: Well, David, there’s a lot more we could talk about because there’s so much more in this book. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
David Epstein: Davidepstein.com. The description of the book and some early reviews up there, and I think it’s … And some other work and it should be hopefully available in your favorite bookseller.
Brett McKay: David Epstein. Thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
David Epstein: Pleasure is mine.
Brett McKay: Like I said, it was David Epstein. He’s the author of the book Range. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Also, check out my previous interview with David. It’s episode number 127. It’s about his book, the Sports Gene. Check out our show notes aom.is/range where you find links to resources. We can delve deeper in this topic. Also check out David’s website, davidepstein.com where you can find more information about his work. Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, with over 500 there, as well as thousands of articles written over the year about personal finance, health and fitness, style. How to be a better husband, better father, you name it, we’ve got it. If you’d like to check out ad free episodes of the Art of Manliness, you can do so only on Stitcher premium, so you can get a free month of the Stitcher premium when you sign up at stitcherpremium.com and use promo code manliness.
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