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Breadth first

The book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”, by David Epstein (2019).

Our world is becoming more complex with an abundance of available information and global networks linking organizations and people with each other.

In the face of rising demands, you might choose to quickly specialize. David Epstein, a journalist, argues in his new book for the opposite approach. Himself clearly a generalist (a former scientist working as sports journalist and writer) he wrote this clever book arguing in favor of being a generalist.

Wielding an alphabet soup of one-letter abbreviations for different types of specializations (I shaped, T shaped, Pi shaped or L shaped), he draws on a wide range of studies, analogies and biographies to make his case. Soviet scientists, musicians without formal training and Japanese inventors appear in his well-written narrative. He shows how successful people were curious about developments in adjacent fields and how they frequently changed tracks ignoring sunk costs.

He emphasizes the need for maximizing match quality which is the quality of the fit between what you do and what you are good at and enjoy doing. So aim for activities that have high “exploration value” for yourself - new situations in which you find out what you enjoy and what you’re good at. Assign high values to “real options”, so prefer the possibility to change your mind later.


Epstein focuses mostly on people’s jobs, so what they do in their work. But that’s only one side of the coin, the other side is what people consume and what they do in their spare time. Here, too, you can be more generalist or more specialized.

You can do what other people do, watch the same movies, plan your vacations at the same places, but increasingly people do the opposite. Researchers have documented a rise in “niche consumption”, so people are enjoying rising product varieties thus more intensely tickling their taste buds.


What Epstein doesn’t quite explain is why some people become generalists and others don’t. Why are some people more curious and creative, more accepting of uncertainty?

One explanation might be a person’s personality. In the Big 5 personality model , the “openness to experience” trait might be a good predictor. But I find it unlikely (and it would be uninspiring) if personality (or “talent”) was the sole reason for people to become particularly productive or innovative.

I think another candidate are external factors that just happen and force people to change what they do.

A case in point is the situation studied by Shaun Larcom, Ferdinand Rauch, Tim Willems. In their paper (pdf), they study what happened around the 2014 tube strike in London:

  • During a two day period, some of the underground connections were closed. Travelers had to find different routes through the system. And these exist: For example there are 13 reasonable ways of traveling from King’s Cross to Waterloo.
  • The strike only affected the tube network, so travelers might also have switched to taking the bus, walking, riding a bike or taking a taxi.
  • The authors tracked 17 thousand travelers whom they classified as commuters and for whom they have 20 working days of data.
  • They show that many commuters found a better route during these days of forced experimentation, which they stuck with even after the strike ended. They estimate that around 5% of commuters did not travel on their optimal route before the strike occurred. They even show that the loss of time during the strike is easily compensated by later time savings from having found a better route.

You could also phrase the findings of Larcom et al. as follows: They gained range in their knowledge of the transport network and that’s why they improved their commuting habits.


Epstein himself ends with an optimistic message and writes that we should not become discouraged:

[O]ne sentence of advice: Don’t feel behind. […] Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help. […] [Focus on] match quality, start planning experiments. Your personal version of Friday night or Saturday morning experiments, perhaps. […] Finally, remember that there is nothing inherently wrong with specialization. We all specialize to one degree or another, at some point or other.

In computer science, breadth-first is a design pattern to describe an algorithm which first tries many different paths and later digs deeper. I think it’s a fitting metaphor to plan a career - and maybe a life.