Broad Knowledge “Prepares Us for the Wickedly Unanticipated”

(p. A13) In his latest book, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” Mr. Epstein makes a well-supported and smoothly written case on behalf of breadth and late starts.

. . .

The book blends anecdotal stories with summaries of academic studies. Many of these studies upend standard-issue advice about finding one’s way in life. We are introduced to the “Dark Horse Project,” based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which has collected the oral histories of highly accomplished individuals who took circuitous paths to achievement. The researchers were surprised by how many such individuals, in disparate fields, they were able to find. “What was even more incredible,” said one principal member of the project, “is that they all thought they were the anomaly.”

. . .

Not all of the chapters speak directly to range. In “Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools,” we learn that many cardiologists are unwilling to forsake their use of stents, despite clear evidence that stents are not only ineffective in preventing cardiac events but also introduce fresh risks of complications. It’s sobering to learn that a 2015 study showed that patients suffering cardiac arrest were less likely to die if they were admitted to a hospital when such cardiologists were unavailable to install the devices.

. . .

The chapter titled “Deliberate Amateurs” is a delight, permitting us to spend time with some exemplars in science and medicine who have stepped outside of their cozy professional nests. One such exemplar is Arturo Casadevall, the chair of the molecular microbiology and immunology program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. A much-cited scientist, Dr. Casadevall has led an overhaul of the curriculum at his school to help broaden the education of specialists. Philosophy, history, logic and ethics are incorporated into interdisciplinary classes. “How Do We Know What Is True?” is one of the course offerings. On the wall in Dr. Casadevall’s office, along with the certificate commemorating his election to the National Academy of Medicine, hangs a community-college degree in pest control, the “practical” expertise his father pressed Dr. Casadevall to acquire.

The advice that Dr. Casadevall dispenses to junior colleagues is “read outside your field, everyday something.” If the world were a kinder learning environment, this would not be needed. But as David Epstein shows us, cultivating range prepares us for the wickedly unanticipated.

For the full review, see:

Randall Stross. “BOOKSHELF; Late Bloomers Bloom Best.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, May 29, 2019): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 28, 2019, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Range’ Review: Late Bloomers Bloom Best; Late specialization demonstrably helped Roger Federer, Vincent van Gogh and Charles Darwin. It can serve the rest of us well, too.”)

The book under review is:

Epstein, David. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019.

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