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Live a panoramic life: breadth is better than depth

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein is my new favorite book. With stories from sports, education, music, art, aviation, science, business, and the military, this book provides a look at how people approach problems and how narrow focus can significantly reduce their chances for success. Its compelling ideas and evidence about entrenchment and stubbornness in work and life apply to our approach to aging in many ways.

Starting with the Tiger Woods/Roger Federer theories of sports development, Epstein explains the difference between “kind” and “wicked” learning environments. In a kind environment, there are patterns and specific, quick feedback. There are rules to the game and mostly correct/incorrect procedure. But in a wicked environment, there may be no rules, or they change constantly. You may not be able to successfully do the same thing over and over, but you may not get any timely feedback to learn that. Aging is a wicked environment.

“Deep analogical thinking is the practice of recognizing conceptual similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that may seem to have little in common on the surface. It is a powerful tool for solving wicked problems.”

Superficial similarities are not the best analogies to use for decision-making or trying to predict the future. People tend to focus on the “internal details” of the situation rather than looking at seemingly unrelated problems. “Analogical thinking takes the new and makes it familiar or takes the familiar and puts it in a new light, and allows humans to reason through problems they have never seen in unfamiliar contexts,” Epstein writes.

Psychologist Dedre Gentner created an “Ambiguous Sort Task” to test the ability to categorize for deep structure rather than the domain. For example, Federal Reserve interest rate changes and economic bubbles are both in the financial domain; but, the human sweating process and interest rate changes are both negative feedback loops (see page 114 for a better explanation). In her testing, the only students who performed well on common deep structure were those who participated in the Integrated Science Program. Those students were taught biology, chemistry, physics, and math together rather than focusing on one science.

One of the most intriguing stories in the book is about the work of Russian psychologist Alexander Luria. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union forced social and economic change for its population. During the process, Luria found rural inhabitants so isolated and illiterate that they were considered premodern people. Luria’s work is fascinating. When asked to sort yarn into like groups, they had no method, responding “none of them are the same.” According to Epstein, “premodern people miss the forest for the trees; modern people miss the trees for the forest.”

Match Quality

Epstein examined the perils of early career specialization. The British school system promotes specialization from the beginning of its university programs. Scottish students take two years of general courses before they decide their focus. Economist Ofer Malamud looked at the outcomes of both systems. His results showed that “exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.”

Match quality describes how well people fit with their jobs based on their ability and likes. It is common to discover that your college major leads to a career that doesn’t suit you. After working so hard and gaining experience in a particular field, our “sunk cost” makes it difficult to change careers. The Army began using match quality theory to keep its officers from quitting at the end of their service commitment after discovering that paying bonuses was not enough motivation.

Sunk cost applies to most activities. Epstein cites Seth Godin’s philosophy that it’s crucial to stay “attuned to whether switching is simply a failure of perseverance or astute recognition that better matches are available.” I used to think I liked skiing. Then I realized that I didn’t like heights, going fast, or cold, and my favorite part of the activity was removing the skis. I let go of my sunk cost in skis, boots, poles, and clothing. Waiting for the family at the lodge was a better fit.

Match quality is not only relevant to those in their early careers. Organizational behaviorist Herminia Ibarra studied career switchers. She found that “we maximize match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives.”

People tend to believe that although they are much different than they were a decade ago, it’s unlikely that they will change much in the future, according to Psychologist Dan Gilbert. As we age, we need to analyze what has changed, and if our activities still fit our personality and situation.

Epstein’s book is also a valuable read for parents, and I highly recommend it. There are chapters with research on education and career choices. A better understanding of how we learn and problem-solve benefits us in every stage of life.

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