We sometimes trust our intuition a bit too much and are unwilling to budge. David Epstein (author of Range) values a willingness to budge:
If there’s anything identified with being a good generalist it’s epistemic humility. You have to be humble and ready to update your models. These questions that I’ve written about in my book: the balance of nature and nurture in developing a skill, how broad or specialized to be. Everyone has these conversations explicitly or implicitly—and usually only with their intuition.
- “I’m in the beer industry, not the software industry”: Epstein and Levitt talk about how students sometimes can’t see how lessons in one industry can be applied in another industry.
- Building storytelling taste: Epstein says he’ll lean toward following his curiosity. This helped early in his career to make a shift at Sports Illustrated. Pursue what’s interesting and exciting to yourself.
Epstein and Levitt use stories to share nonfiction ideas. The reverse is useful as well—a writer can use nonfiction expertise in their fictional stories.
Epstein shares an example in Range:
Fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss began studying chemical engineering in college, which “led to a revelation that chemical engineering is boring.” He then spent nine years bouncing between majors “before being kindly asked to graduate already.” After that, according to his official bio, “Patrick went to grad school. He’d rather not talk about it.” Meanwhile, he was slowly working on a novel.
- Back of the envelope estimation: Learning to do some back of the napkin estimation helps you improve gut instincts. Guesstimate.
The professor later explained that these were “Fermi problems,” because Enrico Fermi—who created the first nuclear reactor beneath the University of Chicago football field—constantly made back-of-the-envelope estimates to help him approach problems.* The ultimate lesson of the question was that detailed prior knowledge was less important than a way of thinking.
They also talk about the 10,000 hour rule and their conversations with Malcolm Gladwell.
- 10,000 hours (or not): Epstein talks about following his skepticism here. There’s a wide range depending on what you’re trying to learn. His own experience came in his training for 800-meter races. He was a walk-on athlete in college and excelled in his Junior year after a few years of training. One narrative could be that he worked harder than his more talented peers. But he says he was likely an example of low-baseline high-responder. There was more room for improvement.
- Debating with Gladwell: Epstein and Gladwell shared the stage a couple times at the Sloan conference—2014 and then again in 2019. (I’ve listened to the 2019 one but I’ll listen to the 2014 one soon.) In 2019, Gladwell talks about how he conflated two things: lots of practice (true) + early specialization (false). In any case, both Epstein and Levitt talk about the importance of being willing to learn and willing to update your models.
How do you be a good generalist? Be willing to learn and update your models. How do you be a great generalist? Share what you learn and help others update their models:
So the highest goal I have is: can I bring some stories and research to those conversations and make them more interesting and productive. And help people update their mental models. I’m certainly going to keep updating mine, and that’s kind of the best I can hope for.
Epstein’s done a great job of it with his books.
A skill worth putting 10,000 hours into: high brow infotainment. Read research, wrap ‘em up in stories.