*Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World*

That is the new book by David Epstein, the author of the excellent The Sports Gene.  I sometimes say that generalists are the most specialized people of them all, so specialized they can’t in fact do anything.  Except make observations of that nature.  Excerpt:

In an impressively insightful image, Tetlock described the very best forecasters as foxes with dragonfly eyes.  Dragonfly eyes are composed of tens of thousands of lenses, each with a different perspective, which are then synthesized in the dragonfly’s brain.

I am not sure Epstein figures out what a generalist really is (and how does a generalist differ from a polymath, by the way?), but this book is the best place to start for thinking about the relevant issues.


The Norton link is an interesting one. DaVinci is usually the first that comes to mind but his achievements have been less than impressive, mostly in the arts, and not as encyclopedic. I always believed Benjamin Franklin should have the honor as the quintessential Renaissance man except he missed the Renaissance by a few hundred years. Who today qualifies as a polymath?

There are no modern day polymaths. The track to specialization in even one field takes too long. Youtube also deflates any would-be experts when countless videos of 8 years old doing anything better than you ever could.

I take it you don't know many geologists.

Unless I'm missing something, geologists aren't polymaths but rather specialists.

Thanks for finally writing about >*Range: Why Generalists
Triumph in a Specialized World* - Marginal REVOLUTION <Liked it!

I'd say Cowen is close to a polymath except there are rumors that he got a B+ in Real Analysis.

He's not into the arts or the sciences as a producer. He's good at staying on top of current events though.

Not really, he's a human Google News I'd say

Benjamin Franklin invented a musical instrument, the armonica, that was quite popular in Europe for half a century. Mozart and Beethoven composed for it:


Biographies of Ben Franklin take on a comic tone toward the end as in his old age he keeps going from triumph to triumph and innovation to innovation. It affected his religious views: he'd been close to an atheist as a young man, but looking back at the ridiculous number of successes he'd enjoyed in his life, he concluded that Somebody up there must like him.

The difference is that generalists actually exist in the modern world and no one fetishizes them.

Yes, we're called consultants ;)

There are many consultants that are also specialists.

True, but a good consultant is specialize at A, but understands how it interacts with B, C, D, and E. A lot of people specialize in A.

The best consultants have at one time had the job title of their customer.

If you specialized in A, I expect you to know how it interacts with everything else. Do your consultants work in a vacuum?

"I expect ..." Good luck with that. About the top 25% actually do.

I don't like the word "fetishizes", but I'm sure that's how you would describe the fans of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Donald Knuth, to name a few of my favorite generalists.

Clayton Christensen was one until he got sick and coming out of that switched to the spiritual. He identified the true drivers of innovation, and the paradox that the profit motive used by innovators to get funding must never be rewarded with profits. Innovators must screw over their backers by never stopping innovation to create the scarcity of innovation to generate profits.

Clayton Christensen makes it clear manufacturing is the key, at least to me, and Elon Musk has been saying for a few years that manufacturing is the hardest thing to do and that building factories is the only way to progress.

This is contrary to 99% of economists theory of innovation, success, "wealth creation", today. But not to, say, Henry Ford, a great generalist who changed the world.

'so specialized they can’t in fact do anything.'

Time to enjoy watching the specialists tear that observation apart. Or will it be generalists that have the most fun?

I saw an article that showed generalists < specialists < AI. The 'greater than' means slightly more accurate, like 80% confidence interval (t-value 1.282) , 95% (1.96), 99.9% (3.291).

Bonus trivia: Oprah Winfrey sidekick and DC native Gayle King, who makes $10M a year as a CBS morning show anchor, said something really stupid as I walked by the TV today. She said that when she hears a rumor about sexual harassment against a man, she understands that rumors should not be trusted, men are not monsters, but that at the same time there's a "99.9% chance" (I heard her mention this figure) that where there's smoke there must be fire and that probably the rumor is accurate. Imagine that, t-value 3.291 says this budding rocket scientist for #MeToo rumors. So I asked a female relative: do you think that arresting Boston celebrity chef Mario Batali recently for an alleged groping TWO YEARS after it happened is fair? She said: "well, he had sex with a corpse so there must be something to him being a pervert". Doh! I didn't know that. Gotta watch more TMZ.

So, it is a clock worn orange that will have the most fun then?

Research shows that gossip serves a useful purpose (cooperation, self-improvement, etc.). Since rumor is gossip's cousin, maybe rumor does too. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/have-you-heard-gossip-is-actually-good-and-useful/382430/

Specialists are the heroes, but it's generalists who make the world go around.

Can you give an example of generalists that the world depends on? To me specialists are the ones adding to civilization with new inventions, ideas, and ways of doing things.

Is Zuckerberg a specialist or a generalist? What about Bezos? Merkel was a specialist in mathematics, I think, not in government

Zuck's speciality is obviously business operations.

No! Feeding addiction. Spreading addiction.

The world pretty much entirely depends on mother’s being generalists.

Motherhood could be seen as a specialty. This whole specialty versus generalist debate is just nonsense. No one can define nor find good examples of one or the other.

From my experience:
Most generalists in science take leadership/general cosultation postitions. For example, I was studying in a Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology in the Faculty of Molecular Biology and Physics. I studied mostly applied chemistry and biology, while also having lessons on physics, programming and statistics (for the capability of modelling chemical processes). My bachelor and magisters were done in field of genetics and spectroscopical detection systems. Since then I have studied management, economics and patent law as well. I would say I can qualify as "generalist". In all of these fields I am by no means the best, but I am competent in all of these fields.

How do I apply my many competent (but not the best) skills? I am a head of a scientific group in a pharma company. Since I know a lot of different methods, I can understand what many different smaller groups are doing and move their work towards a common goal.

Generalists are not great geniuses, who become the first in any field, but they can take in a lot of information, process it and have some long going conclusions. I am unsure, how that role will change with new technologies (it become harder and harder to be a generalist, who is competent in anything and big data analysis might negate this role at all).

A slight change in priorities, some luck, and you could become a famous generalist, like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, ...

The priority change might be improving the health of the most people by driving down the costs of the best of the existing drugs. You might well succeed in giving a pitch to Bill Gates, Bezos, Buffett, and get the resources to build high volume flexible factories to produce "generics", like saline to insulin analogues to beta blockers, ie 80-90% of the mediical supplies consumed by labor costs.

Building factories to produce medical consumables requires great generalists like you.

To succeed you need to be a genius at getting the money needed to pay the right workers to build the factories that address every single issue you not only know first hand, but can imagine and then articulate.

Fail to address one issue and you might fail. Might be making sure your suppliers aren't cheating, or that moving from mixing intermediates in 50kg batches to 500kg batches still creates a uniform mix or does not result in too much heat that damages the active ingredients.

Speaking of great generalists looks like Boris Johnson is going to be stepping in as our new PM. Finally we can get serious about Brexit and get the job done!

Depend on who "our" includes

Once again an American, presumably, fails to mimic British English. Tine-eared, I suppose, or mutton-headed.

But the sock puppet is clearly TYPING what does that have to do with having a “tin ear”. He’s not mimicking an accent. You are really a dumb-dumb.

Even dreary old feminist supporters like me must wonder whether such an inadequate got so far by having sexual privilege extended to her: the “we need more woman in cabinet” argument. It’s quite a feat, after all, to be a worse P.M. than Gordon Brown. It’s setting the bar far too low to say that she wasn’t as dreadful a P.M. as Toni Blair.

There should be a Conversation with him.

The excerpt shows a lack of understanding of the dragonfly eyes. Each lens has only one sensor. In our eyes, there is one lens with multiple sensors. The overall function is similar. Sometimes generalists just misunderstand the details.

I believe compound eyes allow insects to "adjust" focus (actually, maybe they are somehow perceiving multiple depths of field simultaneously), since they don't have deformable lenses

If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

Yer actual generalist should be able to identify the problem, and so identify the actual specialist required to solve it.

This needs a book?


It also turns out that if you are a nail, everything looks like a hammer, but I am not sure how that is relevant here

Well, you clearly fail.

Very few problems can be fixed by one specialist.

One specialist can move the problem.

Which is why so much fails in the US but succeeds in Asia, Germany, northern Europe. There the generalist gets a lot of specialists working together fiinding problems to solve collectively. They are rewarded for finding problem more than for fixing them. Measured by longer more comprehensive customer warranty and satisfaction at lower customer service costs.

Lawyers are professional generalists (many of them anyway). That's why many CEOs and diplomats are lawyers. For those who don't understand the role of lawyers, when they take on a client, they have to learn the particulars of the client's business. For example, a lawyer who represents radiologists has to learn the particulars of the radiology practice (no, not radiology, but the radiology practice). Similarly, a lawyer who represents citrus growers has to learn the particulars of the citrus industry (no, not how to grow the best fruit, but the business of growing fruit). That's the role of what was once called the "counselor". Today, many lawyers are highly specialized and don't really serve in that role. But many still do: they are the sages of the law practice, who are sought out by businesses for their wise and judicious advice.

The contemporary equivalent to the wise and judicious lawyer is (and this hurts) the venture capitalist/banker. They have to be the Jack of all trades, master of none. Cowen is familiar with that role of the venture capitalist/banker. I am familiar with the role played by the banker who was responsible for the IPOs of many of the highly successful tech firms. His advice wasn't so much to find the buyers for the shares, but to guide the firms through the development stage and into and beyond the IPO stage, giving strategic advice along the way.

If you're talking about a General Counsel, the term 'generalist" is in the title. Law school provides a general education. A GC is basically being a lawyer, contracts, regulations, reducing/controlling legal risk. If it gets crazy, then you seek out other members of your team or outside experts. To be successful at it, you need to understand the business (like you said), be curious, develop relationships, take complex issues and make them simple, and over time, as you build up your team, you delegate to other team members or outside counsel.

I thought most CEOs were engineers.

Disruptors are engineers.

Behind the monopolists are lawyers.

Lawyers try to block engineers from building anything. Engineers building capital destroy what lawyers call "wealth".

Two definitions of wealth.

Engineers see factories as wealth, so they build more factories.

Lawyers see owning scarcity of factories as wealth, thus they use the law to block building factories.

Thus Elon Musk building factories and giving away the IP on what the factories produce to increase total global production, vs the lawyers of Qualcomm and Apple fighting to block factories from producing stuff so neither needs to build a single factory.

Most CEOs are MBAs. Business is the hard part. Engineering is the easy part.

Related example of Charlie Munger as an "expert generalist":


But, it was also Munger who said at the last Berkshire annual meeting that the best way for success for "the vast majority of humanity" is to specialize.

Rephrase to "it's probably better if you can see the forest and not merely the trees."

"how does a generalist differ from a polymath?"

Does the latter risk, perhaps even seek, information overload?

There is a base of knowledge you need to, say, grow a reliable crop of backyard tomatoes each year. After that should you really immerse yourself in risky, novel, new methods? And more?

A generalist has working knowledge, that works, and that's enough.

I thought that the Mormons outlawed polymaths

I gravitate to the concept of "deep generalist."

In my experience as a deep generalist, the world seems to be made for specialists to dazzle people with their BS. (Think of the voice-over speech in Bull Durham "the world is made for those not cursed with self-awareness.") Generalists are the Kevin Costner's, catching and hitting day in day out, while the hot new specialists come and go.

But in my view, specialists is the same thing as careerist, and as soon as you have a specialty to defend, you start getting a little pathological and entrenched, and have to spend a lot of energy protecting your rightness.

As a generalist, my only claim is openness and effectiveness. And I will get there any way that works. And I know when I need to call in an expert to do an expert thing.

The other observation is that most people think their little corner of the world is so damn special and different. But as the saying goes: there's really only seven stories in the world, and they were all told already by the Greeks.

3. Disgusting piles of trash, feces, and corpses up there and Dismaland lines, no thanks. This would have made a great accompaniment:


I started making fun of "polymath" when I saw it used, more than once, by the NYT Style section to refer to someone who had a record contract and a clothing line.

I wonder how much of this conversation plays into the relevance of a liberal arts education? For far too long, the liberal arts has been displaced by the hard math and sciences as irrelevant, useless, amidst other namecalling.

Is there more of a place for the liberal arts today?

Yes, we need baristas now more than ever.

[sorry, couldn't resist]

The thing about experts vs. generalists is that the generalists can see the connections between the different fields. As an expert you might be burrowing in your field, deeper and deeper, and not realize that a person in a different field is working on similar ideas, but from a different perspective. A generalist should be able to see these things and sort of cross-pollinate.

However, being a specialist and a generalist are not always necessarily mutually exclusive. The best thing is if you are specialist in let's say one field (maybe not the world leading authority, but good enough), but also have a wide overview of other different fields as well. That way you can pull relevant things from other fields and then enhance your own.

Comments for this post are closed