Creating Range Through Exploration

By Kevin Meyer Updated on June 6th, 2019


Last weekend I powered through David Epstein’s new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. The book has received rave reviews from the likes of Daniel Pink, who calls it “an essential read for bosses, parents, coaches, and anyone who cares about improving performance.”  Through numerous stories and data, Epstein’s primary premise is that generalists triumph over specialists.

I dove into work showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident – a dangerous combination. An internationally renowned scientist [later introduced in the book] told me that increasing specialization has created a “system of parallel trenches” in the quest for innovation.  Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem resides there.

Epstein directly takes on those (ahem, Tim Ferris…) who propose spending ten thousand hours to become a supposed expert in something.  I found the book to be a breath of fresh air from all the “get smart quick” self help books, and he includes data-driven concepts applicable to a wide array of personal and professional situations.  He even spends considerable time on how it applies to raising children, and Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic has a great review of the book from that particular perspective.  In an interview, Epstein says the issues with children and sports is what originally led him to research this topic.

There’s a lengthy discussion on learning speed, with initial success being seen as failure, that will resonate with those of us in the lean world.

I was stunned when cognitive psychologists I spoke with led me to an enormous and too often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress.  That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.

An underlying theme throughout the book is that we should feel free to explore alternatives, even if there is no ultimate goal or objective, as that creates “range” – a wide breadth of experience.  This range creates understanding and the ability to connect concepts, which becomes a powerful tool.

Over the past couple years I have become a big fan of kata.  Originally I thought of it as simply another manifestation of basic PDSA, but have come to understand how it connects and resonates with everyday users (even school kids!) and therefore creates meaningful improvement in almost any situation.  I use it daily, professionally and personally.

There has been one aspect of kata that troubles me, however, and that is the requirement that it is driven by a defined vision of a future state.  I know that this is what creates focus, and is the linchpin that anchors the iterative improvement experiments.  One of my favorite Yogi Berra quotes has always been “if you don’t know where you are going, you might end up someplace else.”  It is intended to reinforce the need for a direction and a purpose.

But what if that “someplace else” has more ultimate value than the place I thought I wanted to be?  Does a focus on a goal or defined future state create a form of narrow-mindedness that prevents seeing other opportunities?  Is that a downside to focus, clarity, and purpose?

The reality is we need both.  Problems can be resolved and opportunities achieved by developing a clear future state and methodically working toward it.  But leapfrog innovation can also occur by intentionally exploring into the unknown.

Epstein defines simply “trying something” as an “experiment.”  The purist engineer in me would argue that is not really experimentation.  A scientific experiment, by definition, has a reason and a hypothesis with an expected outcome, and the gap to what actually happened is then reflected on and becomes the foundation for the next experiment.  Trying something is probably more “exploration” – although I guess an argument could also be made that the general hypothesis is that there may be “potential value” in the activity – either unknown at the time or inherent in the range it creates.

In hindsight I think one of the most valuable things my parents did was give me a lot of unstructured free time (long before the internet…!) to explore – which I used both for good and, admittedly, sometimes for evil – with corresponding consequences.  It also taught me how to self-entertain, and therefore I have never really experienced boredom – something that seems to quickly afflict many overstimulated phone/TV/etc. people these days.

Children and adults are often pushed to persevere in order to build character and tenacity in the face of adversity.  Epstein says it is equally important to know when to quit, and to have the courage to do so, and this can lead to improved happiness – arguably a more valuable long-term result.  The more you explore the more you must be willing to quit.  As Fetters mentions in her Atlantic review, Seth Godin also promotes this concept – even saying that defining when to quit is important at the beginning of an endeavor.  Being comfortable with quitting makes it easier to embark on other explorations and experiments, and to learn from their results.

Many business and personal self-help books tell us to get organized, defined, and methodical. Although that definitely works in many situations, it is at the fringe, in ambiguity, the unknown, and uncertainty, where unexpected breakthrough learning and innovation can occur.  Some organizations operate internal “skunkworks” organizations or allow employees to spend a percentage of their time on ideas.   For over twenty years I’ve had a “do something different” annual goal that has taught me many new skills and basic knowledge – a couple of which originally appeared to be way out in left field but ended up being critical to what I do today.

Sometimes we need to simply explore, for no other reason and with no real objective, to create range.

  1. Christopher Ferrier

    July 9, 2019 - 1:40 pm

    Thoughtful post, Kevin. I agree that we need both.

    I was recently advised to write an elevator pitch description of my ideal job title including what level it would report to, and what industry it would be in. This is like a kata challenge that gives me direction in my job search. But interesting opportunities have presented themselves for roles in sectors I’ve never considered. Diving in an exploring these opportunities has opened my mind to what’s possible. Knowing when to stop digging is tough. Malcom Gladwell said on a podcast that the times when he kept digging, despite every fiber of his being telling him to stop, were where some of his best works came from.

    In practicing kata, I’ve delighted in the neat learning that surfaces when we try to make a target come true. Me and my learners would sometimes stand back and say, “Wow! I didn’t even know that was a thing.”

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