David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World came out less than 2 years ago, but it already feels like a classic to me, both a validation of how I’ve chosen to go about my life and a kick in the pants to not get complacent, to stretch out, and go down weird paths. It’s also, as Ryan Holiday suggested to me, a great parenting book in disguise.
One way you know if a book is any good is if you are still thinking about it a year after you read it. (Or five years, or a decade, etc. The longer you think about a book the better you know it is.) Another way to know if a book is good is if it seems like every week you read an article that could be a supplementary chapter.
For example: this week when I was reading about Venus and Serena Williams. There was a bit that could’ve been straight out of Range (or maybe David’s first book, The Sports Gene):
One thing Venus talked about that was interesting was how easy it is for professional athletes to pick up other sports. So what they are good at is not the sport itself, but it’s just a way of being in the world. It’s a sense of their own bodies and an ability to manipulate their own bodies and have sort of a visual map in your head of what the different parts are doing. At one point she was talking about doing a benefit with Peyton and Eli Manning. They’d almost never played tennis before and they started out awful, and she said it was amazing to watch them. It was like watching a film. Every stroke they hit was noticeably better than the last. Every time they hit the ball. She said you could almost watch their brains working and by the end of it they were totally competent tennis players.
Here’s James Kochalka basically saying what Williams is saying, only about being creative:
It’s been my experience that if you’re a creative person, and you’re good at one thing, you’re probably good at another thing. If you’re good at drawing, you might be good at writing, too. If you’re good at writing, you might be good at playing music, too. If you’re good at playing music, you might be good at pottery. If you’re good at playing guitar, you might be a good dancer!
In order to create, there’s some little thing you have to let happen inside yourself, of just letting yourself be free. If you can turn that little switch on inside yourself in one medium, you can probably do it in another medium.
This is not exactly a popular way of thinking, but I subscribe to it: there is a “a way of being in the world” or a “way of operating” that you pick up while working in one medium that you can translate to another.
“Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines,” Epstein writes.
By the way, when Kochalka talks about that freedom switch that allows you to get over your fear of not being good enough? There’s a passage in Range for that! Researchers stuck jazz musicians inside an MRI scanner while they were improvising, and the researchers said it was almost as if the jazz musicians’ brains were able to turn off some kind of circuit that allows you to criticize yourself.
Here’s another example: this week I came across an article with the title, “The musical score is the worst thing in the history of music.” It quoted producer Mark Fell:
In my opinion, I think the musical score is the worst thing that ever happened in the history of music. I think it’s done more damage to music than any other invention. As a technology, the musical score fundamentally skewed the whole of musical practice in the wrong direction, I think.
This grabbed my interest, because I have an 8-year-old who is a natural musician, but refuses to be taught. I gently nudge him towards taking piano lessons and learning to read music, but he refuses.
Guess what? There’s a section in Range for that!
“It’s strange,” Cecchini told me at the end of one of our hours-long discussions, “that some of the greatest musicians were self-taught or never learned to read music. I’m not saying one way is the best, but now I get a lot of students from schools that are teaching jazz, and they all sound the same. They don’t seem to find their own voice. I think when you’re self-taught you experiment more, trying to find the same sound in different places, you learn how to solve problems.”
I could go on, but instead, here’s a list of (somewhat) random highlights from the book:
- “The most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.”
- “Learning is most efficient in the long run when it is really inefficient in the short run.”
- “Improv masters learn like babies: dive in and imitate and improvise first, learn the formal rules later.”
- “In offering advice to parents, psychologist Adam Grant noted that creativity may be difficult to nurture, but it is easy to thwart.”
- “[I] realized that I was not the type of person who wanted to spend my entire life learning one or two things new to the world, but rather the type who wanted constantly to learn things new to me and share them.”
- “In [Dan] Gilbert’s terms, we are works in progress claiming to be finished…. The precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been.”
- “One sentence of advice: Don’t feel behind.”
- “Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.”
For a while, I was threatening to write a “Range for Artists” post, because for every chapter I could think of an example of an artist I love that exemplified the subject.
I don’t have time for that right now, so this post will have to do.
* * *
Every Saturday I put one of my favorite books on the Bookshelf. To see more of my favorite books, check out my reading years.