Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (David Epstein)

Book Notes Apr 22, 2021 34 min read

In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein uses fascinating stories of athletes, scientists, musicians and more, and findings from various studies to build a case for why being a "generalist" is still necessary even under the constant pressure to narrow your focus.


In the present world there is a pressure to hyper-focus, and books such as Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 rule, emphasize success comes from extensive focuses practice; there is a constant fear of being a "jack of all trades". Epstein argues that by learning and trying bits of everything improves athletic ability, musicianship, and critical thinking.

Interesting stories he tells are,  Roger Federer who got into tennis very late, playing a mix of other sports as a kid; the untold story of the figlie del coro, the female musicians that Vivaldi wrote much of music for; the stories of Nobel prize winners who made their most famous discoveries through dabbling away across various branches of science.

Key Takeaways

  • _______(athletic/music/academic) success can depend on synthesizing skills and knowledge from various disciplines.
  • Critical thinking skills come from thinking out of the box.
  • "Amateurs" can solve some of the greatest problems.

Favorite Highlights

  • Vivaldi’s creativity was facilitated by a particular group of musicians who could learn new music quickly on a staggering array of instruments. They drew emperors, kings, princes, cardinals, and countesses from across Europe to be regaled by the most innovative music of the time. They were the all-female cast known as the figlie del coro, literally, “daughters of the choir.”
  • “Only in Venice,” a prominent visitor wrote, “can one see these musical prodigies.” They were both ground zero of a musical revolution and an oddity. Elsewhere, their instruments were reserved for men. “They sing like angels, play the violin, the flute, the organ, the oboe, the cello, and the bassoon,” an astonished French politician remarked. “In short, no instrument is large enough to frighten them.”
  • The best figlie became Europe-wide celebrities, like Anna Maria della Pietà. A German baron flatly declared her “the premier violinist in Europe.” The president of the parliament of Burgundy said she was “unsurpassed” even in Paris. An expense report that Vivaldi recorded in 1712 shows that he spent twenty ducats on a violin for sixteen-year-old Anna Maria, an engagement-ring-like sum for Vivaldi, who made that much in four months. Among the hundreds of concertos Vivaldi wrote for the figlie del coro are twenty-eight that survived in the “Anna Maria notebook.” Bound in leather and dyed Venetian scarlet, it bears Anna Maria’s name in gold leaf calligraphy. The concertos, written specifically to showcase her prowess, are filled with high-speed passages that require different notes to be played on multiple strings at the same time. In 1716, Anna Maria and the figlie were ordered by the Senate to intensify their musical work in an effort to bring God’s favor to the Venetian armies as they battled the Ottoman Empire on the island of Corfu. (In that siege, the Venetian violin, and a well-timed storm, proved mightier than the Turkish cannon.)
  • There was Sophia—“horrid,” Rousseau wrote. Cattina—“she had but one eye.” Bettina—“the smallpox had entirely disfigured her.” “Scarcely one of them,” according to Rousseau, “was without some striking defect.” A poem had recently been written about one of the best singers: “Missing are the fingers of her left hand / Also absent is her left foot.” An accomplished instrumentalist was the “poor limping lady.” Other guests left even less considerate records. Like Rousseau, English visitor Lady Anna Miller was entranced by the music and pleaded to see the women perform with no barrier hiding them. “My request was granted,” Miller wrote, “but when I entered I was seized with so violent a fit of laughter, that I am surprised they had not driven me out again. . . . My eyes were struck with the sight of a dozen or fourteen beldams ugly and old . . . these with several young girls.” Miller changed her mind about watching them play, “so much had the sight of the performers disgusted me.”
  • The girls and women who delighted delicate ears had not lived delicate lives. Many of their mothers worked in Venice’s vibrant sex industry and contracted syphilis before they had babies and dropped them off at the Ospedale della Pietà. The name literally means “Hospital of Pity,” but figuratively it was the House of Mercy, where the girls grew up and learned music. It was the largest of four ospedali, charitable institutions in Venice founded to ameliorate particular social ills.
  • For those who stayed a lifetime in the institution, their multi-instrument background had practical importance. Pelegrina della Pietà, who arrived at the scaffetta swaddled in rags, started on the bass, moved to violin, and then to oboe, all while working as a nurse. Vivaldi wrote oboe parts specifically for Pelegrina, but in her sixties her teeth fell out, abruptly ending her oboe career. So she switched back to violin, and continued performing into her seventies.
  • But their stories were largely forgotten, or thrown away, literally. When Napoleon’s troops arrived in 1797, they tossed manuscripts and records out the ospedali windows. When, two hundred years later, a famous eighteenth-century painting of women giving a concert was displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the mysterious figures dressed in black, in an upper balcony above the audience, went entirely unidentified. Maybe the memories of the figlie faded because they were women—playing music in public religious ceremonies defied papal authority. Or because so many of them neither came with families nor left any behind. They lacked family names, but the abandoned girls were so synonymous with their instruments that those became their names. The baby who came through a notch in the wall and began her way in the world as Anna Maria della Pietà left the world having been, by various stages, Anna Maria del violino, Anna Maria del theorbo, Anna Maria del cembalo, Anna Maria del violoncello, Anna Maria del luta, Anna Maria della viola d’amore, and Anna Maria del mandolin.
  • There are, of course, many routes to expertise. Some outstanding musicians have focused very young. The supreme cellist Yo-Yo Ma is a well-known example. Less well known, though, is that Ma started on violin, moved to piano, and then to the cello because he didn’t really like the first two instruments. He just went through the sampling period a lot faster than the typical student.
  • It reminds me of a conversation I had with Ian Yates, a British sports scientist and coach who helped develop future professional athletes in a range of sports. Parents, Yates told me, increasingly come to him and “want their kids doing what the Olympians are doing right now, not what the Olympians were doing when they were twelve or thirteen,” which included a wider variety of activities that developed their general athleticism and allowed them to probe their talents and interests before they focused narrowly on technical skills. The sampling period is not incidental to the development of great performers—something to be excised in the interest of a head start—it is integral.
  • While I was sitting with Cecchini, he reeled off an impressive improvisation. I asked him to repeat it so I could record it. “I couldn’t play that again if you put a gun to my head,” he said. Charles Limb, a musician, hearing specialist, and auditory surgeon at the University of California, San Francisco, designed an iron-free keyboard so that jazz musicians could improvise while inside an MRI scanner. Limb saw that brain areas associated with focused attention, inhibition, and self-censoring turned down when the musicians were creating. “It’s almost as if the brain turned off its own ability to criticize itself,” he told National Geographic. While improvising, musicians do pretty much the opposite of consciously identifying errors and stopping to correct them.
  • Cecchini told me that he was regularly stunned when he would ask an exceptional jazz performer onstage to play a certain note, and find the musician could not understand him. “It’s an old joke among jazz musicians,” Cecchini said. “You ask, ‘Can you read music?’ And the guy says, ‘Not enough to hurt my playing.’” There is truth in the joke. Cecchini has taught musicians who played professionally for the Chicago Symphony, which in 2015 was rated as the top orchestra in the country and fifth in the world by a panel of critics. “It’s easier for a jazz musician to learn to play classical literature than for a classical player to learn how to play jazz,” he said. “The jazz musician is a creative artist, the classical musician is a re-creative artist.”
  • Compared to the Tiger Mother’s tome, a parenting manual oriented toward creative achievement would have to open with a much shorter list of rules. In offering advice to parents, psychologist Adam Grant noted that creativity may be difficult to nurture, but it is easy to thwart. He pointed to a study that found an average of six household rules for typical children, compared to one in households with extremely creative children. The parents with creative children made their opinions known after their kids did something they didn’t like, they just did not proscribe it beforehand. Their households were low on prior restraint.
  • One of those desirable difficulties is known as the “generation effect.” Struggling to generate an answer on your own, even a wrong one, enhances subsequent learning. Socrates was apparently on to something when he forced pupils to generate answers rather than bestowing them. It requires the learner to intentionally sacrifice current performance for future benefit.
  • Kornell and psychologist Janet Metcalfe tested sixth graders in the South Bronx on vocabulary learning, and varied how they studied in order to explore the generation effect. Students were given some of the words and definitions together. For example, To discuss something in order to come to an agreement: Negotiate. For others, they were shown only the definition and given a little time to think of the right word, even if they had no clue, before it was revealed. When they were tested later, students did way better on the definition-first words. The experiment was repeated on students at Columbia University, with more obscure words (Characterized by haughty scorn: Supercilious). The results were the same. Being forced to generate answers improves subsequent learning even if the generated answer is wrong. It can even help to be wildly wrong. Metcalfe and colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated a “hypercorrection effect.” The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.*
  • Used for learning, testing, including self-testing, is a very desirable difficulty. Even testing prior to studying works, at the point when wrong answers are assured. In one of Kornell’s experiments, participants were made to learn pairs of words and later tested on recall. At test time, they did the best with pairs that they learned via practice quizzes, even if they had gotten the answers on those quizzes wrong. Struggling to retrieve information primes the brain for subsequent learning, even when the retrieval itself is unsuccessful. The struggle is real, and really useful. “Like life,” Kornell and team wrote, “retrieval is all about the journey.”
  • It does not take nearly that long to see the spacing effect. Iowa State researchers read people lists of words, and then asked for each list to be recited back either right away, after fifteen seconds of rehearsal, or after fifteen seconds of doing very simple math problems that prevented rehearsal. The subjects who were allowed to reproduce the lists right after hearing them did the best. Those who had fifteen seconds to rehearse before reciting came in second. The group distracted with math problems finished last. Later, when everyone thought they were finished, they were all surprised with a pop quiz: write down every word you can recall from the lists. Suddenly, the worst group became the best. Short-term rehearsal gave purely short-term benefits. Struggling to hold on to information and then recall it had helped the group distracted by math problems transfer the information from short-term to long-term memory. The group with more and immediate rehearsal opportunity recalled nearly nothing on the pop quiz. Repetition, it turned out, was less important than struggle.
  • Interleaving is a desirable difficulty that frequently holds for both physical and mental skills. A simple motor-skill example is an experiment in which piano students were asked to learn to execute, in one-fifth of a second, a particular left-hand jump across fifteen keys. They were allowed 190 practice attempts. Some used all of those practicing the fifteen-key jump, while others switched between eight-, twelve-, fifteen-, and twenty-two-key jumps. When the piano students were invited back for a test, those who underwent the mixed practice were faster and more accurate at the fifteen-key jump than the students who had only practiced that exact jump.
  • Desirable difficulties like testing and spacing make knowledge stick. It becomes durable. Desirable difficulties like making connections and interleaving make knowledge flexible, useful for problems that never appeared in training. All slow down learning and make performance suffer, in the short term. That can be a problem, because like the Air Force cadets, we all reflexively assess our progress by how we are doing right now. And like the Air Force cadets, we are often wrong.
  • In the course of studying problem solving in the 1930s, Karl Duncker posed one of the most famous hypothetical problems in all of cognitive psychology. It goes like this: Suppose you are a doctor faced with a patient who has a malignant stomach tumor. It is impossible to operate on this patient, but unless the tumor is destroyed the patient will die. There is a kind of ray that can be used to destroy the tumor. If the rays reach the tumor all at once at a sufficiently high intensity, the tumor will be destroyed. Unfortunately, at this intensity the healthy tissue that the rays pass through on the way to the tumor will also be destroyed. At lower intensities the rays are harmless to healthy tissue, but they will not affect the tumor either. What type of procedure might be used to destroy the tumor with the rays, and at the same time avoid destroying the healthy tissue? It’s on you to excise the tumor and save the patient, but the rays are either too powerful or too weak. How can you solve this? While you’re thinking, a little story to pass the time: There once was a general who needed to capture a fortress in the middle of a country from a brutal dictator. If the general could get all of his troops to the fortress at the same time, they would have no problem taking it. Plenty of roads that the troops could travel radiated out from the fort like wheel spokes, but they were strewn with mines, so only small groups of soldiers could safely traverse any one road. The general came up with a plan. He divided the army into small groups, and each group traveled a different road leading to the fortress. They synchronized their watches, and made sure to converge on the fortress at the same time via their separate roads. The plan worked. The general captured the fortress and overthrew the dictator. Have you saved the patient yet? Just one last story while you’re still thinking: Years ago, a small-town fire chief arrived at a woodshed fire, concerned that it would spread to a nearby house if it was not extinguished quickly. There was no hydrant nearby, but the shed was next to a lake, so there was plenty of water. Dozens of neighbors were already taking turns with buckets throwing water on the shed, but they weren’t making any progress. The neighbors were surprised when the fire chief yelled at them to stop, and to all go fill their buckets in the lake. When they returned, the chief arranged them in a circle around the shed, and on the count of three had them all throw their water at once. The fire was immediately dampened, and soon thereafter extinguished. The town gave the fire chief a pay raise as a reward for quick thinking. Are you done saving your patient? Don’t feel bad, almost no one solves it. At least not at first, and then nearly everyone solves it. Only about 10 percent of people solve “Duncker’s radiation problem” initially. Presented with both the radiation problem and the fortress story, about 30 percent solve it and save the patient. Given…
  • An experiment on Stanford international relations students during the Cold War provided a cautionary tale about relying on kind-world reasoning—that is, drawing only on the first analogy that feels familiar. The students were told that a small, fictional democratic country was under threat from a totalitarian neighbor, and they had to decide how the United States should respond. Some students were given descriptions that likened the situation to World War II (refugees in boxcars; a president “from New York, the same state as FDR”; a meeting in “Winston Churchill Hall”). For others, it was likened to Vietnam, (a president “from Texas, the same state as LBJ,” and refugees in boats). The international relations students who were reminded of World War II were far more likely to choose to go to war; the students reminded of Vietnam opted for nonmilitary diplomacy. That phenomenon has been documented all over the place. College football coaches rated the same player’s potential very differently depending on what former player he was likened to in an introductory description, even with all other information kept exactly the same. With the difficult radiation problem, the most successful strategy employed multiple situations that were not at all alike on the surface, but held deep structural similarities. Most problem solvers are not like Kepler. They will stay inside of the problem at hand, focused on the internal details, and perhaps summon other medical knowledge, since it is on the surface a medical problem. They will not intuitively turn to distant analogies to probe solutions. They should, though, and they should make sure some of those analogies are, on the surface, far removed from the current problem. In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.
  • Our natural inclination to take the inside view can be defeated by following analogies to the “outside view.” The outside view probes for deep structural similarities to the current problem in different ones. The outside view is deeply counterintuitive because it requires a decision maker to ignore unique surface features of the current project, on which they are the expert, and instead look outside for structurally similar analogies. It requires a mindset switch from narrow to broad.
  • For a unique 2012 experiment, University of Sydney business strategy professor Dan Lovallo—who had conducted inside-view research with Kahneman—and a pair of economists theorized that starting out by making loads of diverse analogies, Kepler style, would naturally lead to the outside view and improve decisions. They recruited investors from large private equity firms who consider a huge number of potential projects in a variety of domains. The researchers thought the investors’ work might naturally lend itself to the outside view. The private equity investors were told to assess a real project they were currently working on with a detailed description of the steps to success, and to predict the project’s return on investment. They were then asked to write down a batch of other investment projects they knew of with broad conceptual similarity to theirs—for instance, other examples of a business owner looking to sell, or a start-up with a technologically risky product. They were instructed to estimate the return for each of those examples too. In the end, the investors estimated that the return on their own project would be about 50 percent higher than the outside projects they had identified as conceptually similar. When given the chance at the end to rethink and revise, they slashed their own initial estimate. “They were sort of shocked,” Lovallo told me, “and the senior people were the most shocked.” The investors initially judged their own projects, where they knew all the details, completely differently from similar projects to which they were outsiders.
  • If you’re asked to predict whether a particular horse will win a race or a particular politician will win an election, the more internal details you learn about any particular scenario—physical qualities of the specific horse, the background and strategy of the particular politician—the more likely you are to say that the scenario you are investigating will occur. Psychologists have shown repeatedly that the more internal details an individual can be made to consider, the more extreme their judgment becomes. For the venture capitalists, they knew more details about their own project, and judged that it would be an extreme success, until they were forced to consider other projects with broad conceptual similarities. In another example, students rated a university a lot better if they were told about a few specific science departments that were ranked in the top ten nationally than if they were simply told that every science department at the university was ranked among the top ten. In one famous study, participants…
  • Netflix came to a similar conclusion for improving its recommendation algorithm. Decoding movies’ traits to figure out what you like was very complex and less accurate than simply analogizing you to many other customers with similar viewing histories. Instead of predicting what you might like, they examine who you are like, and the complexity is captured therein.
  • Evaluating an array of options before letting intuition reign is a trick for the wicked world.
  • In another experiment, Lovallo and his collaborator Ferdinand Dubin asked 150 business students to generate strategies to help the fictitious Mickey Company, which was struggling with its computer mouse business in Australia and China. After business students learned about the company’s challenges, they were told to write down all the strategies they could think of to try to improve Mickey’s position. Lovallo and Dubin gave some students one or more analogies in their instructions. (For example: “The profile of Nike Inc. and McDonald’s Corp. may be helpful to supplement your recommendations but should not limit them.”) Other students got none. The students prompted with one analogy came up with more strategies than those given no analogies, and students given multiple analogies came up with more strategies than those reminded only of one. And the more distant the analogy, the better it was for idea generation. Students who were pointed to Nike and McDonald’s generated more strategic options than their peers who were reminded of computer companies Apple and Dell. Just being reminded to analogize widely made the business students more creative. Unfortunately, students also said that if they were to use analogy companies at all, they believed the best way to generate strategic options would be to focus on a single example in the same field. Like the venture capitalists, their intuition was to use too few analogies, and to rely on those that were the most superficially similar. “That’s usually exactly the wrong way to go about it regardless of what you’re using analogy for,” Lovallo told me.
  • In one of the most cited studies of expert problem solving ever conducted, an interdisciplinary team of scientists came to a pretty simple conclusion: successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it. Less successful problem solvers are more like most students in the Ambiguous Sorting Task: they mentally classify problems only by superficial, overtly stated features, like the domain context. For the best performers, they wrote, problem solving “begins with the typing of the problem.”
  • Kepler did something that turns out to be characteristic of today’s world-class research labs. Psychologist Kevin Dunbar began documenting how productive labs work in the 1990s, and stumbled upon a modern version of Keplerian thinking. Faced with an unexpected finding, rather than assuming the current theory is correct and that an observation must be off, the unexpected became an opportunity to venture somewhere new—and analogies served as the wilderness guide.
  • “The benefits to increased match quality . . . outweigh the greater loss in skills.” Learning stuff was less important than learning about oneself. Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.
  • It should come as no surprise that more students in Scotland ultimately majored in subjects that did not exist in their high schools, like engineering. In England and Wales, students were expected to pick a path with knowledge only of the limited menu they had been exposed to early in high school. That is sort of like being forced to choose at sixteen whether you want to marry your high school sweetheart. At the time it might seem like a great idea, but the more you experience, the less great that idea looks in hindsight.
  • Winston Churchill’s “never give in, never, never, never, never” is an oft-quoted trope. The end of the sentence is always left out: “except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
  • Seth Godin, author of some of the most popular career writing in the world, wrote a book disparaging the idea that “quitters never win.” Godin argued that “winners”—he generally meant individuals who reach the apex of their domain—quit fast and often when they detect that a plan is not the best fit, and do not feel bad about it. “We fail,” he wrote, when we stick with “tasks we don’t have the guts to quit.” Godin clearly did not advocate quitting simply because a pursuit is difficult. Persevering through difficulty is a competitive advantage for any traveler of a long road, but he suggested that knowing when to quit is such a big strategic advantage that every single person, before undertaking an endeavor, should enumerate conditions under which they should quit. The important trick, he said, is staying attuned to whether switching is simply a failure of perseverance, or astute recognition that better matches are available.
  • A recent international Gallup survey of more than two hundred thousand workers in 150 countries reported that 85 percent were either “not engaged” with their work or “actively disengaged.” In that condition, according to Seth Godin, quitting takes a lot more guts than continuing to be carried along like debris on an ocean wave. The trouble, Godin noted, is that humans are bedeviled by the “sunk cost fallacy.” Having invested time or money in something, we are loath to leave it, because that would mean we had wasted our time or money, even though it is already gone.
  • She never did graduate from college, but her office is festooned with twenty-three honorary doctorates, plus a glistening saber given to her by the U.S. Military Academy for teaching leadership courses—as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. When I visited just after her 101st birthday, I brought her a cup of steamed milk, as I had been advised, and right away asked what training had prepared her for leadership. Wrong question. “Oh, don’t ask me what my training was,” she replied with a dismissing hand wave. She explained that she just did whatever seemed like it would teach her something and allow her to be of service at each moment, and somehow that added up to training. As Steven Naifeh said regarding Van Gogh’s life, some “undefinable process of digestion” occurred as diverse experiences accumulated. “I was unaware that I was being prepared,” she told me. “I did not intend to become a leader, I just learned by doing what was needed at the time.” In retrospect, Hesselbein can guess at lessons she never recognized when she was going through them. She saw both the power of inclusion and exclusion in diverse Johnstown. She learned resourcefulness as a jack-of-all-trades in the photography business. As a new troop leader with less experience than her charges, she relied on shared leadership. She united stakeholders normally at loggerheads for the United Way campaign. Having never been out of the country until she traveled to international Girl Scout meetings, she learned to quickly find common ground with peers from all over the world.
  • “You have to carry a big basket to bring something home.” She repeats that phrase today, to mean that a mind kept wide open will take something from every new experience.
  • Each dark horse had a novel journey, but a common strategy. “Short-term planning,” Ogas told me. “They all practice it, not long-term planning.” Even people who look like consummate long-term visionaries from afar usually looked like short-term planners up close. When Nike cofounder Phil Knight was asked in 2016 about his long-term vision and how he knew what he wanted when he created the company, he replied that he had actually known he wanted to be a professional athlete. But he was not good enough, so he shifted to simply trying to find some way to stay involved with sports. He happened to run track under a college coach who tinkered with shoes and who later became his cofounder. “I feel sorry for the people who know exactly what they’re going to do from the time they’re sophomores in high school,” he said. In his memoir, Knight wrote that he “wasn’t much for setting goals,” and that his main goal for his nascent shoe company was to fail fast enough that he could apply what he was learning to his next venture. He made one short-term pivot after another, applying the lessons as he went.
  • Instead, she told me, in a clever inversion of a hallowed axiom, “First act and then think.” Ibarra marshaled social psychology to argue persuasively that we are each made up of numerous possibilities. As she put it, “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.
  • Rather than expecting an ironclad a priori answer to “Who do I really want to become?,” their work indicated that it is better to be a scientist of yourself, asking smaller questions that can actually be tested—“Which among my various possible selves should I start to explore now? How can I do that?” Be a flirt with your possible selves.* Rather than a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly. “Test-and-learn,” Ibarra told me, “not plan-and-implement.”
  • In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.
  • “I know who I am when I see what I do.”
  • Pedro Domingos, a computer science professor and machine learning researcher, told me. “Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do some things, but it also makes you blind to other things that you could do.”
  • The email subject line caught my eye: “Olympic medalist and muscular dystrophy patient with the same mutation.” I had just written a book on genetics and athleticism, and figured it would point to some journal article I had missed. Instead, it was a note from the muscular dystrophy patient herself, Jill Viles, a thirty-nine-year-old woman in Iowa. She had an elaborate theory connecting the gene mutation that withered her muscles to those of an Olympic sprinter, and she offered to send more info. I expected a letter, maybe some news clippings. I got a stack of original family photos, a detailed medical history, and a nineteen-page, bound and illustrated packet that referenced gene mutations by their specific DNA locations. She had done some serious homework. On page 14 there was a photo of Jill in a blue bikini, blonde hair tousled, smiling and sitting in the sand. Her torso looks normal, but her arms are strikingly skinny, like twigs jabbed into a snowman. Her legs did not look like they could possibly hold her, the thigh no wider than her knee joint. Beside that photo was one of Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, one of the best sprinters in Canadian history. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, she won a bronze medal in the 100-meter hurdles. The juxtaposition was breathtaking. Priscilla is midstride, ropes of muscle winding down her legs, veins bursting from her forearms. She’s like the vision of a superhero a second grader might draw. I could hardly have imagined two women who looked less likely to share a biological blueprint. In online pictures of Priscilla, Jill recognized something in her own, vastly scrawnier physique—a familiar pattern of missing fat on her limbs. Her theory was that she and Priscilla have the same mutated gene, but because Priscilla doesn’t have muscular dystrophy, her body had found some way “to go around it,” as Jill put it, and was instead making gigantic muscles. If her theory was right, Jill hoped, scientists would want to study her and Priscilla to figure out how to help people with muscles like Jill have muscles a little more toward the Priscilla end of the human physique spectrum. She wanted my help convincing Priscilla to get a genetic test. The idea that a part-time substitute teacher, wielding the cutting-edge medical instrument known as Google Images, would make a discovery about a pro athlete who is examined by doctors as part of her job struck me as somewhere between extremely unlikely and patently nuts. I consulted a Harvard geneticist. He was concerned. “Empowering a relationship between these two women could end badly,” he told me. “People go off the deep end when they are relating to celebrities they think they have a connection to.” I hadn’t even considered that before; I certainly didn’t want to facilitate a stalker. It took time for Jill to convince me that because of her unique life experience, she could see what no specialist could. •   •   • When Jill was four, a preschool teacher noticed her stumbling. Jill…
  • There is, to be sure, no comprehensive theory of creativity. But there is a well-documented tendency people have to consider only familiar uses for objects, an instinct known as functional fixedness. The most famous example is the “candle problem,” in which participants are given a candle, a box of tacks, and a book of matches and told to attach the candle to the wall such that wax doesn’t drip on the table below. Solvers try to melt the candle to the wall or tack it up somehow, neither of which work. When the problem is presented with the tacks outside of their box, solvers are more likely to view the empty box as a potential candle holder, and to solve the problem by tacking it to the wall and placing the candle inside. For Yokoi, the tacks were always outside the box.
  • He spread his philosophy as his team grew, and asked everyone to consider alternate uses for old technology. He realized that he had been fortunate to come to a playing card company rather than an established electronic toymaker with entrenched solutions, so his ideas were not thwarted because of his technical limitations. As the company grew, he worried that young engineers would be too concerned about looking stupid to share ideas for novel uses of old technology, so he began intentionally blurting out crazy ideas at meetings to set the tone. “Once a young person starts saying things like, ‘Well, it’s not really my place to say . . .’ then it’s all over,” he said.
  • Ouderkirk was an inventor at Minnesota-based 3M, one of twenty-eight “corporate scientists,” the highest title among the company’s sixty-five hundred scientists and engineers. The road to breakthrough glitter began when he endeavored to challenge the conception of a two-hundred-year-old principle of physics known as Brewster’s law, which had been interpreted to mean that no surface could reflect light near perfectly at every angle. Ouderkirk wondered if layering many thin plastic surfaces on top of one another, each with distinct optical qualities, could create a film that custom-reflected and -refracted various wavelengths of light in all directions. A group of optics specialists he consulted assured him it could not be done, which was exactly what he wanted to hear. “If they say, ‘It’s a great idea, go for it, makes sense,’ what is the chance you’re the first person to come up with it? Precisely zero,” he told me.
  • physically possible. Mother Nature offered proof of concept. The iridescent blue morpho butterfly has no blue pigment whatsoever; its wings glow azure and sapphire from thin layers of scales that refract and reflect particular wavelengths of blue light. There were more pedestrian examples too. The plastic of a water bottle refracts light differently depending on the light’s angle. “Everybody knows this, that knows anything about polymers,” Ouderkirk said. “It’s in front of you literally every day. But nobody ever thought of making optical films out of this.”
  • Hedgehog experts were deep but narrow. Some had spent their careers studying a single problem. Like Ehrlich and Simon, they fashioned tidy theories of how the world works through the single lens of their specialty, and then bent every event to fit them. The hedgehogs, according to Tetlock, “toil devotedly” within one tradition of their specialty, “and reach for formulaic solutions to ill-defined problems.” Outcomes did not matter; they were proven right by both successes and failures, and burrowed further into their ideas. It made them outstanding at predicting the past, but dart-throwing chimps at predicting the future. The foxes, meanwhile, “draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradiction,” Tetlock wrote. Where hedgehogs represented narrowness, foxes ranged outside a single discipline or theory and embodied breadth. Incredibly, the hedgehogs performed especially poorly on long-term predictions within their domain of expertise. They actually got worse as they accumulated credentials and experience in their field. The more information they had to work with, the more they could fit any story to their worldview. This did give hedgehogs one conspicuous advantage. Viewing every world event through their preferred keyhole made it easy to fashion compelling stories about anything that occurred, and to tell the stories with adamant authority. In other words, they make great TV.
  • Tetlock is clearly a fox. He is a professor at Penn, and when I visited his home in Philadelphia I was enveloped in a casual conversation about politics he was having with colleagues, including his wife and collaborator, Barbara Mellers, also a psychologist and eminent scholar of decision making. Tetlock would start in one direction, then interrogate himself and make an about-face. He drew on economics, political science, and history to make one quick point about a current debate in psychology, and then stopped on a dime and noted, “But if your assumptions about human nature and how a good society needs to be structured are different, you would see this completely differently.” When a new idea entered the conversation, he was quick with “Let’s say for the sake of argument,” which led to him playing out viewpoints from different disciplines or political or emotional perspectives. He tried on ideas like Instagram filters until it was hard to tell which he actually believed. In 2005, he published the results of his long study of expert judgment, and they caught the attention of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a government organization that supports research on the U.S. intelligence community’s most difficult challenges. In 2011, IARPA launched a four-year prediction tournament in which five researcher-led teams competed. Each team could recruit, train, and experiment however it saw fit. Every day for four years, predictions were due at 9 a.m. Eastern time. The questions were hard. What is the chance that a member will withdraw from the European Union by a target date? Will the Nikkei close above 9,500? What is the likelihood of a naval clash claiming more than ten lives in the East China Sea? Forecasters could update predictions as often as they wanted, but the scoring system rewarded accuracy over time, so a great prediction at the last minute before a question’s end date was of limited value. The team run by Tetlock and Mellers was called the Good Judgment Project. Rather than recruit decorated experts, in the first year of the tournament they made an open call for volunteers. After a simple screening, they invited thirty-two hundred to start forecasting. From those, they identified a small group of the foxiest forecasters—just bright people with wide-ranging interests and reading habits but no particular relevant background—and weighted team forecasts toward them. They destroyed the competition. In year two, the Good Judgment Project randomly arranged the top “superforecasters” into online teams of twelve, so that they could share information and ideas. They beat the other university-run teams so badly that IARPA dropped those lesser competitors from the tournament. The volunteers drawn from the general public beat experienced intelligence analysts with access to classified data “by margins that remain classified,” according to Tetlock. (He has, though, referenced a Washington Post report indicating that the Good…
  • Eastman described the core trait of the best forecasters to me as: “genuinely curious about, well, really everything.”
  • NASA was, after all, the agency that hung a framed quote in the Mission Evaluation Room: “In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data.”
  • Geveden, in his own way, was in favor of balancing the typical, formal process culture with a dose of informal individualism, as Kranz and von Braun once had. “The chain of communication has to be informal,” he told me, “completely different from the chain of command.” He wanted a culture where everyone had the responsibility to protest if something didn’t feel right. He decided to go prospecting for doubts.
  • — In 2017, Geveden took his lessons to a new role as CEO of BWX Technologies, a company whose wide purview includes nuclear propulsion technology that could power a manned Mars mission. Some of BWX Technologies’ decision makers are retired military leaders whose dearly held tool is firm hierarchy. So when Geveden became CEO, he wrote a short memo on his expectations for teamwork. “I told them I expect disagreement with my decisions at the time we’re trying to make decisions, and that’s a sign of organizational health,” he told me. “After the decisions are made, we want compliance and support, but we have permission to fight a little bit about those things in a professional way.” He emphasized that there is a difference between the chain of command and the chain of communication, and that the difference represents a healthy cross-pressure. “I warned them, I’m going to communicate with all levels of the organization down to the shop floor, and you can’t feel suspicious or paranoid about that,” he said. “I told them I will not intercept your decisions that belong in your chain of command, but I will give and receive information anywhere in the organization, at any time. I just can’t get enough understanding of the organization from listening to the voices at the top.”
  • Interventional cardiologists, for example, specialize in treating chest pain by placing stents—a metal tube that pries open blood vessels. It makes a ton of sense: a patient comes in with chest pain, imaging shows a narrowed artery, a stent is placed to open it and preclude a heart attack. The logic is so compelling that a prominent cardiologist coined the term “oculostenotic reflex,” from the Latin for “eye,” and stenotic, from the Greek for “narrow,” meaning: if you see a blockage, you’ll reflexively fix a blockage. Except, repeatedly, randomized clinical trials that compared stents with more conservative forms of treatment show that stents for patients with stable chest pain prevent zero heart attacks and extend the lives of patients a grand total of not at all. The interventional cardiologists are seeing and treating one tiny part of a complicated system; the cardiovascular system isn’t a kitchen sink, and it turns out that treating one blocked pipe often doesn’t help. Plus, about one in fifty patients who get a stent will suffer a serious complication or die as a result of the implantation procedure. Despite the bird’s-eye evidence, cardiologists who specialize in using that tool reported that they simply cannot believe that stenting doesn’t work, even when their compensation was not tied to performing the procedure. Being told to stop using stents was like being told to forget you are an interventional cardiologist. The instinct, often well-meaning, to use interventions that seem logical but that have not been shown to help may explain the finding of a 2015 study: patients with heart failure or cardiac arrest were less likely to die if they were admitted during a national cardiology conference, when thousands of top cardiologists were away. “At large cardiology conventions, my colleagues and I have often joked that the convention center would be the safest place in the world to have a heart attack,” cardiologist Rita F. Redberg wrote. “[The conference study] turned that analysis around.”
  • Seeing small pieces of a larger jigsaw puzzle in isolation, no matter how hi-def the picture, is insufficient to grapple with humanity’s greatest challenges. We have long known the laws of thermodynamics, but struggle to predict the spread of a forest fire. We know how cells work, but can’t predict the poetry that will be written by a human made up of them. The frog’s-eye view of individual parts is not enough. A healthy ecosystem needs biodiversity.
  • And then there was the one that started with using Scotch tape to rip thin layers of graphite, the material that comprises pencil lead. That low-tech affair culminated in the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, for Geim and his colleague Konstantin Novoselov’s production of graphene, a material one-hundred thousand times thinner than a human hair and two hundred times stronger than steel. It is flexible, more transparent than glass, and an excellent electrical conductor. Spiders fed graphene have spun silk many times tougher than the Kevlar in bulletproof vests. Graphene consists of carbon strips one atom thick, an arrangement previously considered purely theoretical. When Geim and Novoselov submitted their initial work to one of the world’s most prestigious journals, one reviewer said it was impossible, and another deemed it not “a sufficient scientific advance.”
  • Art historian Sarah Lewis studies creative achievement, and described Geim’s mindset as representative of the “deliberate amateur.” The word “amateur,” she pointed out, did not originate as an insult, but comes from the Latin word for a person who adores a particular endeavor. “A paradox of innovation and mastery is that breakthroughs often occur when you start down a road, but wander off for a ways and pretend as if you have just begun,” Lewis wrote. When Geim was asked (two years before the Nobel) to describe his research style for a science newsletter, he offered this: “It is rather unusual, I have to say. I do not dig deep—I graze shallow. So ever since I was a postdoc, I would go into a different subject every five years or so. . . . I don’t want to carry on studying the same thing from cradle to grave. Sometimes I joke that I am not interested in doing re-search, only search.” Deviating from what Geim calls the “straight railway line” of life is “not secure . . . psychologically,” but comes with advantages, for motivation and for “questioning things people who work in that area never bother to ask.” His Friday evenings are like Smithies’s Saturday mornings; they balance the rest of the week’s standard practice with wide-roaming exploration. They embrace what Max Delbrück, a Nobel laureate who studied the intersection of physics and biology, called “the principle of limited sloppiness.” Be careful not to be too careful, Delbrück warned, or you will unconsciously limit your exploration.
  • Like Van Gogh or Frances Hesselbein or hordes of young athletes, Novoselov probably looked from the outside like he was behind, until all of a sudden he very much wasn’t. He was lucky. He arrived in a workspace that treated mental meandering as a competitive advantage, not a pest to be exterminated in the name of efficiency.
  • In a lecture to his new colleagues, Casadevall declared that the pace of progress had slowed, while the rate of retractions in scientific literature had accelerated, proportionally outpacing the publication of new studies. “If this continues unabated,” he said, “the entire literature will be retracted in a few years.” It was science gallows humor, but grounded in data. Part of the problem, he argued, is that young scientists are rushed to specialize before they learn how to think; they end up unable to produce good work themselves and unequipped to spot bad (or fraudulent) work by their colleagues.
  • When Casadevall described his vision of broad education on a professional panel in 2016, a copanelist and editor of the New England Journal of Medicine (an extremely prestigious and retraction-prone journal) countered that it would be absurd to add more training time to the already jam-packed curricula for doctors and scientists. “I would say keep the same time, and deemphasize all the other didactic material,” Casadevall said. “Do we really need to go through courses with very specialized knowledge that often provides a huge amount of stuff that is very detailed, very specialized, very arcane, and will be totally forgotten in a couple of weeks? Especially now, when all the information is on your phone. You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it. We don’t train people in thinking or reasoning.”
  • There is a growth industry of conferences that invite only scientists who work on a single specific microorganism. Meanwhile, a complete understanding of the body’s response to a paper cut was hampered because hyperspecialists in hematology and immunology focus on pieces of the puzzle in isolation, even though the immune response is an integrated system. “You can do your entire career on one cell type and it’s more likely you keep your job by getting grants,” Casadevall told me. “There is not even pressure to integrate. In fact, if you write a grant proposal about how the B cell is integrating with the macrophage [a basic interaction of the immune system],* there may be no one to review it. If it goes to the macrophage people, they say, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about it. Why B cells?’ The system maintains you in a trench. You basically have all these parallel trenches, and it’s very rare that anybody stands up and actually looks at the next trench to see what they are doing, and often it’s related.”*
  • New collaborations allow creators “to take ideas that are conventions in one area and bring them into a new area, where they’re suddenly seen as invention,” said sociologist Brian Uzzi, Amaral’s collaborator. Human creativity, he said, is basically an “import/export business of ideas.”
  • Casadevall leads by example. A single conversation with him is liable to include Anna Karenina, the Federalist Papers, the fact that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz were philosophers as well as scientists, why the Roman Empire wasn’t more innovative, and a point about mentoring in the form of a description of the character Mentor from Homer’s Odyssey. “I work at it,” he said, smirking. “I always advise my people to read outside your field, everyday something. And most people say, ‘Well, I don’t have time to read outside my field.’ I say, ‘No, you do have time, it’s far more important.’ Your world becomes a bigger world, and maybe there’s a moment in which you make connections.”
  • Casadevall is a student of innovation history. He grew up as a doctor and scientist when HIV/AIDS exploded into an epidemic, and he could hardly disagree more passionately. “When I went to medical school, I was taught that there were no human diseases caused by retroviruses, that retroviruses were a curiosity that occurred in some animal tumors. In 1981, a new disease emerges that nobody knows anything about. In 1984, it’s found to be a retrovirus, HIV. In 1987, you have the first therapy. In 1996, you have such effective therapy that people don’t have to die of it anymore. How did that happen? Was it because companies all of a sudden rushed to make drugs? No. If you really look back and analyze it, before that time society had spent some of its very hard-earned money to study a curiosity called retroviruses. Just a curiosity in animals. So by the time HIV was found to be a retrovirus, you already knew that if you interfered with the protease [a type of enzyme] that you could deactivate it. So when HIV arrived, society had right off the shelf a huge amount of knowledge from investments made in a curiosity that at the time had no use. It may very well be that if you were to take all the research funding in the country and you put it in Alzheimer’s disease, you would never get to the solution. But the answer to Alzheimer’s disease may come from a misfolding protein in a cucumber. But how are you going to write a grant on a cucumber? And who are you going to send it to? If somebody gets interested in a folding protein in a cucumber and it’s a good scientific question, leave them alone. Let them torture the cucumber.”
  • In 1945, former MIT dean Vannevar Bush, who oversaw U.S. military science during World War II—including the mass production of penicillin and the Manhattan Project—authored a report at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt in which he explained successful innovation culture. It was titled “Science, the Endless Frontier,” and led to the creation of the National Science Foundation that funded three generations of wildly successful scientific discovery, from Doppler radar and fiber optics to web browsers and MRIs. “Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice,” Bush wrote, “in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.”
  • Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes flirted in the extreme via what she called her “Year of Yes.” Rhimes is introverted and was inclined to turn down every unexpected invitation that came her way. She decided to about-face and say yes to everything for an entire year. She finished the year with a deep understanding of what she wanted to focus on.


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