Sunday, May 1, 2022

Book Review: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Recently, I was blessed to have been able to establish a formal mentorship at work with a very accomplished leader. Although we’ve only had a few sessions so far, I’ve really been enjoying the experience. She recommended a book called “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein. It’s a fascinating read with much food for thought. I work in the health care field and it’s brimming with narrowly hyper-specialized roles, so it’s been very heartening to read about the power of a good generalist, which I believe I am. My work life in mostly scrappy non-profits forced me to get competent quickly at a lot of different things and to be constantly adaptable because I’ve always had to take on multiple roles within a single job. I’ve generally worked without a map, pre-established guidelines, or a linear path. I never thought much about this style as having specific advantages and benefits--it’s just how things played out, and I discovered that I preferred it that way. I don’t like the feeling of being locked into any one thing. So reading Epstein’s book has opened my eyes to the wisdom of this approach, which is hard to see when the cultural message is the opposite. I couldn’t say it better than author Daniel H. Pink in his review of “Range:”

“For too long, we’ve believed in a single path to excellence. Start early, specialize soon, narrow your focus, aim for efficiency. But in this groundbreaking book, David Epstein shows that in most domains, the way to excel is something altogether different. Sample widely, gain a breadth of experiences, take detours, and experiment relentlessly.”

I’m a few chapters in and although so far there has been a lot of chess talk, I understand where Epstein is going with all of it. Someone has to champion and defend us Jacks-of-all-Trades, those of us who can apply our skills to multiple domains and who can adapt on the fly. I think that the overwhelming cultural push to narrow our career paths, stick to the known road and God forbid, never experiment has damaged our ability to innovate as a nation. I remember the intense frustration I would feel when I interviewed for jobs and would be turned down because I didn’t have experience in the particular industry the job was in, although I demonstratively had the skills to perform the job itself. My attitude has always been that you can almost always learn an industry on the job; the important thing is having transferable skills, which is something that still seems pretty lost on corporate America. I read some ago about how difficult it was for ex-military folks to find work because companies simply couldn’t fathom how to use them, which I find astounding. Ex-military would be the first people I would hire were I in a position to hire people.

I realize that my “Just plunk me down anywhere and I’ll figure it out” career approach may not be the stuff of LinkedIn advice articles, but it’s baked into my career cake now and even if I wanted to change it, I wouldn’t be able to without enormous cost and little benefit. And that’s okay. Somehow, mysteriously, I always manage to find a place for myself.

It’s the first day of May, which is astonishing to me. Spring is bleary-eyed and slow to wake up in Seattle this year. I’m not generally a fan of the sun, but I wouldn’t say no to a little more light and warmth. While we wait for Spring to drag herself out of bed, enjoy some Vivaldi!


--Kristen McHenry

2 comments: said...

A generalist holds the rank of general! :--)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the music and the blog. I too think of myself as a generalist. Glad you have found a mentor.