As I write this, there is live music playing in the background. My wife’s a musician, proficient on the piano, cello, and vocals. Her dad was a music teacher as well and was proficient in several instruments. And thanks to those genes, kids are shaping up well. They enjoy playing different instruments and dabble with various genres of music.
Given this background, it was reassuring to read “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein. A book on developing diverse skillsets and its positive effect on long-term success. As parents, students, or professionals, we tend to rush into specializing. Thinking the world rewards specialists. But, there are benefits of developing a breadth of skills before going deep. Across various disciplines like music, sports, and professional careers, people with Range come out ahead in the long-run.
The author talks about two kinds of environments – the Wicked and the Kind. Kind environments are ones with very predictable rules, such as in Chess or Poker. In these environments, it pays to super-specialize from an early age. For example, take the story of Laszlo Polgar, who started early with his three daughters and made them all chess experts.
Most environments in which we work and play are what the author calls the “Wicked” environments. Here the rules are not always predictable, and the environment keeps changing on us. In such environments, people with Range outshine. The example that resonated for me was that of the 18th-century musicians from “Ospedale della Pietà.” These orphaned girls, with physical deformities, trained across several instruments as children. And many of them went on to become the best musicians of that era. So much so, Antonio Vivaldi composed music specifically for the Pietà artists.
Here are three ways to develop Range (book covers eight):
- Sampling – Whether as parents, coaches, or managers, it pays to encourage people to broaden their toolset. Provide opportunities to dabble and have fun early on. It helps develop a well-rounded toolset for the field (e.g., musicianship, athleticism). Many of you know how MS Dhoni dabbled with various sports as a kid before picking cricket. It is as relevant in work as in play.
- Practicing active open-mindedness: This was key to Darwin’s success. He had more than 200 scientist penpals across various domains. And, always looked for disconfirming information that could disprove his theories. That was his Golden Rule and was critical to his success.
- Lateral thinking: The ability to draw from different domains is a super-power and enables creativity. A good example is Steve Jobs. He drew inspiration from his various interests and expertise to develop the iPod and then later the iPhone.
“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.” – Range.
Now, let us tie this back to our world of technology and startups. I have noticed that many founders and leaders have a range of skills that help them excel. For example, founders are good at envisioning a great idea and at building strong teams and executing. My partner Shekhar wrote about the importance of “Learnability” across a range of topics to be a successful founder. The startup journey is a “Wicked” environment requiring leaders to stay nimble and draw on a range of tools to navigate. Here is a chat I recently had with Shekhar and Girish Mathrubootham on the skills required to succeed. Some of the skills discussed are Customer Empathy, Spotting the Right Talent, Decision-making, and Impressive Storytelling. Notice how each of these is quite unique, requiring a range of skills.
- Do you believe Range can help in your field?
- Who are some of the people you admire with great Range? What can you learn from them?
- What would you do differently to develop Range?
- Rotation programs help broaden the skill set of leaders. Will that work in your environment?
That’s it for today. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic as a comment.
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