Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

I always enjoy books that challenge conventional thinking. I find it always important to question and wrestle with the way I typically approach problems or other situations. For that reason, I highly recommend reading the book Range by David Epstein.

Epstein takes on the fundamental assumption that going deeper (specialization) is better for problem solving in our increasingly complex world than it is to have many diverse experiences (generalization). According to Epstein, generalists are in the best position to solve problems and innovate in an increasingly complex environment.

He writes that human’s unique strength is in the ability to think broadly, which is a capability that is uniquely human and difficult to teach a machine or algorithm to do effectively. He cites numerous examples from sports to medicine to space travel where the specialists got it wrong and a more general view would have been more beneficial.

There are many implications to leadership in business in the research Epstein compiles in Range.

One lesson is about over-reliance on data, which Epstein illustrates using the Challenger explosion as an example. At the Johnson Space Center a plaque in the mission control room read, “In God We Trust—All Others Bring Data.” Epstein explains how NASA’s culture made it rely on quantitative analysis too much, which he argues helped to bring on the decision to launch the Challenger when the O-rings were vulnerable to failure.

I highly recommend the book and believe that all leaders can benefit from its lessons. Next week I will write about some of the implications of Range’s findings to organizational development.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Generalized knowledge may be advantageous for leaders to develop new ways to solve long standing problems.


Range is available for purchase on Amazon for $28.00 (does not include Prime discount).