- “Starting with the details, the inside view, is dangerous. ‘Hedgehog’ experts have more than enough knowledge of the minutiae of an issue in their specialty to do just what Dan Kahan suggested - cherry pick details that fit their all-encompassing theories. Their deep knowledge works against them.”
That was the part where I stopped reading Range because I’d had enough of the bullshit. I wouldn’t bother telling you about the bullshit except both veen and goobster wanted to know what I think of this book and I’m mad enough at this book to let the world know while I tell them.
Full disclosure - when David Epstein talks about “Range” and “Dark horse experts” and “foxes” and whatever else other bullshit he wants to pull out of his ass, he’s talking about me. I thought I was going to college to design cars until I discovered that I’d get to design brake drums if I was lucky. From there I pivoted to a job in bioengineering, then acoustics, then audiovisual systems design, then mixing television for twelve million people at a time. I’ve made money as an editor, as a screenwriter, as a sound mixer, as a composer, as a wedding photographer, as a swing shift retail clerk, as a short order cook and as a car mechanic. More than that, when Epstein climbs up on his soapbox and proclaims that you should always be ready to “give up on your dreams” in exchange for setting a goal then following the incremental path most likely to get you there, while also being willing to abandon your path the minute you find something better? I mean, that’s been my life. I’ve been asked to explain it a half-dozen times. You play the odds. Simple as that. You take the most craven, easiest, safest step every single time you have a chance to advance yourself a little without losing a lot and before too long, you’re a dozen lily pads from where you started jumping.
You’re also in the middle of the goddamn lake.
This is a good point to mention that David Epstein is addicted to analogies and analogical thinking to the point where he’ll take a bad analogy over a good fact any day. He’s also fond of unsourced platitudes. When he talks about Kahneman and Tversky, for example, he pretends he’s quoting Kahneman and Tversky but he’s actually quoting shit that Jonah Lehrer made up and attributed to Kahneman and Tversky. And when he talks about Dan Kahan, he attributes what he read in Nate Silver’s book about hedgehogs and foxes to Dan Kahan without attributing it to Nate Silver (Nate Silver, for his part, attributed it to Isaiah Berlin who attributed it to Archilochus who has been dead for a couple thousand years). But that’s not really truthy.
This is a book of cherry-picked details. It’s a tortured analogy that flies in the face of fact. Berlin on hedgehogs: "I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something.”
It might not be entirely Epstein’s fault. After all, his framework is sports. At the end of the day there’s a score, therefore everything can be scored, therefore if what we’re scoring isn’t giving us useful information we shouldn’t give up on scoring we should just re-jigger the results so we’re measuring something else hallelujah here’s a new framework of learning. Except we tried this tired and tedious tripe back when it was a book called Super Crunchers and Ian Ayres made most of that shit up too and really? Fuck off with that shit.
Epstein starts off talking about the educational differences between Tiger Woods and Roger Federer because Tiger was a child prodigy but Federer wasn’t and then links to a quote from someone you’ve never heard of saying “no child prodigy has ever made a lasting impact on their field” and then moves on while you’re literally in the car saying WHAT ABOUT MOZART and when he loops back to talking about Django Fucking Reinhart he says absolutely nothing about Stevie Fucking Wonder or Michael Fucking Jackson or the Fucking Mickey Mouse Club
Because, you see, he’s all about range. He’s all about those tortured geniuses who had to fail at a dozen things before finding their ultimate world-shattering success, like Vincent Van Gogh who died penniless and insane.
Now granted - I’ve had a pretty shitty day. And you’re goddamn right I’m taking it out on this book. Not just because it’s a member of the school of ha ha simpsons did it all-experts-are-full-of-shit smarminess. The flag of which it flies high - I mean, the dude namechecks Seth Godin a half dozen times, brings up Freakonomics and their fucking coin toss “experiment” every other chapter and glosses over every fallacy of behavioral analysis faster than you can say “youarenotsosmart.com - an AskReddit thread gone sentient”. But even my shitty Los Angeles day taken into account, this book is just so…
There’s a bit where he slags on education because of course he does. And he pumps up Common Core without calling it Common Core, and he slags on all the teachers that don’t give Common Core a chance and he slags on every parent that ever said “look there’s an easier way let me show you” because you’re supposed to learn it the hard way dammit how else will you ever learn RANGE but fuck you with a rusty spoon, man. I know Common Core teachers. One of them swore up down left and right that Common Core meant never telling a student she was wrong, and never giving her the answers - and she’s a big booster of Common Core. I straight up asked her what she’d say to someone asking if the sun revolved around the earth and she straight up said that giving that student an answer was contrary to their education and future development. Sometimes you need the fucking answers because - and here I feel really passionate - there’s other shit to do.
Epstein somehow manages to trash education because it’s too narrowly-focused while also ignoring the broad amount of education that’s completely worthless to a career… in a book about broadness. More than that, he accepts at a base, unassailable level that the education is its own reward, that struggle is entirely academic and that success will come to those who are willing to fail without acknowledging the costs of failure even once.
Look. I was living as David Epstein suggests before he’d decided to try journalism. I get it. But failure fucking sucks. And it’s expensive. And never once does Epstein touch on the real reason nobody wants to try new shit: you have to prove yourself all the fuck over again.
Because of course he doesn’t, because to him it’s all about chess matches and free throws. He talks about the “Wicked World” vs. the “Kind World” without recognizing that the “Wicked World” will fucking kill you if you don’t adapt. Everyone who ever failed from one job to another? They did it out of hunger not self-fulfillment. Why do employers hire the worst employees? Because those worst employees have a credential that says “if this person is a fuckup you can’t be blamed because you followed the rules.” Why do people keep working at stuff that they’re maybe not suited for? Because they keep getting paid. Phil Knight? Yeah, founder of Nike but also guy who couldn’t cut it in track. Kurt Russell? Mediocre baseball player who fell back on his career as a child actor. Show me a man who found unexpected success and I’ll show you a guy who still wishes he were swinging a bat for money.
Some people succeed more than once. Nobody goes from something they kinda enjoy and are kinda good at to something new because the costs are too fucking high and Epstein simply doesn’t want to acknowledge this. Why do we spend so much time on degrees that don’t even contain the education we need? Because otherwise you’re driving for Uber. What’s really stupid is Epstein manages to talk about the insider advantage without even recognizing he’s talking about the insider advantage: he talks about Frances Hesselbein, a bored housewife who volunteered her way to CEO of the Girl Scouts without acknowledging that the Girl Scouts was more comfortable with an uncredentialed retiree taking the reins than giving it up to an outsider.
In the end, Epstein wants to say if at first you don’t succeed, try, try something else. But fuck, man, I decided to be a watchmaker in my dotage and even with a job that allows me to fuck off eight months of the year I’m looking at a tremendous mountain. I’m 50-something credits of college into it. I’m something like $30k into the education. And I’m not qualified to make $200 rebuilding an Omega. Sure - that’s not my ultimate goal but in order to achieve the success and skill necessary to grovel before local jewelers to pretty pretty please master take this piece on consignment I’ll give you forty percent I’m having to bust my ass for years at a time in a field that I’m actually pretty well suited to simply because of my background. I’m not using my “range” I’m using the minuscule advances over a lifetime of hard knocks to eke out some small advantage over an extremely small and over-leveraged pool ripe for disruption.
That’s not bravery, that’s opportunism. That’s not insight, that’s cunning. Epstein wants to declare necessity to be genius as if there’s absolutely no fucking consequences to failure - the asshole literally wrote a chapter about Van Fucking Gogh without that whole “died sad and alone” bit. He talks about outsider art without acknowledging that outsider artists rarely get paid and are often crazy. Epstein wants to pretend that renegades are renegades by choice, rather than strivers who need to eat.
And it pisses me off so much that I stopped reading the book with less than an hour to go.
Any given job out there? Any asshole can do 80 percent of it. It’s that last 20 percent that will bite you in the ass. So expertise is knowing how to deal with the 20 percent of the job that’s tricky, that doesn’t fly on autopilot, that will kill you if you fuck up. And the reason people have “range” is because we all come into any given job knowing how to do 80 percent of it and if we’re clever and patient and dedicated and polite we’ll get to pick up the other 20 percent while surrounded by those who already know it such that we don’t kill ourselves or the spectators or whatever. But to get to sit next to the experts you almost always need a credential. And that credential gives no fucks about your “range” it wants to know you’ve put in the mutherfucking time. Sometimes you get to skip to the head of the line. I’m a line-skipper. It’s not a skill of being a polymath or whateverthefuck, it’s a skill of knowing how to bullshit your way through the 80 percent so they know you won’t break anything while you learn the 20.
But you’re goddamn right I have to have a really good reason to skip that line. Us folx with “range?” We aren’t fuckin’ ubermensch, we’re survivors. And for every job we’ve ever succeeded at, there was something comfortable that went the fuck away.