Mar 03, 2021

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Most people have either read or at least heard of the bestselling Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers, which examines how iconic individuals became experts in their fields through early specialization and repeated practice. This book popularized the "10,000-hour rule" and points to chess masters, music savants, and athletes, like Tiger Woods, who all lived and breathed their respective vocation seemingly from birth, as examples of the validity of this method. Many of us have come to accept this idea as fact, which seems reasonable based on the patterns we see in society. The world is becoming increasingly competitive, success is more difficult to attain, and those that are successful have given themselves every possible head start. It seems more crucial now than ever before to decide what you want to do as early as you can and focus all your efforts on the mastery of that niche in order to achieve success. But is that truly the best approach? The book titled Range by sports journalist David Epstein makes the case that it isn't.

Range claims that breadth of experience, rather than depth of experience, is a more accurate indicator of future success and that the examples of those that reached stardom through the early specialization paths are the exception and not the norm. This idea sounds so contrary to what we have come to believe, but the logic and data used throughout the book create a strong case to back the author's claim. Epstein's logic is founded on the idea that two types of environments exist in our world, and the one we most often find ourselves in happens to favor those with a broad experience base.

Epstein presents the two types of environments as "kind" environments and "wicked" environments. In a "kind" environment, rules and objectives are well defined, they remain unchanged over time, and feedback is easy to discern. Take chess as an example of a "kind" environment. The rules of chess are simple, the objectives are clear, and feedback is easy to measure through wins and losses. Conversely, a "wicked" environment is one that is much more ambiguous, with rules that change, objectives that become harder to define, and feedback that is difficult to quantify. Epstein argues that we face these "wicked" environments far more regularly throughout our lives. It is easy to consider an unending number of environments that could be classified as "wicked," from decisions on how to parent a child to solving world hunger, any problem that doesn't come with clear parameters on how to approach it could be considered "wicked." The existence of these two environments and our propensity to find ourselves facing those of the "wicked" variety forms the foundation for the book's claims. The author argues that you could spend a lifetime of repeated practice mastering a specific environment, but if suddenly the rules and objective of that environment shift, you are left as a master of a game that is no longer being played and your hours spent learning repeatable patterns are no longer beneficial. How would having experiential range help solve these problems?

Epstein says that while these "wicked" environments may differ on the surface, they often share deep structural similarities with others in fields across a number of disciplines. Your advantage is formed when you experience a wide variety of these types of problems and can draw on past experiences that seem unrelated in order to apply successful solutions back to the original problem. Drawing on experiences across disciplines is not a simple task, but it challenges our ability to use critical thinking and often forms solutions that would have never been considered by someone with years of experience looking at the specific problem from a traditional perspective. This is what it means to think with range, and this is what Epstein sees as a pivotal skill to attain in order to succeed in a "wicked" world.

As the client service committee talked through this book, we began to notice and appreciate the vast experiences we had gone through in our own, albeit relatively young careers. Considering only the members of our committee, we have among us a former real estate agent, a former cowboy, a former high school football coach, and an exercise science major turned CFP. If that much experience variety exists within our smaller and younger committee, how much range would we find elsewhere in the office? This inspired us to sit down with a few of the Narwhal veterans to hear how past experiences have been so formative for their ability to succeed in their current roles. The detailed interviews will be available next week in our follow-up post on this topic. We look forward to providing you some fascinating stories from some of Narwhal’s longest-tenured employees.

John Grayson

Account Executive

John started at Narwhal as an investment intern in the summer of 2019 while working to complete his MBA at Auburn University. After finishing his schooling, John joined the Narwhal team in a full-time role as a client service associate in the summer of 2020. John has been tasked with servicing a portion of Narwhal’s younger client base as well as expanding the company’s management of outside 401k plans. Along with his MBA, John holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Auburn.

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