[EconTalk] David Epstein on Mastery, Specialization, and Range

David Epstein on Mastery, Specialization, and Range

27/05/2019 by EconTalk: Russ Roberts

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=71810915
Episode: http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2019/EpsteinDmastery.mp3

Journalist and author David Epstein talks about his book Range with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Epstein explores the costs of specialization and the value of breadth in helping to create mastery in our careers and in life. What are the best backgrounds for solving problems? Can mastery be achieved without specialization at a young age? What experiences and knowledge best prepare people to cope with unexpected situations? This is a wide-ranging conversation that includes discussion of chess, the Challenger tragedy, sports, farming in obscure Soviet provinces after the revolution, the Flynn effect and why firefighters sometimes fail to outrun forest fires.

Listen Date: 2019-06-16 (mostly between Bangalore and Krishnagiri)


  • Good grief, this episode just went on and on. And EconTalk seems to be regularly breaching one hour nowadays. I didn’t mind it in this episode, and I don’t even mind in general, but this is putting up a red flag that Russ Roberts may be starting to ramble too much going forward.
  • Learning about the Roger Federer (being a generalist for years before finally specialising) model vs the Tiger Woods model (specialise early) was extraordinarily cheering.
  • Also of interest: discovering that chess is idiosyncratic in that it’s one of the few things where specialising early not only pays off but is essential.
  • Which means that Gary Kasparov is wrong and life doesn’t imitate chess.
  • The discussion about kind versus wicked learning environments reminded me of the quote from A Slight Trick of the Mind: “In that moment, he doubted if there could be any mental state more cruel than the desiring of real meaning from circumstances that lacked definitive or useful answers.”
  • And the Polgar family cropped up, making it of interest to Kodhi.
  • But I think the person this would be most of interest to is my father. It meshes with the Tim Harford approach in Adapt, and also with his regular advice to me and my wife to constantly tinker, experiment, and act on all sorts of ideas.
  • I couldn’t understand why The Flynn Effect was being discussed. Did they get sidetracked into discussing something else and so never came to how the Flynn Effect connects to the main argument. Does it even get mentioned in Epstein’s book, or was it just an outcome of their discussion of the different worldviews of preindustrial vs postindustrial societies? And how did that discussion get in there, come to think of it? (Looking through the transcript, no, they seem to be independently addressed in the book.)
  • The line about being a generalist not being the same as being a dilettante is kind of a cliche or banality. But it is still a useful banality for me to remember and to guide my decision making.
  • The closing bits about how to rebalance professional activity (particularly in medicine and research!) between generalisation, specialisation, and interdisciplinarism also sounds like it should be worth reading about elsewhere.



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