Monthly book roundup – 2019 July

Books finished in July:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

A Boy in the Water: A Memoir (2018) by Tom Gregory. Tom Gregory in 1988 became the youngest person ever to swim the English channel, at 11 years and 330 days, swimming it in 11 hours and 54 minutes. The book documents his close relationship with his old-fashioned, demanding, warm-in-his-way coach John Bullet and the training leading up to the crossing. Recommended.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (2019) by David Epstein. A super interesting book. In contrast to people who claim that early specialization is the key to success, Epstein argues for breadth, or range. Having previously written on sports, he starts off noting that even there, late specialization is more common than early and the best ones have often practiced many different sports when young. Though it is not clear to me that much of this is not just due to some people being talented at many sports or unusually engaged in sports. The evidence that late specialization is better also in other domains sounds more convincing, e.g. later specializers finding better fit for skills and personality and thereby catching up earningswise to early specializers (based on research by Ofer Malamud analyzing variation in the timing of specialization in college brought about by differences in the school systems in England and Wales and Scotland). People switch to better fit and bring experience. Also, a head start in closed skills does not matter in the long run gains of early childhood interventions tend to fade out (Duncan et al.). Early sampling is the key. In general, the fact that child prodigies and savants do not tend to dominate most arenas should also be taken as indications that early specialization and practicing the most are not necessarily the best path to success.

Contrasts the Roger (Federer-late specializer) vs. Tiger (Woods-early specializer) models to stardom. Both may work, but an important complimentary factor is the environment. Epstein follows the psychologist Robin Hogarth’s differentiation between “kind” and “wicked” learning environments. In kind environments, “patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid,” while “In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both (pp. 20-21).” Golf and chess provide quite kind environments, whereas dynamic ballgames, such as tennis and football, and indeed most sports, are much more wicked. (Side note, Tiger’s father claims that early specialization in their instance was also child driven.) E.g., repetitions allow chess players to learn to “chunk” groups of pieces on a chess board together, something that accounts for their seemingly superhuman ability to remember whole chess boards quickly and accurately. This is also related to the failure of IBM’s Watson to live up to the hype that it would solve cancer–oncology is a wicked domain full of open-ended questions, while kind Jeopardy has much more structure, data and rules and the answers are known. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman expressed it as domains in which one could find robust, statistical regularities vs. others.

Many high achievers also have other interests than their specialty. That is interesting, though quite anecdotal. Epstein thinks that the benefits of specialization are greatly exaggerated even in music. Many greats played many instruments and not only their first one.
Higher education is another arena of increasingly early specialization. James Flynn is one that has attacked this and who thinks critical thinking should be taught more. Fermi questions might be a good way to practice–somewhat far-fetched questions without a clear answer that one needs to make assumptions and try to attempt to answer.

There are also some tips for one’s own learning to be had in the book: Hing-giving when practicing is counterproductive, better to try oneself and maybe make a mistake. Though this is different with motor skills, where good form/technique can be important to learn well from the start. Spacing and distributed practice and interleaving good for retaining knowledge. Mixed practice better than block practice (same type of questions together).

The book becomes more and more anecdotal towards the end. Epstein praises the “outside” view as a way to obtain realism. E.g. with infrastructure projects. This seems a little romanticized–most problems are solved by insiders and most outsiders are not like Kepler inventing astrophysics. Breadth is supposed to be good in comics, surgery and flights are kind environments. Elsewhere, we must beware of becoming so attached to our tools that we do not abandon them even whey they hinder us, like firefighters dying running from fires while still holding on to heavy tools. Tetlock’s forecasting studies supports being a generalist is good. Dan Kahan thinks experts cherry pick details that fit their all-encompassing theories.

Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

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