The Advantage of Generalists over Specialists

A well-schooled generalist will outshine a specialist at a cocktail party, with an ability to thoughtfully contribute to conversations on any topic. But does that skill translate to better problem solving in all disciplines? That was the question David Epstein set out to answer in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. And, as advisors, we should be particularly interested in the answer as it pertains to the discipline of investing.

Everybody likes to be told they’re wonderful. I read Epstein’s Range with more than my usual enthusiasm. I’m a generalist, also called a polymath by those who love them and a dilettante by those who disdain them. I wanted to find out how my mile-wide, inch-deep knowledge of so many subjects is useful in life and admirable as a character trait.

What I got was a web of fascinating anecdotes, woven together by the theme I just stated, without a unifying theory or new way of looking at the world – which is what readers of quality popular-science books seek. Range is an easy, fun read. But, having placed itself in the big-think genre with a provocative one-word title alongside Geoffrey West’s Scale, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and James Gleick’s Chaos, Epstein’s book does not measure up.

On genes, fat cells, and muscular abnormalities

Some of the anecdotes are truly impressive. Jill Viles, a teenage girl in Iowa afflicted with muscular dystrophy, found a genetic link between herself and an Olympic athlete in Canada, Priscilla Lopes-Schleip, with the opposite symptoms (muscular hypertrophy – big muscles – instead of dystrophy or wasting). What they had in common was a shortage of fat cells on their limbs, caused by a genetic defect. They had opposite symptoms because the defect was located at a slightly different place in the two women’s lamin-A gene. The discovery was a startling display of intuition by Viles, an untrained “generalist.”

But is Viles really a generalist, or a self-educated hyperspecialist on her own disorder, understandably obsessed since childhood with finding an explanation and possibly a treatment for her condition – and better informed on the topic than all but the most specialized neurologists? I’d go with this latter explanation. It often pays to be a generalist, but not in this case highlighted by Epstein.

By the way, there’s a happy ending. Viles is now 44, happily married, and has a son who does not carry the defective gene.

The wicked and the kind

In Epstein’s formulation, a kind learning environment is one in which intense study, repeated practice, and diligence are rewarded because the environment does not change much over time. “Golf, chess, classical-music performance, firefighting, and anesthesiology” are said to be kind learning environments.1 The only one with which I have any familiarity is music, but he’s right: when you practice a piece of classical music, you get better and better at it. The music doesn’t mutate while you’re mastering it, and audiences expect technical proficiency, not creativity; the composer provided the creativity.