Why Generalists Win, Sports Gene and More! (Hidden Gem)

David Epstein

David Epstein, Catalyst Coaching Podcast
Catalyst - Health, Wellness & Performance Podcast

Full Transcript

Dr. Cooper:

Welcome to the latest episode of the Catalyst Health, Wellness, and Performance Coaching Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Bradford Cooper of the Catalyst Coaching Institute, and today is one of our hidden gems. The very best of our now 155 episodes. Today’s guest is none other than David Epstein, who originally joined us over 2 years ago. He’s the best selling author of the sports gene and one of my favorite books, Range, why generalists thrive in a specialized world. He is also a writer for Sports Illustrated and the way in which that came to be is a fascinating story and a lesson to all of us in itself. David, well he’s the writer I want to be when I grow up, even though he’s 17 years younger than me. If you’ve read his books, articles, or even followed him on Twitter, you’ll understand why. If you’re wanting to pursue a certification in being a health and wellness coach, your last chance to do so before June is just around the corner on March 20th and 21st. All of the details are available at CatalystCoachingInstitute.com or we’re happy to discuss any questions you may have. Just drop us a note, [email protected] com and we’ll set up a call to chat. Now it’s time to be a catalyst as we tap into this hidden gem with multiple time best seller David Epstein on the latest episode of the Catalyst Health, Wellness, and Performance Coaching Podcast. Well, David, it is definitely a pleasure to have you join us. I loved your book. Fantastic job, my friend.

David Epstein

Thanks very much. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate that.

Dr. Cooper

Yeah, absolutely. Now the audience knows your background from the little intro I did prior to this, but it’s really fascinating. Can you give us the short version of how you got where you are today? And I think it gives us a pretty good indication of this whole concept of range, by the way.

David Epstein

Yeah, I’ll give you the quick version and just a little disclaimer, there’s a sad tinge to it. So I was a competitive runner at one point, and when I was in college, to become a scientist. And one of my friends and training partners dropped dead at the end of a race. And I got really curious how that could happen to a young person who was one of the top ranked people in the country in his event. And long story short, I ended up having his family sign a waiver, allowing me to gather his medical records. And it turned out, you know, I sort of investigated, and it turned out he had been misdiagnosed and had a certain disease caused by a single gene mutation that’s the most common cause of athletes dropping dead. And I had decided, I went to Science Grad school. I was living in a tent in the Arctic when I decided I wanted to merge my interest in sports and science and write about sudden cardiac death in athletes for a popular audience. And through a series of kind of odd jobs, I made my way to Sports Illustrated, as the temp fact checker. And thanks to my, you know, my sort of ordinary science skills suddenly became extraordinary in the context of a sports magazine. And I did in fact write about sudden death in athletes and became the Sports Illustrated science writer and then that whole tragic event led to my interest in genetics, which that interest just grew and led to my first book, the Sports Gene. And after that, because I like changing things up to to sharpen my skills, people don’t really know this, but right after the Sports Gene came out, I left Sports Illustrated and went to a place called ProPublica and started doing reporting on bad science and drug cartels and things like that, but also ended up in some public debates with Malcolm Gladwell on that and a few other things led me to pursue Range. I could flush those out but I feel like you just asked for the short version. I just gave like the medium version.

Dr. Cooper

That’s pretty good and I actually laughed. Three of my favorite authors, you, Malcolm and Alex Hutchinson, are all 800 meter, 1500 meter and milers. There must be something in there that you guys draw me in when you’re not even writing about running in most cases. Back your book. I loved it. Fantastic job just covers the full gamut, really gets you thinking. It’s almost the opposite of what we’ve been hearing the last decade. One of the key aspects was the difference between a kind and a wicked learning environment. Can you take us through that? And in terms of the differentiation between the two and and what it means to our pursuits? Yes. So those are terms coined by the psychologist Robin Hogarth and a kind learning environment is a domain or endeavor, where with certain characteristics, like the information is freely available, things aren’t hidden. There are clear rules. Often, people even wait for each other, take turns, patterns repeat so expertise is based on repetitive patterns. You’re not in sort of a changing work environment. Feedback is typically automatic when you do something very quick, possibly immediate and very accurate. And in domains like that, so golf is one of the examples I use, and chess is one of the example that use, where the experts advantage is based on repetition with deliberate practice, focus, practice. You get better just by doing it a lot. So in chess, you know the basis of mastery is learning these repetitive patterns, and you have to specialize early. If you haven’t started studying those pattern by age 12, your chance of reaching international master status drops 1 in 4 to 1 in 55. That’s also why chess is, you know, relatively easy to automate because the rules don’t change. The environment doesn’t change, and it’s easy to get feedback. You can analyze the games, and it’s based on repetitive patterns.

David Epstein

A wicked learning environment, and this is a spectrum, of course not too discreet poles. Some information may be hidden. People aren’t waiting for each other to take turns. Human behavior is involved. Next steps may not be clear. There may or may not be rules, and they could change at any time without notice, and you can’t count on repetitive patterns. And feedback, you may get feedback but it may be inaccurate, it may be delayed. So as a really wicked environment, he highlighted this example of a New York City physician who became famous because he would palpate a patient’s tongue, so feel around their tongues. And weeks before they showed a single symptom, he repeatedly could correctly predict that they would develop typhoid. So it’s amazing so he becomes, you know, wealthy and prominent and is one of is colleague later observed, using only his hands he was a more productive carrier of typhoid than even typhoid. So it turned out he was the one spreading the typhoid with his hand touching patients tongue, but the feedback was giving him the message that he was doing really well. So he kept doing more of it, and most of us don’t quite, exist in an environment quite that wicked. But most of us can’t count on our work, you know, next year, looking like it did last year on being able to just count on repetitive patterns. What a lot of the psychological research shows that in these more wicked domains people tend to get, if they have narrow, repetitive experience, they tend to get more confident, but often not better. And that could be kind of a dangerous combination.

Dr. Cooper

So interesting, so related a little bit, to that is the concept of match quality or the degree of fit between what you do and who you are. That’s one of things we talk a lot about with health and wellness is when you cross over from an activity being exercise or nutrition or whatever being what you do to simply who you are, that’s a big barrier that you cross in terms of health and wellness. Can you expand on that concept a little bit more so folks can get their arms around it?

David Epstein

Yeah, you put that match quality well, so it’s a term that economists used to describe the degree of fit between someone’s interests and their abilities and the work that they do and the kind of study it because it turns out to be, you know, quite important for someone’s performance and also really interestingly for, and maybe not surprisingly, for their motivation and persistence was one of the researchers I talked to for Range who likes to put it, when you get it, it’ll look like grit. And what he means is that when people get in a context where they have high match quality, where the work fits them, they will display the characteristics we associate with grit like resilience and persistence, even if they didn’t before, which is interesting and what they said that it was kind of intuitive to me, right? But as a college athlete, I remember some of the grittiest people I’ve ever seen on the track were like the biggest chickens I’ve ever seen in the classroom and vice versa. So grit, I think we should think of grit as what psychologists call a state instead of a trait, not something that’s just inherent to a person across everything they do, because I think we could all be put in situations where we’re not competent and we suddenly don’t feel so great. And you try to find that context that has good match quality for you because it’s so important for performance. And one of the reasons I picked up this issue is because there’s a lot of evidence that suggests the earlier we’re forced to choose what we’re doing. The less, and we could get lucky, but the less likely we are to optimize our match.

Dr. Cooper

Interesting. Yeah, my PhD research is actually in mental toughness, and so there’s a lot of overlap with grit. It’s really interesting what you’re saying about when you get fit, it’ll look like grit. It’s an easy way to remember it. What are some of the things that surprised you most as you were doing your research were there things that jumped out where you thought, really?

David Epstein

Yeah, you know, actually, that’s a great question because my book proposal. This is a little bit of a tantrum but this just popped in my head. Both of my book proposals have born little resemblance to my finished book. Range had more resemblance to the finished book than the Sports Gene, which was totally different, but the title of the proposal was Roger versus Tiger. So the intro of the book ended up being called Roger versus Tiger, using these two stories to contrast two different developmental path, but that both lead to the top. And my idea was to go through the different domains, sort of like almost alternating, saying, I here in these domains better to develop like a Roger where you’re sort of broad early before you specialize in. When you arrive at specialization, you have this sort of broad toolbox and here are these domains, where it’s sort of better to be a tiger. And as I went through this, so many of the domains that seemed more relevant to modern work to me were showing that Roger path. So I ended up leaning completely in that direction, trying to like repeatedly, you know, sort of stop and add caveats through the book, saying like, by the way, you know, here are areas where specialists are really useful and we also need them, too. So that was a surprise that ended up going to a far in that one direction, I didn’t intend that.

David Epstein

On a more micro level, the one that surprised me the most with this one done in the chapter called Learning Fast and Slow. But first of all that whole chapter surprised me because, this is about learning techniques and one of the surprises for me was that there were some really well known, really well supported learning techniques and cognitive psychology, and I didn’t know most of them. And when I would go to the university and ask the people who study this like what the teacher’s college down a couple of blocks away think about it, it became clear to me that there’s like no communication between the two. So the people studying the best learning techniques and the people training teaching have like no interaction, which is surprising and troubling. But anyway, so the study that kind of took me back the most was this one done at the U. S. Air Force Academy and partly because the Air Force Academy just has this incredible set up for a study of the impact of teaching quality that you basically couldn’t replicate. Well, you could in very few other places because the Air Force Academy every year gets in about 1000 students in entering class, and those students have to take a sequence of three math courses. Calculus 1, calculus 2, and then a 3rd course. And they’re randomized to calculus 1 professors, then they’re re randomized to calculus 2 professors. Then they are re randomized again, and they all take the exact same test. And student characteristics are, you know, the researchers studying and saw that they were spread out evenly across classes. And so this gives you this incredible set up to study thousands of students over a decade, in 100 different professors and see what really is the impact of teaching. And by the way, the tests are graded by committee, so no one can, like, boost their own scores. And what they found was that there was a inverse relationship between how much calculus 1 student’s overachieved, that would be how well they did compared to how well they were predicted to have done based on the characteristics they brought in. So the more they overachieved in calculus 1 the more they then underachieved in the next two follow on courses, which is really counterintuitive. Not only that, so for example, the professor who’s student did the sixth best in terms of overachieving on calculus 1 test, and they rated in the seventh best out of 100 professors. They then performed a dead last in the next two follow on course. And what the researchers concluded was that the way to get the best performance on the calculus 1 test was to teach a very narrow curriculum that imparted a lot of what’s called using procedures knowledge, where you basically teach people how to execute algorithms more or less and when they come to the test they do that. And because they do well in the test and because they are learning very quickly, they rate the teachers really well. The teachers who taught a much broader curriculum imparted what’s called making connections knowledge where you connect all these different concepts, you broaden the curriculum, instead of teaching procedures, you are teaching students to create these more abstract conceptual models. Whether you try to match a strategy to a type of problem, that’s a slower type of learning and it’s more frustrating. So the students rate their learning lower, they rate their professors worse and then they go on to overachieve in the subsequent courses and that when I read that, it’s sort of hit me that well, that one, we’re not set up to evaluate our own learning necessarily in the best way in the short term. And it hit me that one of the themes of the book. I came across this maybe, like 1/4 of the way through the book. That one of the themes of the book would be this idea that things you can do to cause the most rapid short term improvement can sometimes undermine long term develop. So that sort of became this sort of analogy in my head for a lot of the other things I was writing about.

Dr. Cooper

Right, right. Excellent. Excellent. All right, So the phrase jack of all trades and master of none is one that you hear all the time. People usually use it in a negative way. You know, they’re kind of feeling like they’re not enough or somebody else isn’t enough in comparison to other people that are really good at a thing. What would you say in reference to that perspective? Based on everything that you’ve read, you’ve written about, you’ve talked about etc.

David Epstein

Well, one sort of interesting point on that is that I think it’s culturally telling that we leave off the end of that adage, which is so the full adage is jack of all trades, master of none, oftentimes better than master of one. But we seemed to have just dropped that part. Yeah, how that didn’t end up as like the epigram of my book, maybe for the afterword or something. But you know, I don’t want to denigrate specialists at all. We totally need them. The way I view this sort of conceptually is like, quoted Freeman Dyson Yemen that’s a mathematician in the book where he gave this same speech where, he says, we need both birds and frogs, the frogs are down in the mud, looking at the the fine details. The birds are up above, they can’t see those fine details, but they integrate the knowledge of the frog. And he said, for a healthy ecosystem, we need both birds and frogs. The problem is, we’re telling everyone to be frogs and there we become not agile, become silent from one another, and that’s how I feel about it. And I actually think that some of the work shows that as that frogness has proliferated, it’s created more opportunities for these people who are integrators. That and the combination of communication technology that allows information to be sent so quickly.

David Epstein

So then you see these patterns, like when I looked at patent research, where for much of the 20th century it was indeed specialists who were creating the most impactful patents and specialists were defined as, the US patent office has 450 classes of technology and a bunch of, tons of sub classes and specialists were people who have worked in a very small number of classes over their career, or maybe just one. Generalists were people who had worked in a large number across a broad range of classes and for most of the 20th century the specialists were the ones who made more impact. But with the dawn of the knowledge economy where suddenly specialist knowledge is disseminated incredibly quickly and there’s a huge amount of information available to anyone. Suddenly, it’s easier to be broad in a specialist and starting about late 1980s, the biggest, most impactful patent started to come instead from these people who have worked across a really large number of technology classes, and what they’re often doing is kind of what I alluded to, what I took like my ordinary science skills were suddenly extraordinary when they were placed in the context of Sports Illustrated. They’re often taking something from one area that is well known in that area and bringing it to another place where it’s not so well known, but have a big impact. So it’s almost like a sort of intellectual arbitrage opportunities, you know. And that trend is still continuing to accelerate in the generalists favor. So while I think we need both, I think the drive to specialization has, you might think that means we shouldn’t have any generalists. But I think in fact, a lot of the data is suggesting there are more opportunities for generalists.

Dr. Cooper

Interesting. It kinda reminds me of in triathlon, the average runner suddenly finds themself being the best out there on the course because the best runners aren’t willing to get in the pool.

David Epstein

Yeah, no, totally. I mean, that reminds me of this concept called skills backing, where you know, this idea that you don’t have to be like number one at any particular thing. But if you can sort of layer different skills in a way where you’re pretty good at a bunch of different things you kind of end up creating your own, you know, your own unique integration of different skills that in fact makes you unique, even though you may not be the absolute best person in any single one of them.eah, absolutely very, very good. All right, so the in quotes range of of all the people you quote in your book, I was fascinated. You had Van Gogh, you had Dan Gilbert, you talk about Tiger Woods lengthy, obviously, in that first chapter. Obviously you apply the concepts that you discuss in your book in terms of your own research, your own reading. Where’d that come from? How did you develop that pattern, that habit in your own life?I think that’s a great question, because I have not always been a big reader by any stretch of the imagination. It’s sort of developed later, and which is funny because probably my favorite novel, sorry I have a digressive brain, so you get to see this brain in real time that’s less organized than a book.

David Epstein

So my favorite novel that I read last year. Just one called There There by a guy named Tommy Orange and I subscribed, it’s like monthly thing where a great independent bookstore sends you like a book of their choice with this exclusive Q and A and everything. And I was interested to see, since I like the book so much, I went directly to his Q and A and they asked the writer What’s the, you know what’s the secret of your success? And he said it was a late start because he basically got a job in a bookstore and books were so novel to him that he sort of wasn’t over it and just started devouring them. And then was like, I want to do this. And my reading life has sort of been like that too, I sort of came to it late and became voracious.

David Epstein

For me, one of the treats of Range, I mean both my books, you know behind them are my own curiosity. The Sports Gene in many ways, my first book was, you know, my own list of questions about the balance of nature and nurture and different aspects of the sports world that had accumulated from my own experience as an athlete or as a spectator. Right, like Chapter One was about why major league baseball hitters can’t hit softball pitches. And that was just because I had seen this happen once and just start thinking to myself like, wait, because you hit 100 miles per hour fastballs that this woman is throwing 60 from a 43 foot mount. That means the ball actually takes slightly longer to get there, and it’s bigger. So what’s going on here? Right? And that becomes the question that goes into chapter one. And Range was sort of the same way where I wanted to take on a project that stretched me broadly. I wanted to think about my own career progression and you know, when I was getting out of science grad school, again when I was living in a tent in the Arctic and living in a tent in the Arctic gives you some time to start asking yourself doing some very, very specialized work. You have some time to ask yourself, am I the type of person who wants to spend my whole learning one pretty abstruse thing that’s new to the world or much shorter spans of time learning things new to me and sharing them. And I didn’t even recognize, you know, that the importance of maybe integrating for other people at that time. But I was definitely the latter. So I specifically want to take on these projects that bring me into new areas. And the biggest gift for me of Range, honestly, were having to report the chapters about art and music. I had been interested in art already, but when you read with an eye toward the fact that you’re gonna have to write about something, I process it in, like, a much deeper way.

Dr. Cooper

Oh, sure.

David Epstein

And like when I talk to somebody about their job, I, like, always pretend like I’m gonna have to write a report about a it. I’m interested in people’s work. And I think you go into it like that, I think you ask like much deeper questions. So most of this doesn’t end up in the book, but it gave me the like framework, this like grounding to start becoming a self learner in these areas. And so now my experience of going to museums or listen to a concert has totally changed, and that’s something I was hoping for. I wanted to learn more about art and music. I spent the first year of both my book’s not even writing. I tried to read 10 journal articles a day every day for the first year. That’s my goal. I don’t get it every day, but some days I get much more than 10 because when I was living in New York I have an alumni reading card for Colombia. There’s four computers that’re simultaneously logged into every single journal the university had access to. And so all the citations are hyper linked, and so you can just you can get lost for a long time.

Dr. Cooper

Oh yes the rabbit trail.

David Epstein

Yeah, and you know most of it ends up on the surface and I’m like, how did I ever think that was gonna be useful? But that sort of expansion search function, I think, having the willingness, temperament and also the time in credence, for which I’m very lucky, to do that expansive search is basically my competitive advantage, you know? So I’m a very curious person and that you know, very much with a lot of good luck, I got into a place where I could spend a lot of time just humoring my own sort of the meandering, expansive curiosity so that in my projects.

Dr. Cooper

Yeah, and definitely a big payoff for the readers. I was having breakfast with a friend of mine. He’s a big time executive, and he had some questions organizationally. So let me throw this one out to you. He said he wanted to know how does, he’s read your book, he said, how does leadership facilitate getting people those various experiences that you talk about within the same company? Or is that not possible? Organizations they want that broad experience, but they don’t want to lose people in the process. Any suggestions along those lines?

David Epstein

Yeah, that’s a great question that gets to a number of different things. I was looking at them late in research recently that found that one of the best predictors of who would become an executive was the number of different job functions they have.

Dr. Cooper

Yeah, I saw that.

David Epstein

You know, and I sort of wonder if maybe it’s sort of like Adam Grant, like Givers and Takers if people familiar with that, where he found that the givers occupied both tales of their workplace, where some of them are the least productive and some of them are the most productive. Because some of them they’re giving and being really productive and people help them too and others end up just only giving when people just start taking and then they come out non productive. And I sort of wonder if these people have these incredibly broad experiences sometimes have a hard time with justifying what they’ve been doing, and other times they become the executives. So you know, how do you give people a chance to do that? And so it’s a great question because this again gets to the issue of doing something that might be the best in the short term might undermine long term performance.

David Epstein

So let me think about the comic book study that I really liked in range, where a group of researchers were used to sort of studying industrial processes, made all these hypotheses about what would cause a comic book creator, whether a team or individual to be most likely to make a breakthrough like a a huge hit, and they hypothesized it would be experience. Years of experience or resources from the publisher or a number of different, you know, previous number of comics and it turned out none of those because it’s not an industrial process. It’s more of a wicked environment where you have to create something totally new, and it turned out to be the number of different genres that an individual had worked across in the comic industry. But the really most interesting thing to me was the fact that at a small number of genres, you’re better off with a team of specialists. So you’re better off with three single genre specialists as a creative team than with an individual who had worked in three different genres. And after five genres, that changed. It’s just something about the individual after five genres became this inimitable unit of knowledge integration. But the problem there is, unless you allow them to have more than five genre experience, then you’d be better off just with a team of specialists. So how do you incentivize someone to say, like we know that we could replace them with the team early on and it would do better. But if you allow them to do this exploration first, they will surpass later on. Right? And how do you do that in, you know, within an individual company..

David Epstein

And I think a good model think about that is one I only mentioned very briefly in range, which is the Army’s talent based branching program where, you know, they started having this problem where they were like hemorrhaging their highest potential future officers. So that, in fact, the more likely they were to give someone a scholarship and the bigger the scholarship, the more likely that person was to quit to as soon as they could. So that’s obviously not good. And they realized they, at first thought they, like, developed the grid problem overnight. And then they realized they had developed a match quality problem overnight with the explosion of the knowledge economy, which allows all this lateral mobility for people who can engage in knowledge creation problem solving. The highest potential candidates were just leaving because they were seeing better opportunities outside. So first they throw money at them and the people that were gonna stay, stay and take it, if people are gonna leave, they leave anyway with a half a $1,000,000,000 of taxpayer money down the drain. And then they start these programs, like talent base branching where instead of saying, here’s your career path, go up or out, they say we’re gonna pair you with coach. Try this career path first, reflect on how it fits in with the coach, then this other one, this other one and in these two other ones, and keep reflecting on each one you try with your coach and we’ll triangulate a good fit for you, and that’s turned out to be worth much better for retention than money did. And I think that one helps people find match quality, and it gives them this broad exposure to what’s available and a little bit of depth, understanding what their colleagues do and dabbling these different genres of work.

David Epstein

And, you know, you might look at that and use different terminology. Basically, they’re like teaching people to quit the things that don’t really work for them well, but I prefer to call it talent base branches that have quitting. You know, even though it’s essentially the same thing. And so I think you can come up with programs like that. But I think that we should really think about that role of the coach there who helps the person reflect also, and, you know, make sure that they’re getting the maximum amount of learning from each one of those, if you can store those things up internally, I think you can cultivate a lot of internal talent. This also gets another issue. The Abbey Griffin’s work that I talk about in Range who studies serial innovators, people who make these repeated creative contributions, for their organization she like, warns HR people saying, you know, when you define your job too narrowly, you accidentally screen these people out because they have the sort of eclectic background, they have a need to communicate with people outside of their domain. They, she says, they appear to split among ideas, which doesn’t normally sound like a compliment. You know, they use analogies from other disciplines, and that’s you know, and I think it’s hard to tell someone to look for that. Right, and usually those people are cobbling together their careers by moving out of organizations and then maybe by the time you have to get them they are much more expensive it would be much better if you could cultivate them internally, but I think you have to have the mindset that you have to allow some time of experimentation and zigzagging. So you have to sacrifice a little bit of short term results. You know, I wish that weren’t the case, but I think it is. And I think if you’re willing to do that, you can develop internal systems like talent based branching that will cultivate your employees.

Dr. Cooper

I just love that. That was a good one to add in there, my friends. So a little advice for parents in our audience, you discuss this quite a bit in the book. But any little tips you could throw out to us in terms of kids, pursuits of sports, choosing majors, any of those types of things.

David Epstein

Yeah, well, let me. So we talked a little bit for the recording started. I’m a new parent and so we mentioned talent base branching. That made an impression on me, where I think of my role as a parent, sort of as the coach in talent based branching, where my role to facilitate a bunch of different opportunities for the kid and then help them reflect on those in a way that helps him get the maximum amount of learning about themselves that they go forward. So I think that’s sort of a decent conceptual approach when it comes to youth sports who had a tough one. So up until recently I was living in Brooklyn and there was a U7 travel soccer team that met at a park not far from me and in my opinion, But if there’s a single person in the world who thinks that six year olds can’t find good enough competition in a state of nine million people that they have to travel, I would like to meet that person. I doubt it, right, because I don’t think like nobody stopped to think are we doing this because it’s the development for the kids? No, it’s because kids are our customers for whoever’s running that league. And they want to keep the customers from the other sports and, you know, and if they can say, like, what got me on the U7 team to be on the U8 team, and so forth. Right then they have a customer for a long time, and so I don’t like to tell parents, okay, just have your kids play a ton of sports because I realized that for a lot of parents, the systems in place actually kind of make that impossible, because a lot of these select teams and everything will put conditions that don’t allow some people to do that. So I mean, I think on the one hand, that’s why John Cotay’s research, he’s a Canadian researcher or sports scientist shows that the odds of becoming a professional athlete have been going up if you live in smaller towns because those places aren’t so competitive with select teams that the kids have to specialize pre puberty.

David Epstein

Which is interesting and his book is super interesting. So he compute the odds ratios for your likelihood of making it to the elite level based on the side of the town you’re born. It has been going down, even way down to towns under 100,000 now, even for things like basketball that traditionally associated with, you know urban talent. Okay, so let’s say that parents aren’t really in a, they can’t just buck the system because it’s being forced on them. Then I think hopefully, and I do think there are some people in very influential sport decision making rolls in America now that are sort of trying to change things where if you’re going to get the kids in, you could still encapsulate a lot of what diversity has to offer in a particular sport, because I think I don’t know this, but I think that multi sport exposure it’s sort of a proxy for diversity of movement and diversity of challenges that you face. And it doesn’t really matter if you’re putting on a basketball jersey or football jersey. So in France for example, which won the last men’s world cup. They started overhauling their development pipeline decades ago to come in line with some of this research where the kids will get in the pipeline young, but they don’t really know, they don’t have them playing adult soccer they have them doing unstructured stuff. They’re playing like on different surfaces, different size playing field, different number players. And so they’re varying up the challenge each time.

David Epstein

It’s like what you see if you go to Brazil. The kids aren’t playing soccer, they’re playing futbol. And one day they’re playing on sand one day and cobblestones the next. And on a volleyball court over the net the next day. And and so it’s really the incorporating a huge amount of diversity within the sport. That same thing that Judy Murray, mother of Andy and Jamie Mark does. She has a popular camp where because she’s Judy Murray, people feel okay, taking their kid out of the development systems and giving them to her and then she has them playing tennis, but okay, they’re playing through tree branches one day or they’re doing you know, they’re doing something with a racket and a ball, but it’s not really tennis, it’s the diversity of challenges. But it’s enough to sort of satisfy a parents or whoever that’s tennis related. And so I think within individual sports, we could be really creative and and still get some of this value. But the problem is, you know, in France they have this, for men’s soccer, they have a sort of ballistic pipeline, whereas we’re not really like that where, we have a system where you know the coaches incentive is to win the eight year old national championships, which is actually a thing, then the way to do that, is to teach the kid plays and the so called close skills, you know how to cross and all this kind of stuff. Because if that’s all they’re incentive is to win with the eight year old. Then you know it’s hard to tell them to do what best for developing the future 20 year old.

Dr. Cooper

Right, wow, wow! All right, so what questions were left unanswered in your research?

David Epstein

I mean one of the real moving targets. I hate to admit this was like, what is the generalist? And I think it’s very much a semantic moving target. So we talked a little bit about patent research. So in the patent research, the patent research has defined generalists and specialist, based on the number of different technology classes they worked across. Comic book research can define it as the number of different genres someone has worked across. But in most domains it’s not that easy to quantify what it is. And then you see people like in the end of the book, I talk about Oliver Smithies, Nobel laureate who I would say has two different, two different discoveries, essentially renovation, that basically change the way modern science works. And when he was trained to be a doctor and he went to a lecture on chemistry and he says, whoa, this is really interesting, like I’m gonna learn this. So, he veers off the medical track and starts taking chemistry. And, as he put it, suddenly, he’s not afraid of biology because he has a medical background and now he’s not afraid of chemistry either. And so he starts merging them. And, you know, when I talked to him, he passed away not long ago. When I talked to him he’s 90 years old in his lab, by the way, he’s a molecular biochemist. In his mid fifties, he actually took a sabbatical two floors away to learn how to work with DNA. And so he learned that in his mid 50s and publishes his most important work when he was 60 and won the Nobel Prize as a geneticist. But before that, he had been a molecular biochemists which to any outsider, sounds like the epitome of specialization, right? But at the time he was becoming that it was a bold hybrid of different forms of this merging of chemistry and biology. So there you see someone who at a certain point we would have called them, you know, this pioneering integrator. But then, by the end of his career, you call him for sure, a specialist. And so getting the semantic distinction of what even is a generalist and a specialist was just very difficult to do. And I think a real moving target, you know, like I was talking about with someone about Krav Maga, the martial art and krav maga is like taking a conglomeration of, like, half a dozen other fighting forms plus some customization. So in total, within itself is a generalist creation, but then people can specialize in that. So to define generalists and specialists to me is incredibly you know, this real semantic moving target. So I tried the end, the book with the last chapter of proactively picking people who are very much specialists. You know, doctors and scientists basically and showing how within that some of them are still harnessing the benefits of broad thinking and what I called Range. But I still think the semantic distinction between generalists and specialists is actually a difficult thing to define, except in some of the areas where it’s quantified by the researchers themselves.

Dr. Cooper

But at least you’ve got the conversation moving now.

David Epstein

Yeah, I mean, that’s so I don’t pretend to have perfect answers to pretty much anything I write about, but my feeling about it, with this conversation of how broad or specialized to be is one that is either implicitly or explicitly important to most people or maybe everyone at some point in their life and it pretty much happens only based on intuition. And when I think of something like that, you know, that’s how I felt about the Sports Gene, too, When I think of something like that, a conversation that’s ubiquitous but almost always based on intuition. My goal is to bring together some material that makes those conversations hopefully more interesting and hopefully more productive than not only based on intuition, so that’s kind of my goal.

Dr. Cooper

Very well done. So let’s turn the mirror around a little bit. How have you applied the discoveries you made in your research to your own life?

David Epstein

Yeah, I mean, one of the most concrete, so a few concrete things, I mentioned already. I’m taking the I’m the coach of the talent based branches with my kids.

Dr. Cooper

Yes.

David Epstein

And I gotta say, I was oriented toward, like, cult of the head start before. So, actually, you know, I actually feel a little better, too. I feel like a little less pressure about it which to me is kind of nice. But so with the work of Hermania Ibarra, who studies help people make successful career transitions and and unsuccessful, um, left an impression on me. She had this phrase I love that we learn who we are in practice, not in theory. And what she means by that is there’s like, you know, there’s lots of personality quizzes and things that kind of implicitly want to convince you that you’re a static product, right? This is who you are. What’s your match? And what she argues is that our insight into ourselves is actually constrained by our roster of previous experiences. And we actually have to do stuff to figure out who we are and then reflect that. And that’s why we change as we age, you know? That’s why sometimes we realized that, like marrying our high school sweetheart once we learn a lot more about ourselves and the world, it wasn’t actually such a good idea. Not saying it’s not a good idea for everyone, but probably for most people. So she says act and then think, so I started thinking about this, and by the time this book, you know by the time Range came out I’m already back in the beginner mindset, for whatever is next, I don’t even know. So as soon as people are like great job, you’re really good at this. I’m already like feeling like a freshman.

David Epstein

And so I started this thing called, the Book of small experiments where I used to keep like a goal journal, that was akin to what I had when I was a runner. Where as a runner you have these very specific time goals.

Dr. Cooper

Sure.

David Epstein

Competition goals and actually found that didn’t work as well for me in my sort of work world, because the goals are not as black and white and they’re moving a lot more than things like that. And I was learning about myself a lot more and so I sort of dropped that for a while. And now I’m back. But this book of small experiments where basically I treated, sort of how I did my you know, my notebook when I was a grad student. Much like here’s something I wanna explore by myself or some skill I want to learn or some interest I wanna pursue a little more and see where it goes. Here’s my hypothesis about you know what I can try to learn and explore that and then go do it and come back. And that book of small experiments forces me to really reflect on the experience and see what I got out of that night. I’m doing that constantly now. I interviewed a committee early in the the Range process. And so after that, I started doing this like right after that, and it led me to when I got stuck with, the major challenge for me, in book writing is structuring this huge amount of information like defining the plane space. First of all, because you could go in a 1,000,000 different directions and then structuring the information, and I got stuck at a certain point, I was just my brain was overheating, is how I say it to my wife.

David Epstein

And so I decided to take an online fiction writing course just to mix it up, a beginner’s fiction writing course. Nothing I’ve done matters in writing. Nobody cares. And it was kind of a revelation for me. So, one of the exercises you had to write a story using no dialogue. And after doing that, I realized I had been leaning on quotes and because I have been between books, I had been writing shorter pieces and shorter pieces tend to be more quote heavy. And I have been leaning on quotes to do explanation that is much more clearly done with narrative writing instead of saving the quotes for sort of the voice of the characters or points of emphasis. And it was kind of scary to me because I didn’t realize I was doing that until I sort of got knocked out of my my what the economist Russ Roberts told me he thinks of it. The hammock of competence is so comfortable, you don’t stand up to look around it to see how you can do something better.

David Epstein

I went back through the manuscript at that point and stripped a huge number of quotes and replaced them with what I think is more clear writing in some cases that required me to go try to understand a little bit better to what I was saying, so they couldn’t put it just in someone else’s words in their mouth. But that really attuned me to the fact that competence is great. But it can also be a little bit of a trap where you see looking outside to tone your skills and it really attuned me to that. So I think I’m gonna do, and so after that, I started taking more of these and I’m trying not to sound stupid but there was like a Japanese comic book convention at a hotel like three blocks away from me. And I noticed this because suddenly you know, half the people, the neighborhood wearing costumes, you know so many wizards all of a sudden and so I walk over there and buy tickets because they have, like a beginning Japanese comic book writing class. And one of the people I most enjoyed meeting became a role model for the end of the book is a woman in Frances Hesselbein, the former CEO of the Girl Scouts. And she kept saying you have to carry a big basket to bring something home. And what she meant was, if you have a really open mind, you could learn from any experience. And so I started realizing I can learn a ton from, like beginning writing classes. So I go take this, you know, start sitting on the class of beginning Japanese comic book writing. I’m not gonna write a Japanese comic book, but it’s about structure, and it’s about, you know, dialogue in narration and development and all those sorts of things. And so I’m now convinced there’s no amount of beginners writing classes I could take and not learn something from. So it just sort of oriented me towards this, continual experimentation and not just continuing to do things I already sort of feel competent. And I think I was maybe already a little more oriented that way than the next person because when a Sports Gene came out suddenly, you know, I’m identified as the sports guy, and people don’t know two weeks after it came out, I left Sports Illustrated, went to Propublica and started reporting about totally different stuff. And I don’t recommend that. If I had known that the book would take on a life of its own, I would not have been changing jobs right now because there’s suddenly have to prove myself. That new editor doesn’t care at all about sports stuff or that other thing, but I think I kind of wanted to go toward that anyway, but maybe I started taking for granted because I think I had stopped trying to think about ways to enhance and diversify my skills that were not in my direct line of sight. So now I’m like, really leaning on this book of small experiments and making sure that I’m doing something at regular intervals that’s not just what’s in my direct line of sight.

Dr. Cooper

That’s such a great example, someone that’s respected so much as a writer saying, hey, I went to this beginning fiction writing class and it made a difference. Great example. So two more. If you had an opportunity to create a billboard that would be seen on the busiest road in the country, what would it say?

David Epstein

Oh my God, I think I think it would say, Don’t feel behind. Don’t compare yourself to people who aren’t you who are younger than you. Compare yourself to yourself yesterday.

Dr. Cooper

I love it. Love it better than yesterday. Love it.

David Epstein

I’d have to use medium sized font on the billboard to get all of that in.

Dr. Cooper

That’s all right, we’ll make it a really big billboard so we can stay with your big one. So last one just kind of a summary. Any final words of wisdom now that the general audiences folks there in the health and wellness world especially coaches, they’re trying to positively influence their clients or people around them, that kind of thing. Just anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to get out there, that might help those folks have that impact that they’re wanting to have.

David Epstein

Well, first of all, I think people in general and obviously everyone is an individual in the health and wellness area tend to look at things in a more holistic way than people in most other industries. So I think in some ways those who do well in this industry are kind of the master generalists in certain ways, because they are thinking about not only the whole organism, but often the whole organism in a context, right. So I think this industry, you know, when people are doing well does a pretty good job. And one thing I think that could actually help them, you know, with their value proposition essentially is the fact that I wrote up a little bit in the last chapter. But even more so in a propublica story, called when evidence says no, and doctors say yes, where specialization in medicine has been both inevitable and beneficial in many ways. But it has also meant that specialists are now all pretty much using what’s called surrogate markers. So they’re not looking at the whole organism. They are, you know, cardiologists. Maybe not even looking at the whole heart and maybe just working with cardiac bowels and they see some issue with cardiac valve, and they change it and, you know, problem fixed. But what they actually care about, is the person less likely to die of a heart attack or stroke? What we’re seeing now is, in many cases, these surrogate markers are not actually a good proxy for the whole organism. So people have their cardiac valve altered or their blood pressure numbers altered, and they die of heart attack or stroke the same rate with lower blood pressure numbers. And so I think, this more holistic approach, there’s a huge value composition that I think becomes much more enticing if the field can not denigrate medical specialization but expressed some of the limitations of working from surrogate markers and help people understand how much, many cases, more important, but certainly critical it is that have people who are working, zoomed out, looking at the outcomes off the whole organism in their specific individual context.

Dr. Cooper

Excellent. Excellent. Great advice, David. I really appreciate it. I’ve looked forward to this one since we set up a couple months ago. I know you’re crazy busy. Congratulations on the book. Outstanding. And all the best, we look forward to the next next round of experiments coming to the forefront.

David Epstein

Yeah, I appreciate it. And I appreciate you being patient with me, a lot of the half moon scheduling. I didn’t expect the book stuff to get out of the gate quite this quick.

Dr. Cooper

Well that’s exciting. Well done. Congratulations.

David Epstein

Yeah, thank you.

Dr. Cooper

Now you know why I want to grow up to write like David Epstein, don’t you? A big time thank you to David. Such a pleasure everytime we cross paths. I knew we’d bring this one back as a hidden gem the day we originally recorded it. Thanks to you for tuning in to the number one podcast for health and wellness coaching. Next, we’re going to dig into the truth about the COVID 19 vaccine with physician, professor, and infectious disease specialist doctor Michelle Barron. If you’ve got questions about whether the vaccine was rushed in creation, how it influences pregnancy, the effects of the mRNA element, anything else, she’s among the most qualified individuals on the planet to answer those questions. As always, feel free to reach out to us with any questions about your current or future coaching career, [email protected] or tap into additional health, wellness, and performance resources and information about the coaching at CatalystCoachingInstitute.com. Now it’s time to be a catalyst, making a positive impact on the lives of our clients, our community, without burning ourselves out in the process. This is Dr. Bradford Cooper of the Catalyst Coaching Institute, I’ll speak with you soon on the next episode of the Catalyst Health, Wellness, and Performance Coaching Podcast, or maybe over on the new Youtube Coaching Channel.