Notes from David Epstein's Range

May 23, 2021 · Matt

The Cult of the Head Start

  • Breadth provides insight that can be used to enhance depth - (Shannon taking boolean logic into telecoms)
  • The real world is not narrow, it is broad and unpredictable. Depth only works in narrow, repetitive domains - the real world is a wicked domain.
  • Strategy: how to manage the little battles in-order to win the bigger war.
  • The best specialist have breadth - Nobel Laureates are more likely to have various interests than their "lesser" peers.
  • More breadth allows for easier transitions. It keeps multiple options in play.
  • Moravec's paradox:

Encoded in the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the human brain is a billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it. The deliberate process we call reasoning is, I believe, the thinnest veneer of human thought, effective only because it is supported by this much older and much more powerful, though usually unconscious, sensorimotor knowledge. We are all prodigious olympians in perceptual and motor areas, so good that we make the difficult look easy. Abstract thought, though, is a new trick, perhaps less than 100 thousand years old. We have not yet mastered it. It is not all that intrinsically difficult; it just seems so when we do it.

We should expect the difficulty of reverse-engineering any human skill to be roughly proportional to the amount of time that skill has been evolving in animals. The oldest human skills are largely unconscious and so appear to us to be effortless. Therefore, we should expect skills that appear effortless to be difficult to reverse-engineer, but skills that require effort may not necessarily be difficult to engineer at all.

  • How do I see the bigger picture?
  • How do I extend my breadth?
  • What is my domain of expertise?

How the Wicked World Was Made

  • How to be like Enrico Fermi?
  • Abstract thinking is key. How do I improve it?
  • How do I improve my cognitive flexibility
    • how to do self-directed problem solving.
    • how to do non-repetitive challenges.
  • Should I go study a broad field such as Econ? Maybe do a Masters in Econ.

When Less of the Same Is More

  • You've got to sample a lot!
  • If you hit a wall, just pivot!
  • Ignore errors or perfection, just do what you love.
  • Try solving all kinds of problems, it will help build the bigger picture.

Learning, Fast and Slow

  • How do I find desirable difficulties in my domain?
  • Desirable difficulties: makes learning more challenging, slower and frustrating in the short term.
  • Repetition is less important than struggle.
  • Spacing, making connections.
  • Interleaving vs blocked.
  • Blocked: practicing the same thing repeatedly, each problem employing the same procedure. Interleaving: learning under varied conditions; mixed practice.
  • How to not get fooled of my progress when interleaving? How do I know that it's beneficial even if I'm flopping.
  • Varied practice is essential. How to create variation in my learning?
  • Learning slowly == learning deeply.
  • Far transfer: - when a knowledge structure is so flexible that it can be applied effectively even in new domains or extremely novel situations.

Thinking Outside Experience

  • Analogical thinking: recognizing conceptual similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that may seem to have little in common on the surface.
  • Use distant analogies to probe solutions.
  • Inside view: making judgments based narrowly on the details of what's in front of you.
  • Outside view: looking for deep structural similarities in other domains.
  • Evaluate an array of options before using intuition.
  • Restate a problem before solving it.
  • Keplerian thinking.
  • Have several strategies for solving a problem.
  • Seek to understand the deeper structural features of a problem that are cross-domain.

The Trouble with Too Much Grit

  • Reflect on what it would take for me to switch careers.
  • If I were to switch careers - what are the different things I would like to pursue?
  • Have I fallen for the sunk cost fallacy?
  • It's never late to re-invent oneself.
  • Quit if you have convictions of honor and good sense.
  • It is normal to be "lost".
  • Come up with conditions for which I can quit my current path for something else. My biggest one is financial stability - I should come up with a financial goal that once met frees me up to pursue other things.

Flirting with Your Possible Selves

  • How do I make my current activities compound over time? How do I learn deep structures?

A mind kept open will take something from every new experience.

  • Short-term planning - here's who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here's what I've found I like to do, here's what I'd like to learn, and here are the opportunities.
  • we do not stay the same.
  • Avoid growing more consistent, cautious and less curious, less open minded, less inventive.
  • We learn who we are in practice, not theory; first act, then think.

I know who I am when I see what I do.

  • Check out "The name of the wind" novel.
  • Trying things is the answer to finding your talent.

The Outside Advantage

  • Outside-in thinking.
  • Reframing problems using different perspective that unlocks the solution.
  • Knowledge makes you blind to other things you could do. (beware knowledge skews you thinking)

Lateral Thinking with Withered Tech

  • How do I see old understood ideas in new light.
  • How to execute flawlessly using old tech - lateral thinking with withered tech.
  • Combining domains to give old ideas new uses.
  • Abbie Griffin on serial innovators:
    • tolerance for ambiguity
    • technical knowledge from peripheral domains
    • using analogous domains
    • information synthesis from different domains
    • broad reading
    • learning significantly across multiple domains.

Fooled by Expertise

The average expert is a horrific forecaster

Many experts never admitted systematic flaws in their judgment even in the face of their results.

  • Does knowledge breed over-confidence?
  • Hedgehogs vs foxes. Be an integrator fox - know many little things.
  • Never completely fit in one world.
  • Be genuinely curious about everything - have dragonfly eyes. Learn to aggregate lots of perspectives.
  • I struggled with being actively open-minded. I tend to stick to my thoughts rigidly.
  • Search for why you are probably wrong.

Be a fox: roam freely, listen carefully and consume omnivorously.

  • Relentlessly attack your own ideas, seek to find a theory that fits the totality of the evidence.
  • Do not rely on your intuition.

Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools

There's no such thing as a master key that unlocks all doors.

  • How myopic am I?
  • Which tools am I clinging too even when they do not serve me.
  • Is my current occupation my master key? Maybe I can thrive doing something else too.

Deliberate Amateurs

Nothing here.