Range: Try, try, try, and then focus

Throughout my life, I’ve explored many paths and taken different routes. When I was fourteen, I wanted to be an opera singer, so I spent years being classically trained. I then joined the Model United Nations team at my school and decided that I wanted to study Political Science instead. I didn’t stop singing, though. Instead, I spent the next five years trying to choose between Opera and Political Science. I also danced classical ballet for eight years. I finally chose Political Science and moved to Germany to study it.

A year and a half into my bachelor, I switched to a double bachelor program and also studied English Philology. My focus was language science and, in particular, historical linguistics. I spent many semesters looking at old texts, translating poems and learning Old English. Hwæt!

And no, Shakespeare is not Old English. Shakespeare is Early Modern English. This is Old English:

After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I moved back to Mexico City, where I enrolled in a professional make-up course that lasted three months and I got a certificate that allowed me to work as a make-up artist. I was also working as a translator and as a language teacher.

Nevertheless, I moved back to Germany, where I started my master’s degree in Political Science. On the side, I still work as a language teacher and I spend my days trying to decide whether I should study another master in Linguistics or whether I should move on and pursue a PhD.

I have also spent a lot of time during the last five years feeling guilty about doing so many different things instead of choosing one and focusing, specializing. For a long time, I had no idea what I wanted to focus on in Political Science. I like so many things, I have so many interests, surely to focus on one is not the way to go. Oh, but it is, my mind would say. If you don’t focus, you will not be able to find a job. You’ll never be truly great at something. You need to specialize in something, be as specific as possible, be the only one doing it.

But I wasn’t doing that. I mean, a master’s degree in Political Science is as broad as it gets. And I have done a lot of things: I have gone deeper into populism, nationalism, language in politics, humanitarian aid, state-building, and gender. Not to mention the fact that I’m really into political theory and philosophy. And for the most part, I’ve enjoyed everything that I’ve explored. But there has always been that little thought in the back of my mind, especially when I start thinking about pursuing yet another interest: You’re doing too many unrelated things, you need to focus, you need to specialize now.

Range, by David Epstein

David Epstein is an investigative reporter at the nonprofit ProPublica. He is also a writer. He wrote The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance and Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Before that, Epstein worked at the sports magazine Sports Illustrated, but his bachelor’s degree is in Environmental Science and Astronomy, and he has two master’s degrees in Environmental Science and Journalism. It seems like a long way between Astronomy, Sports Illustrated and a nonprofit newsroom. And yet here we are.

Epstein spent over a year doing research for this book and it shows. It is a series of case studies and investigative journalism, and they all point to one idea: overspecialization is not always (in fact, almost never) the best way to move forward. Instead, people need range. That is, diverse experience across multiple different fields, in order to succeed in today’s complex world. The world, has tons of wicked problems, and the environments in which we usually work are wicked environments. In Epstein’s words, «wicked environments, [where] not all information is available when you have to make a decision. Typically you’re dealing with dynamic situations that involve other people and judgments, feedback is not automatic, and when you do have feedback it may be partial and it may be inaccurate.» To Epstein, our world demands «conceptual reasoning skill that can connect new ideas and work across contexts» (Range, p.53). In short, having range means having more tools to deal with problems, it means being able to see a problem from different perspectives.

The point is, we need range to be able to solve problems and late specialization because we’ve spent the first years exploring different things is better than early specialization.

Ever since I read this book, I have worried less about not having specialized yet. And not worrying about it has helped me dive deeper into different themes and topics that I was hesitant to explore before. I know now what I want to really dive into, I now know my area of specialization, but I also know that I don’t have to be limited to one thing, one field. It has been by pursuing other interests, really getting into them, that I was able to find my niche, the one thing that I want to specialize in. At least for the foreseeable future.

I really hope everyone reads this book, and I really hope that everyone who reads this book gets motivated to try out new things and is not afraid of pursuing their interests. Have, as Epstein calls it, a «sampling period», see what works for you and what doesn’t, explore every path and find your way.

“We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.”

Herminia Ibarra

As to the link between make-up and political science. I still haven’t found it, but at least I will look fabulous while writing my dissertation.

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