An Incomplete, Disrespectful Book Review of David Epstein's "Range"

For the first time ever, here’s a book review. I recently “read” David Epstein’s latest book, “Range”. I say “read” because, as reader and friend Erik Wiken so rightfully knows, I am loathe to read any books, and so I cheated. I listened to it on audible.

I did not finish it. I got kind of bored at the end, and felt like I’d gotten the gist of it. Was it a good book? I don’t know. Hopefully this review will help you decide whether to read it.

Not a Sports Book

I decided to read the book after hearing Epstein on the Bill Simmons podcast. I listened to it while i was working out, and although Epstein was clear that the book was mostly not about sports, I somehow still kind of thought it would be a “sports book”

Epstein had previously written “The Sports Gene”, a book which I have not read. I don’t know if that has more sports in it or not. While some parts of the book refer to sports, including my favorite section of the whole book (more on that later), the book goes literally everywhere.

That’s definitely intentional, as one of the general theses of the book is that it is a good idea to apply problem solving from one walk of life to others. Epstein would probably like sports coaches to read the part about NASA scientists and think about how they might change their decision making process.

Am I A Specialist?

I had one big cringe reading the whole thing. That was, I kept wondering: am I the kind of narrowly thinking specialist that Epstein provides unflattering example after example of throughout the book? In departing from traditional coaching work, I certainly have focused more on a few discrete tasks.

Are all coaches specialists? I remember talking with a college coach while I was in high school. At that time I was at my peak of nerdyness regarding international swimming. He only seemed to know about people in his conference!

But maybe “swimming” or “sports” is too narrow an area to be focused in. I reconciled by the end of the book that what is important is not necessarily avoiding focusing on specific tasks, but instead shutting down potentially creative solutions that can often come from other parts of your life, or other people who lack “expertise” in your area of expertise.

My favorite part

Ok, my favorite part of the book hands down was the section concerning Canadian sprinter Priscilla Lopes-Schliepp and a woman named Jill Viles. Epstein had written this story (mostly, I can’t say if its word for word) a couple years back.

Without spoiling too much, I found myself deep in thought listening to this section. In particular, the revelation of the “advantage that Lopes-Schliepp had due to a couple “small” differences in genetic code got me thinking of the recent attempt to ban Caster Semenya.

While proponents of Semenya’s ban will say that we already divide competition by genders and that Semenya’s biology violates some of those boundaries, the case of Lopes-Schliepp calls into question in my mind why and how other “advantages” are allowed.

Is her muscular, fat free body much like an underwater dolphin kick on the breaststroke pullout? Too hard to figure out who is advantaged, and how, so we’ll just allow it? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions but, as I said, this part got me thinking a lot.

My Least Favorite Part

After a pretty cool introduction, the first section on Venetian orphans and their musical prowess just didn’t land with me. I think, honestly, it mostly had to do with listening to this on tape and hearing the Italian but not Italian voice say lots of Italian words.

Perhaps it’s also because my brain had the hardest time translating this into anything useful. How shall we replicate the knowledge gained from orphans who were forced to perform music to earn their place?

A great, biased, critique of GRIT

Epstein lays out fairly cogently one of the ways in which the work of Angela Duckworth, specifically in the area of GRIT, has been used mistakenly since it became a massively popular concept. Careful readers of Duckworth know that she likely agrees, but as I’ve learned no one owns a concept and people are free to run with something however they see fit.

Epstein also acknowledges on the podcast with Simmons, but not in the book that he came upon this critique of GRIT due to his own experience. He is the type of person who would score “poorly” on GRIT measures, primarily because GRIT values staying on task. Epstein is the type of person who is constantly willing to try something else, which is not exactly GRITty but perhaps a very useful trait, and one he argues for in this book.

My own takeaways

Here’s how the book will influence my own thinking going forward.

I will strive to be less narrowly focused in my problem solving.

I also think it is important as a “Specialist” working in sport to KEEP COACHING. The worst thing you can do is lose empathy for the day to day work that athletes and coaches do.

Finally, the book is a nice reminder to have a life. Seriously, having time to do a diverse set of tasks outside of work can make you better at work, and maybe I already kind of knew that, but still.