Range: “Kind” vs “Wicked” Domains

Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialisation. It is the ability to integrate broadly

Range: “Kind” vs “Wicked” Domains
Photo by kimi lee on Unsplash

I am finally reading Range by David Epstein

A large portion of this excerpt resonated strongly:

“They brimmed with enthusiasm, but rippled with an undercurrent of fear. Their LinkedIn profiles didn’t show the linear progression toward a particular career they had been told employers wanted. They were anxious starting grad school alongside younger (sometimes much younger) students, or changing lanes later than their peers... ”

This question jumped out:

"Do specialists get better with experience?"  

Does experience invariably lead to expertise?

It depends.

Kind” vs “Wicked” Domains

“Whether or not experience inevitably leads to expertise, depends entirely on the domain in question.”

“Kind” Domains

A domain is “kind” when one improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better. These include chess and golf (the examples that Epstein starts out with). More practice (experience) leads to greater expertise. The same could be said about a field like software engineering or coding. The more you learn, make mistakes and learn from the mistakes, the better you become.

The 10,000 hr rule comes into play, with lots of patterns and chunks (groups of familiar patterns) learnt and committed to memory over time. For instance after seeing numerous problems over the years, a seasoned software engineer will likely know what approach or algorithm to take or not.

“Wicked” Domains

Specific domain experience is however not always useful:

“In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate or both”

and can be useless if not counterproductive:

“In the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce exactly the wrong lessons."

How many times have we heard about people applying the wrong solution to the ‘correct’ problem?

The status quo in wicked domains or learning environments is always shifting. Rules change or are unknown. One has to adapt rapidly. Here are some of what I think count as “wicked” domains: a hospital emergency room, politics, entrepreneurship, running a business, real life.

Some take aways

  • Not getting a really high score in primary or secondary school isn’t the end of the world, nor does achieving one guarantee success (congratulations to those that have done so in .ke). One can develop range and over time become really useful.
  • Comparing humans to AI:  “Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialisation. It is the ability to integrate broadly.”
  • Develop Range: “.. those who later made successful transitions had broader training and kept multiple “career streams” open even as they pursued a primary speciality. They ‘travelled on an eight lane highway’, rather than down a single-lane one-way street’