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What develops talent better: early specialization in a particular field, or participating in a wide range of activities and winnowing down to one’s passion at a later age? David Epstein in his book Range (Why generalists triumph in a specialized world) states it can be both, but only in certain specialized circumstances. Tiger Woods focused on golf from the time he was 1.5 years old. He is the perfect example of the “10,000 hours of work to reach expertise” school of thought. Roger Federer, meanwhile, played many sports and didn’t focus on tennis until he reached his mid-teens. The answer is that in simple, defined tasks such as sports, early specialization can be effective. The problem is that most of the problems in our world are not simple. They are highly complex and require conceptual thinking to solve.

Epstein describes how our education system misses the mark when it teaches children to solve problems in terms of rules—instead of helping them learn why the rules work as they do. This teaching limits children’s conceptual development. My kids used to get frustrated with me when I helped them with their math homework. They wanted to know how to do it, and I insisted on teaching them why the rules work the way they do. It took longer, but today they are the better for it. This trend continues into college and beyond. Advanced degrees are becoming more and more specialized, leading to what Epstein defines as cognitive entrenchment. According to Epstein, we live in a complex world where there are very few simple problems that follow the rules. The people who are successful at solving problems and creating new products in the complex world have developed a broad range of interests and are able to see beyond their own specialties. 

This concept has been described as lateral thinking, analogical thinking and inside view versus outside view. Much has been written about this very important topic, but I consider Range the best book by far at defining the causes of the problem and the remedies in an easily understood and memorable manner. I ask a simple question regarding everything I eat. Is it WTC (worth the calories)? I ask a similar question regarding the books I read. This one is definitely WTT (worth the time).

First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country by Thomas E. Ricks was recommended by a fellow book club member.  It is an enlightening treatise on how the educations of our four most important founders shaped their worldviews and our form of government. Three of them—Jefferson, Adams and Madison—had extensive educations based on classical history, primarily Greek. Washington, the fourth founder, was not educated in a traditional manner. He learned by listening to and observing others. We will revisit this.

This is an excellent book, helping us understand the principles the founders focused on building into our constitution. The first one is individual liberty, which came from Greek thought but also the Scottish philosophers Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. This principle is unique throughout history: Our government exists to serve us. That is why our economy works better.

The next principle is based on individual virtue. It calls for every person to live a virtuous life. This focus on virtue has disappeared in politics over time and been replaced with the politics of expediency. It is no wonder our federal government has the lowest trust of the American people in history. We live in a time when it is almost impossible to have an honest conversation about differing ideas to learn from each other. Now, opposing views must be vilified and attributed to moral failings and hatred. Does this sound like cognitive entrenchment? Now you know why these two books were paired together.

Let’s return to George Washington. He didn’t start out well in life. He initially was a failure as a military commander. He wasn’t well educated, but he was humble enough to know that he could and should learn from others and from his own mistakes. General Washington was a generalist, and that is why he is revered as the Father of our Country. This is only a small part of what is in this very readable, informative book. 

Ralph Stayer is an avid reader and former CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves.

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