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EXTRACT: Range by David Epstein

By October 2, 2020October 4th, 2020No Comments

Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. However, they’re also more creative, and more agile. Range by David Epstein makes a compelling case for actively cultivating inefficiency…


Psychologist Dan Gilbert called it the “end of history illusion.” From teenagers to senior citizens, we recognize that our desires and motivations sure changed a lot in the past (see: your old hairstyle), but believe they will not change much in the future. In Gilbert’s terms, we are works in progress claiming to be finished. Gilbert and colleagues measured the preferences, values, and personalities of more than nineteen thousand adults aged eighteen to sixty‑eight.

Some were asked to predict how much they would change over the next decade, others to reflect about how much they had changed in the previous one. Predictors expected that they would change very little in the next decade, while reflectors reported having changed a lot in the previous one. Qualities that feel immutable changed immensely. Core values—pleasure, security, success, and honesty—transformed. Preferences for vacations, music, hobbies, and even friends were transfigured.

Hilariously, predictors were willing to pay an average of $129 a ticket for a show ten years away by their current favorite band, while reflectors would only pay $80 to see a show today by their favorite band from ten years ago. The precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been. That feels like the most unexpected result, but it is also the most well documented. It is definitely true that a shy child is more likely to foreshadow a shy adult, but it is far from a perfect correlation.

And if one particular personality trait does not change, others will. The only certainty is change, both on average as a generation ages, and within each individual. University of Illinois psychologist Brent W. Roberts specializes in studying personality development. He and another psychologist aggregated the results of ninety‑ two studies and revealed that some personality traits change over time in fairly predictable ways. Adults tend to become more agreeable, more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and less neurotic with age, but less open to experience. In middle age, adults grow more consistent and cautious and less curious, open‑ minded, and inventive.*

The changes have well‑known impacts, like the fact that adults generally become less likely to commit violent crimes with age, and more able to create stable relationships. The most momentous personality changes occur between age eighteen and one’s late twenties, so specializing early is a task of predicting match quality for a person who does not yet exist. It could work, but it makes for worse odds.

Plus, while personality change slows, it does not stop at any age. Sometimes it can actually happen instantly.

Thanks to YouTube, the “marshmallow test” could be the most famous scientific experiment in the world. It was actually a series of experistarting in the 1960s. The original premise was simple: An experimenter places a marshmallow (or a cookie, or a pretzel) in front of a nursery school child; before leaving, the experimenter tells the child that if she can wait until the experimenter returns, she’ll get that marshmallow plus a second one. If the child can’t wait, she can eat the marshmallow. The children were not told how long the wait would be (it was fifteen to twenty minutes, depending on age), so they just had to hold out if they wanted the maximum reward.

Psychologist Walter Mischel and his research team followed up with the children years later, and found that the longer a child had been able to wait, the more likely she was to be successful socially, academically, and financially, and the less likely she was to abuse drugs. The marshmallow test was already a celebrity as scientific experiments go, but it became the Beyoncé of studies when media outlets and parents eager to foretell their child’s destiny started posting DIY marsh‑ mallow tests online. The videos are by turns adorable and intriguing. Nearly all kids wait at least a little. Some stare at the marshmallow, touch it, sniff it, delicately tap their tongue to it and pull back as if it were hot. Maybe they even put it in their mouth, pull it out, and simulate a big bite.

Some tear a barely noticeable piece off for a micro test taste. Before the end of the video, the kids who start by touching it will have eaten the marshmallow. The kids who successfully hold out wield all manner of distraction, from looking away to shoving the plate away, covering their eyes, turning and screaming, singing, talking to them‑ selves, counting, generally thrashing around in the chair, or (boys) hit‑ ting themselves in the face.

One little boy who spent his time looking in every direction except at the marshmallow is so ravenous when the experimenter returns with his second treat that he mashes them both into his mouth immediately. The crystal ball allure of the marshmallow test is undeniable, and also misconstrued. Mischel’s collaborator Yuichi Shoda has repeatedly made a point of saying that plenty of preschoolers who ate the marsh‑ mallow turned out just fine.* Shoda maintained that the most exciting aspect of the studies was demonstrating how easily children could learn to change a specific behavior with simple mental strategies, like think‑ ing about the marshmallow as a cloud rather than food. Shoda’s post‑ marshmallow‑ test work has been one part of a bridge in psychology between extreme arguments in the debate about the roles of nature and nurture in personality.

One extreme suggests that personality traits are almost entirely a function of one’s nature, and the other that personality is entirely a function of the environment. Shoda argued that both sides of the so‑called person‑ situation debate were right. And wrong. At a given point in life, an individual’s nature influences how they respond to a particular situation, but their nature can appear surprisingly differ‑ ent in some other situation. With Mischel, he began to study “if‑then signatures.” If David is at a giant party, then he seems introverted, but if David is with his team at work, then he seems extroverted. (True.) So is David introverted or extroverted? Well, both, and consistently so.

Range: Why generalists triumph
in a specialised world
 by David
Epstein is available in book
shops now.

Photo by Florian Berger on