March 9, 2020

Mental models

#96 – David Epstein: How a range of experience leads to better performance in a highly specialized world

"Sometimes the things you can do to cause the most rapid appearance of short-term progress can undermine long-term development." — David Epstein

Read Time 43 minutes

In this episode, David Epstein, best-selling author of Range and The Sports Gene, discusses the evidence around the most effective ways to improve long-term performance and learning in our specialties, our sports, our careers, and our lives. David makes a compelling case that a range of experiences and skills are more likely to lead to expert performance compared to early specialization, and offers an in-depth critique of the much-publicized 10,000-Hour Rule. David also provides insights into our role as parents in the process of encouraging exposure to many things, the concepts of when to push them, when to give them space, and when to allow them to quit. Furthermore, David goes into many other fascinating topics such as the role of talent, genetics, and practice in reaching expert status, what differentiates a kind vs. wicked learning environment, the importance of “informal training”, and many case studies that suggest strategies for short-term success may not be best for long-term development.


We discuss:

  • A shared interest in Ayrton Senna, and pondering the value in participating in sports [2:30];
  • Examining the 10,000-Hour Rule, and the importance of questioning existing dogma [15:00];
  • How the medical profession is affected by bad science, and the importance of understanding individual variation [28:00];
  • David’s most surprising findings when writing The Sports Gene [35:45];
  • Kind versus wicked learning environments [40:45];
  • How and why strategies for short-term success may not be best for long-term development [47:30];
  • Contrasting the success stories of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer—which path is more common, and an argument for diversified training and experiences [59:15];
  • Is there an age-range or “critical window” during which exposure is necessary to reach a certain level of proficiency or mastery of a skill or knowledge? [1:14:00];
  • How diversifying your interests and unraveling your identity from your speciality could lead to more enjoyment and actually improve performance in your speciality [1:22:15];
  • The undervalued importance of “informal training” [1:29:15];
  • Advice for increasing match quality in your work—where interests and abilities align—to optimize both job performance and fulfillment [1:41:15];
  • Would David want his own son to attend college given the current state of higher education? [1:51:15];
  • The role of a parent—how to encourage sampling, when to push them, when to allow them to quit, and insights from the childhoods of Tiger Woods and Wolfgang Mozart [1:55:45];
  • The need for varied perspectives and the ability to improvise—insights gained from the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy [2:08:45];
  • How a diversified background and identity could be the difference in life or death—the Hotshot firefighters case study [2:22:15];
  • David’s takeaways from the inspiring story of Frances Hesselbein [2:29:00]; and
  • More.


A shared interest in Ayrton Senna, and pondering the value in participating in sports [2:30]

Ayrton Senna

  • Both David and Peter were huge fans of Ayrton Senna
  • Per David, one of the all-time great sports documentaries is Senna
  • The people of Brazil idolized Senna and his tragic death is something every Brazilian remembers vividly

“Any time I meet someone from Brazil, we talk about Senna, and it is, without exception, they speak of him with a reverence that I don’t think Americans can relate to. There is no athlete we talk about, there is no politician, there’s no scientist we can speak about in the way a Brazilian talks about Senna.” —Peter Attia

-More about Senna

  • A little know fact about Ayrton Senna was that he did a lot of charitable things quietly
  • He was able to achieve unbelievable success but maintain his humility
  • He felt a deep sense of responsibility to the people of Brazil

-Why Peter loved Senna

  • Always been drawn to people that are incredibly passionate and great at what they do
  • Peter says, “I do think that his desire to win probably also killed him”
  • Peter notes that Senna’s willingness to push the envelope is something Peter found incredibly appealing which “maybe speaks to my own demons
  • Everyone who worked with Senna seemed to love him down to the car engineers whom Senna would spend hours and hours with trying to understand things and gain an advantage

⇒ Special Senna Moment: His qualifying session in 1988 at Monaco… “there is no explanation for what he did that day 

*Unfortunately, there was no onboard camera for that qualy in 1988, but here’s a great onboard look of Senna driving in 1990…

What is the value of sports? And why do people resonate with it so much? [11:15]

  • Senna was the example of an athlete who took his sport with the utmost seriousness
  • And people loved him for it
  • But the question is why did people love him for it?
  • And why did Senna take a sport so seriously?

The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits (Canadian philosopher)

  • A grasshopper is playing games all summer while the ant is storing up food in the summer
  • Come winter, the grasshopper doesn’t have any food and the ant does
  • The grasshopper goes to the ant and asks for some food and the ant says, “No, you were playing while you should have been collecting food.”
  • Reading this may lead one to believe there is no necessary or sufficient core value in sport
  • But next in the book, the grasshopper is approached by his disciples who come saying, “You should be storing food. You’re going to die.”
  • The grasshopper says, “No, this is who I am. I understand what’s coming, but this is the best thing I can be doing,” 
  • In other words, he’s engaging in this endeavor for the love of doing what he was doing
  • Bernard Suits is basically saying that there IS a core value to all sports and game: The core to all sports and games is the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles (lusory attitude)
  • Bernard Suits defines the playing of a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Aristotle put actions into two categories:

  1—One was kinesis: You’re doing it for the end (e.g., building a house)

  2—Two was energeia: You’re doing it for the doing, not for the end

  • And he said these two things have to be separate
  • Suits, on the other hand, is saying that sports combines these two categories
  • There is an end that you’re going for, but the love of difficulty in the middle is what’s really important
  • I’m sure Senna had that love of difficulty, says David
  • In sports, you are “intentionally doing something inefficient…in order to facilitate a certain experience

The most efficient path may not be the best for long-term development:

Sometimes the things you can do to cause the most rapid appearance of short-term progress can undermine long-term development, and that actually you don’t always want to be as efficient as possible. . .I think that’s very much embodied in this love of difficulty in sports and games, where you are intentionally engineering in inefficiency in order to facilitate an experience that you hope has some value in some learning.


Examining the 10,000-Hour Rule, and the importance of questioning existing dogma [15:00]

David’s 2014 book: The Sports Gene

David’s SI article in 2010 which he is self-critical of, including citing it as wrong in his book, The Sports Gene

The importance of “fact checking” ….

{end of show notes preview}

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David Epstein

David Epstein is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and of the New York Times best seller The Sports Gene, which has been translated in 18 languages. He was previously a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica, and prior to that a senior writer at Sports Illustrated.

Disclaimer: This blog is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this blog or materials linked from this blog is at the user's own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.
  1. Fantastic episode with Dave Epstein. Both his books are good reads. Near the end the two of you were discussing details of the NASA disasters and accidents in general and it immediately made me reference the book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. He would be an excellent individual to get on one of your episodes.

  2. This was sincerely a wonderful and intriguing episode. I’ll be insta-buying David’s books. Definitely have him come back if you can.

  3. i have a theory, maybe you can speak to if you have a QA session, that what makes you good at something is the autistic ability to do it for many hours. i play the piano and i could be horowitz if i could do it for x many hours but can’t after so long. my butt hurts, i’m tired….
    learning a hard piece, people congratulating me, impressing girls can only go so far unless you’re endowed with the some special kind endogenous ritalin or ambition….

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