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An Interview With David Epstein
I first published this interview within May 2020. Of all the interviews I’ve done, this one is among my favorite. I’ve added a lot of readers since then, so I thought it would be fun to re-share. Enjoy!
1) Your current work revolves around the idea of range — why being a generalist is better than being a specialist. What book(s) have most shaped your thinking in that realm of thought?
Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment shaped my thinking in general well before I had an thought of writing about the topics in Range, but when I did eventually decide to write the book, I knew his work would be featured, as it is in chapter 10, "Fooled by Expertise." I should note that it's a dense book, written for people in his field. (Superforecasting is a very entertaining version of some of Tetlock's work written for a wider audience, but I think there are some advantages to Expert Political Judgment for those willing to work through it.) I can't even remember what turned me on to it in the first place, but it was truly eye-opening to me to learn that the experts I counted on for predictions on a daily basis—generally without even thinking about it, but just from watching or reading the news—not only had horrible track records, but failed to learn from failure. There's nothing wrong with failing, but there's definitely something wrong with chronically refusing to learn from it. At the same time, the book made me more critical of my own thinking, and impressed upon me the importance of clearly stating my own ideas and hypotheses so that I could eventually learn whether I had erred or not. If an idea or forecast is too vaguely stated, you don't even give yourself a chance to learn from it. And it led me to keep better track of my own thinking, which I think would lead just about everyone to realize they are wrong more often than they remember, we just tend to focus on when we were right. The book made a more thoughtful thinker about thinking!
Secondly, when I was at ProPublica, I read a book called Ending Medical Reversal, about how many common medical practices have been implemented based on poor evidence, but persist even when better evidence shows they don't work. (That's what the authors mean be a "medical reversal.") That led me to write an article on the topic, titled, "When Evidence Says No, But Doctors Say Yes." You get the idea. In doing the reporting, I realized that a lot of the issues were byproducts of hyperspecialization combined with the devaluation of generalists, who keep a broad view. Specialization in medicine has been both inevitable and beneficial, no doubt, but it has also been a serious double-edged sword.
2) Your work involves a lot of research — non-fiction and scientific papers, I imagine. So what do you read for pleasure when you’re off the clock?
A lot of fiction. I actually took an online beginner's fiction-writing class while writing Range, and it was a revelation. There was an exercise where we had to write a story with no dialogue, and, having been doing traditional investigative work for a few years before that, I was in dialogue heavy mode. (Your lawyers really want you to put things in other peoples' words in investigative pieces when possible, as you might imagine.) That sort of flicked on a lightbulb in my head that made me realize I was in autopilot with my writing style, and that I was using quotes to paper over things I didn't understand deeply enough, and which in turn the reader wouldn't understand. I went back a did a bunch more reporting and rewrote almost everything I had to be more clear and less quote heavy. I digress . . .
In a way I never consider myself off the clock as a writer, because in anything I read (or watch, or listen to) I'm thinking about two things: structure and transitions. Always looking for those. As soon as I finished the manuscript of Range, I went to a local bookstore with the intention of buying the largest interesting-seeming work of fiction I could find and reading that. So I came away with War and Peace, and 2666. I got obsessed with War and Peace. I thought it would be some ponderous Russian epic, but once you get the names down, man it's a barn burner. And I hadn't realized that it is Tolstoy's novel-form refutation of the so-called "Great Man Theory of History." It really does have its reputation for a reason. I ended dabbling in several different translations, which was also interesting. 2666 was a very difficult read at times, but I really valued reading it, and thought the last section was truly brilliant.
Recently, I read a bunch of Rachel Ingalls, a criminally under-recognized writer of short novels. She's a marvel of writing economy. One of her books, Mrs. Caliban, was named one of the 20 best American novels since WWII by the British Book Marketing Council, but few people have really read her. (If you liked Shape of Water, you might find some rather startling similarities in Mrs. Caliban, down to the fact that both have cornflakes jokes.)
Finally, two fiction writers I return to often are Martin McDonagh and Haruki Murakami. I have to say, both have written some of the best work I've ever read, and perhaps some of the worst. (Or maybe just relative to the bar I set for them?) I first saw McDonagh's play The Pillowman on Broadway, and it was one of the best experiences of art in any form I've ever had. I've read all of his plays, and that one several times. His most recent play, A Very Very Very Dark Matter, I thought was horrific. All of his normal shock value and word play and brutal events and language but none of the depth. With Murakami, I often find the transcendent and the tin-eared in the very same book; but even when I'm more on the bemusement side of my love/bemusement relationship with Murakami, I usually find something mesmerizing his mixture of the magical and the mundane Really, I think he's a master of the mundane, and the magical stuff just sets that in relief to make it stand out. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is my favorite work of his, but even that has passages or dialogue that I thought were just poorly done. But as some of the research in Range noted, breakthrough creators are very high variance. They have to create a lot, and they end up having higher relative variability in the quality of their work than their peers. If they weren't swinging and missing sometimes, I don't think their home runs would be as exceptional. Oh, lastly, I read American War by Omar El Akkad recently, and thought it was stunning. (Actually I listened to it. My first audiobook, and the narrator is great.) El Akkad is a Canadian journalist who reported in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, and I think the novel is an expression of what he learned about how extremism is incubated.
3) What are you reading now? And what's next on your list?
I always have a bunch of books going at once. The works I'm actively reading right now, as in, I will read at least 20 pages of each this week: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust; Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki; This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone; Land of Wondrous Cold: The Race to Discover Antarctica and Unlock the Secrets of Its Ice, by Gillen Wood (since living in the Arctic as a grad student, I've remained fascinated with cold places). I just finished the forthcoming The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and science writer whose work I love (it tracks her journey from not knowing how many cards are in a deck to poker pro in one year), and I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment of the Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee, a former Nike corporate strategist turned novelist, who has black belts in karate and kung fu and an MBA from Stanford. I tore through the first two books, and while I'm waiting for the third, since I can't read it yet I decided to interview her to satiate myself in the meantime!
4) What's a book you find yourself recommending over and over again or generally just talking or thinking a lot about?
I frequently recommend Sebastian Junger's work. He's become a friend, and he's both one of my favorite writers and favorite people. I've recommended his book Tribe a lot recently. I think it's apt for the times, and it's a really short book, so can be read quickly. I used to recommend Bernd Heinrich's Why We Run a lot. It's basically Heinrich's account of studying endurance across the animal kingdom and applying what he learns to become the North American ultramarathon champion. Right now, though, I've probably most thought about The Decameron. It was written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century, during the Black Death, when something like half of Europe's population died in a plague. The book is a compilation of stories, but the context is that the stories are told by a group of young people who retreat from the decay and death around them to a cloistered garden where they tell stories. The stories of love and lust and treachery and heroism, and everything else. My interpretation is that they are removing themselves to this place where they can essentially preserve and restore to civil society all these features that have been stripped away or subsumed by the plague. So the act of storytelling is one of preservation and restoration. When I read, I like to think of it as a small version of that, slowing down and moving away from my other activities to a place of restoration.