The Importance of Having Range in a Wicked World

Centre for Strategic Futures
9 min readFeb 19, 2024

By Lim Yun Hui

Everyone knows the famous phrase (or insult) “Jack of all trades, master of none”. For a long time, society has been telling us that specialists triumph over generalists. What most fail to recognise is that the full quote actually reads: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but often times better than a master of one”. It often puzzles me that many have conveniently forgotten about the second half of the famous phrase.

Image designed by Stanley Yang

Thankfully, David Epstein’s Range (2019) compellingly highlights this important point and puts forth a long-needed general argument against overspecialisation. The book contains countless case studies and anecdotes that highlight the immense but often overlooked value of having breadth of knowledge and experiences, as opposed to narrow specialisation — the latter of which had been traditionally touted as the standard pathway to success.

While narrow specialisation has enabled us to excel in straightforward environments and in tackling well-defined problems, the ground beneath us has shifted. VUCA. Polycrisis.[1] A “perfect long storm”.[2] These terms have emerged to describe the nature of the modern world: unpredictable, rapidly changing, disruptive and profoundly uncertain. In an increasingly complex world where wicked problems dominate, breadth and versatility [1] [2] — or what Epstein calls range — have become ever more important. As a self-proclaimed generalist at heart, I found Epstein’s book to be persuasive and illuminated how having range can help us succeed in a wicked world.

Wicked learning environments

In his book, Epstein distinguishes between kind and wicked learning environments. In a kind learning environment, people can rely on past experience to succeed because the operating context rarely changes. This resembles a game of chess, where the parameters of the chess board are clearly drawn, all players operate within a structured environment and the rules of the game never change. To become better at chess, a player can rely on diligent practice and learn from the feedback, which is relatively straightforward, clear and consistent.

On the other hand, a wicked learning environment is one that is complex, unpredictable, and that neither has clear structure nor feedback. Such environments require thinking and decision-making that cannot rely on previous experience, because the operating context is always changing. Take for example disaster management. Responding to a natural disaster and humanitarian crises (where no two are ever the same) requires a Herculean effort and an extremely high level of coordination between all parties involved. Not only are civil defence forces racing against time to rescue victims and recover bodies, such efforts need constantly be revised with every new development. This wicked learning environment effectively trains disaster responders to constantly think on their feet to determine the best course of action.

In a world plagued by complexity and uncertainty, it is natural that wicked environments are becoming more commonplace than kind ones. Schools have thus far prepared children well for kind learning environments , but they need to do more to equip them with the skills necessary to handle wicked ones.

Preparation for a wicked world begins in schools

How can we train our children to be better prepared for, and eventually thrive in a wicked world? First and foremost, we need to have people who are comfortable with uncertainty and unfamiliarity, or what Vaughn Tan calls “not knowing”.[3] Because we cannot change the nature of this wicked world, we must develop an “uncertainty mindset”, viewing uncertainty as a catalyst for innovation and growth, rather than a barrier to progress.

This is something that early childhood researchers believe could be built through risky play. As the name suggests, it is play that introduces an element of risk. Such activities could be physically daunting (e.g., climbing trees), exploratory or experimental in nature (e.g., building a fort); they all encourage children to make decisions independently, and experience fear in a controlled environment. There are no hard-and-fast rules nor explicit objectives to be achieved, it is play aimed at building confidence and courage to navigate unstructured and uncertain environments.

Next, we should also place greater emphasis on developing breadth rather than specialised expertise. That is not to say that depth of skills should be neglected, but that the latter on its own is insufficient to address complex and multifaceted challenges, let alone wicked problems. Epstein believes that such range — referring to a broad and diverse range of knowledge and skills — can be nurtured within our schools and workplaces.

Indeed, many schools have attempted to build range among their students through interdisciplinary education. While this is not new, the approach has certainly picked up momentum over the past decade, with many institutes of higher learning today offering some form of an interdisciplinary curriculum. Stanford University’s Symbolic Systems Program offers an interdisciplinary major that explores complex artificial intelligence (AI) and human-machine issues through the intersection of multiple disciplines: computer science, philosophy, linguistics and cognitive psychology. Closer to home, the National University of Singapore’s move to merge the Faculty of Engineering with its School of Design and Environment, as well as the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences with the Faculty of Science, is also a case in point.

Encouraging interdisciplinarity to build range

The range that an interdisciplinary education nurtures has significant benefits as they help produce (for the lack of a better term) “specialised generalists”. Because they possess a bird’s eye view of things, they are adept at uncovering unexpected connections between disciplines that may otherwise have been missed by specialists that focus solely on a single domain.

Don Swanson (1986)’s theory of undiscovered knowledge highlights how interdisciplinary thinking could lead to new scientific discoveries. It is based on the idea that there are unexplored relationships between seemingly separate disciplines or domains of research. By identifying the shared concepts between two unrelated bodies of literature, Swanson believed that we could uncover previously hidden connections and novel insights.[4] Keplerian thinking is founded on the same idea that new ideas and solutions can be made by drawing on analogies between seemingly unconnected concepts or domains. The story of how Velcro was invented demonstrates this deep analogical thinking.[5] While on a hunting trip, Swiss engineer George de Mestral noticed how burrs (prickly seeds of certain plants) were stubbornly stuck on his dog’s fur and clothing. Upon examination under the microscope, he found that the burrs had tiny hooks that allowed it to cling onto hair and fabric. Inspired by the analogy of nature’s “hook-and-loop” mechanism, Mestral went on to design and patent Velcro, a product that mimicked the burr’s mechanism.

Likewise, Uzzi et. al. (2013) analysed 17.9 million papers across all scientific fields, and found that hit papers were characterised by both a high degree of conventional knowledge combinations, as well as unusual or atypical knowledge combinations.[6] The greatest scientific works of all time were made by researchers who were able to make connections between (and often times wildly) disparate disciplines and fields, on top of being able to build upon their existing domain-specific expertise. In fact, this ability to sieve out connections that humans may have missed has become so valuable that many researchers have started to use AI to analyse relationships between papers to make cross-discipline associations.[7]

Hence, beyond teaching students mere mastery of content, schools need to educate students on how to effectively draw upon multiple and diverse disciplines, to uncover the hidden connections and insights between them. The Singapore Management University (SMU)’s College of Integrative Studies (CIS) launched in 2022, aims to equip future graduates with the ability to connect ideas and perspectives across disciplines by “removing institutional limits on how students can combine disciplines and courses”.[8] Students not only learn how to assemble knowledge from domains previously unconnected, they also have the option of customising and designing their majors according to their personal strengths and to meet the rapidly evolving needs of the industry. CIS is the first in Singapore to offer an “individualised major”.

All the above suggest that the tide is shifting. After all, we need new skills to effectually sail wicked seas. While the traditional education system does a fairly good job in pumping out graduates with a single specialisation and in expanding the depth of research within each discipline, more focus ought to be placed on the ‘breadth’: uncovering the not-so-obvious connections across multiple disciplines. Identifying and generating new perspectives between previously unlinked repertoires of knowledge could lead to novel solutions that address the multifaceted challenges that mark today’s world. It follows then, that aside from mastering a discipline, students increasingly need to learn how to integrate different disciplines, and schools need to champion and teach that.

Embracing the roads less travelled

What about workplaces? What could they do to help build the range crucial to cope with a wicked world? Besides considering applicants with an interdisciplinary education, workplaces could do more to embrace individuals with a wide array of experience in various domains, industries or roles. Organisations often reject candidates on the basis that their experience is ‘irrelevant’ or not a ‘good fit’ for the role (e.g., a product marketer is rejected for a data science job). While direct experience is indeed non-negotiable and a reasonable criterion to fulfill, solely focusing on this might blind us to other equally qualified individuals with desired traits such as adaptability or the ability to work in unfamiliar and high-uncertainty environments. Individuals with a circuitous career path are also often overlooked, although their experience may very well reflect a good track record in successfully transitioning between different roles and industries.

“Many stellar engineers have no formal certifications or degrees; some didn’t go to college. We believe that there’s no single “best” route to a role. Often, less-traveled roads can provide invaluable experience and unexpected perspectives.”[9]

Relatedly, job-hopping has also often been framed in a negative light, a symptom of millennials and zoomers being ‘unattached’ and ‘unengaged’ to organisations[10], or ‘lacking commitment and perseverance’.[11] There are endless reasons as to why anybody would leave a job prematurely (some of which are arguably more valid than others), but the point is that job-hopping should also be understood as people recognising the immense value of risk-taking, of acquiring range and of daring to be experimental. We might not dare to take an unconventional path when it comes to our careers, but it’s worthwhile to ask those who have why they choose to do so. The answer may come as a welcome surprise.

Unparalleled range: the homo universalis

The ultimate Jack of all trades is a homo universalis or polymath, someone who has broad interests and is accomplished in a wide variety of fields and domains. Their diverse skillsets and multidisciplinary knowledge gift them with a remarkable ability to connect ideas across various domains, and to pivot between different roles and industries ingeniously.

“Each new field we learn that is unfamiliar to others in our field gives us the ability to make combinations they can’t.”[12]

This unparalleled range also provides polymaths with a unique point of view, something that only they possess compared to their counterparts who have narrow specialisations and are only able to see from the perspective of a single discipline. By seeking surprising connections across multiple domains, this unique vantage point leads to the cross pollination of ideas and strengthens creative problem solving. All in all, having range can not only better prepare us for this strange new world, but allow us to live fuller and richer lives.

Lim Yun Hui is Foresight Analyst at the Centre for Strategic Futures.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.

Footnotes

[1] World Economic Forum. (2023, March 7). This is Why ‘Polycrisis’ is a Useful Way of Looking At the World Right Now. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2023/03/polycrisis-adam-tooze-historian-explains/

[2] Monetary Authority of Singapore. (2022, March 9). “Responding to a Perfect Long Storm” — Transcript of Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Senior Minister and Chairman, Monetary Authority of Singapore, at the IMAS-Bloomberg Investment Conference on 9 March 2022. https://www.mas.gov.sg/news/speeches/2022/responding-to-a-perfect-long-storm

[3] Tan, V. (2023, January 11). Introducing Not-Knowing. https://vaughntan.org/introducing-not-knowing

[4] Swanson, D. R. (1986). Undiscovered Public Knowledge. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 56(2), 103–118. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4307965

[5] Velcro. (2016, November 11). An Idea That Stuck: How George de Mestral Invented the Velcro® Brand Fastener https://www.velcro.com/news-and-blog/2016/11/an-idea-that-stuck-how-george-de-mestral-invented-the-velcro-fastener/

[6] Uzzi, B., Mukherjee, S., Stringer, M., & Jones, B. (2013). Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact. Science. https://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/faculty/jones-ben/htm/atypical_combinations_and_scientific_impact.pdf

[7] Gregory, M. (2019, July 9). AI Trained on Old Scientific Papers Makes Discoveries Humans Missed. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en/article/neagpb/ai-trained-on-old-scientific-papers-makes-discoveries-humans-missed

[8] SMU Takes Individualised Learning to the Next Level With the Launch of Its College of Integrative Studies. (2022, May 20). Singapore Management University. https://news.smu.edu.sg/news/2022/05/20/smu-takes-individualised-learning-next-level-launch-its-college-integrative-studies

[9] Ferguson, D., & Lee, F. (2021, May 25). Why You Should Invest in Unconventional Talent. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/05/why-you-should-invest-in-unconventional-talent

[10] Adkins, A. (n.d.). Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/231587/millennials-job-hopping-generation.aspx

[11] Goh, C. T. (2022, March 30). How Much Job-Hopping is Too Much? Here’s What Hiring Managers Say. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/30/great-resignation-what-hiring-managers-think-of-job-hopping.html

[12] Simmons, M. (2017, April 28). Why Being a Jack of all Trades is No Bad Thing. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/04/how-elon-musk-learns-quicker-and-better-than-anyone-else/

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