Book Rec: Range (or Yet Another Paean to Learning from Failure)


With summer upon us, I thought others might be searching for good new reading, as I was when I took up a smart friend's longtime recommendation to read Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. So much good stuff in here. Perhaps contrary to the topic of the book, my brain is constantly in "insolvency policy" mode, so I was particularly interested in the many passages about famous people's meandering struggles to find their passion that catapulted them to success.

Among my favorites was a description of Nike co-founder Phil Knight's entrepreneurship philosophy: [155] "his main goal for his nascent shoe company was to fail fast enough that he could apply what he was learning to his next venture. He made one short-term pivot after another, applying the lessons as he went." This is exactly the advice offered to country after country hoping to develop more effective SME-friendly bankruptcy regimes ... as they unfortunately continue to stick to Old English draconian policies of imposing various restrictions and disabilities on post-bankruptcy entrepreneurs. Range offers yet another extended analysis of why this mindset is so persistent and so counterproductive. We need to let people fail, learn from whatever caused that failure (either mistakes or general economic volatility ... or COVID) and get back on their feet quickly to move on to other ventures.

The book is thus another in a long line of commentaries on the value of failure and the learning that comes along with it. Teaching strategy is also often on my mind, and several passages resonated with the problem-solving method that many of us commercial law profs use: [86-89] "Being forced to generate answers improves subsequent learning even if the generated answer is wrong. It can even help to be wildly wrong. ... At test time, [students] did the best with [exercises] that they had learned via practice quizzes, even if they had gotten the answers on those quizzes wrong. Struggling to retrieve information primes the brain for subsequent learning, even when the retrieval itself is unsuccessful. The struggle is real, and really useful. ... Frustration is not a sign you are not learning, but ease is." My teaching evaluations often indicate that students do not appreciate the benefits of struggle and early failure, and they resist this teaching technique ... powerfully. Stick with it, Range tells us, this is the route to successful learning. Three more cheers for struggle, frustration, and failure!