A warning this is LONG, but I believe worth the read. You may want to come back and read in chunks. I have thus separated the questions into categories so you can read which ones you like. Enjoy!
One of my favourite books from 2019 was Range by David Epstein. It is an antithesis to the “early expertise” push that has become rather dominant in our society. That is, most people believe that we need to focus our children’s talents early in order to get them those necessary 10,000 hours to become an expert. In part because of this, we see:
- Kids in tons of activities, being shuffled around with no free time
- Parents losing their minds at children’s sporting events
- Pressure on younger and younger children to succeed early and often
- Schools with less free time or focus on activities outside of core academics
Is any of this actually helping our kids? I would say no, but that alone wouldn’t take down the 10,000 hours rule. However, what Mr. Epstein has managed to do is weave a very convincing narrative that for many of us, it’s not about honing in early, but rather tasting pieces of the world around us in order to bring a breadth of knowledge to our eventual specialization. As a rather “late-bloomer” myself and one who has made it my mission to look at parenting from different perspectives, I appreciated this take as it spoke to me at a personal level. Notably he doesn’t ignore the role of our narrow experts who do need to specialize early to be the best and their role in our society is celebrated, but rather it allows an exploration of another side to expertise that may better suit many of us.
The following is a written interview I was able to do in 2019 with David as he became a new parent for the first time and how his writings may pertain to those of us looking at parenting as an area where range may be most important of all. I want to thank David for taking the time to answer all my random questions and hope you can enjoy reading them as much as I did!
Tracy: I think many parents are inherently generalists, at least when it comes to their kids as they have to play the role of amassing knowledge across such disparate fields and try to see how it all pertains to this one (or more) individual. As a new parent yourself, how has the issue of breadth played into your parenting so far?
David: I completely agree with that. And not that it’s quite parenting, but coaching has a parental aspect and when I was at Sports Illustrated I noticed that a lot of coaches at the top level of the sports world tend to describe themselves as generalists, or—a phrase I’ve heard numerous times—“master generalists.” And I think that’s because the good ones realize the most important part of their job is not to tell people how to do things, but rather to be a partner who walks hand-in-hand on a road of personal development. They need to have a broad view of the world and of possibilities, because the individual they’re dealing with is much younger and typically does not, and will miss opportunities and strategies for development. They just don’t know what’s available.
Ok, but in a more concrete, personal sense, this question kind of relates to an article I wrote for ProPublica about medical practices that continue to be popular despite overwhelming evidence that they are ineffective or harmful. That article, to my delight, ended up in your newsletter. And here’s why I think it’s related: I got interested in that topic because I saw all this research where hyperspecialists were basing incredibly impactful recommendations and practices on surrogate markers. That is, not the outcome we actually care about for the whole organism, but on some tiny piece of a complex system, and assuming if they could alter that, it would be good for the entire organism. But it turns out humans aren’t like kitchen sinks or car engines, and cause and effect isn’t so simple. (As you put it, “just because it’s logical doesn’t make it right,” and boy is there a lot of apparently logical parenting advice that I think turns out not be right.) So we end up with all these standards of care that impact a surrogate marker and do nothing (or do something bad) when we zoom out and look at the outcomes we actually care about.
Early in my wife’s pregnancy, we were referred to a kind of fancy boutique OBGYN practice. So we went, and it was conceptually exactly like the stuff I was writing about. The specialists there were obsessed with all these surrogate markers that give a keyhole view into a complex system, and they wanted to do every kind of test under the sun and yet couldn’t even tell me the base rates of the conditions they were testing. Not a good sign. So we went to an information session called “Meet the Midwives,” at a midwifery practice. And they answered every one of our questions with an eye on the outcomes we actually care about, not the surrogate measure of a test. So we switched to them, ended up needing a grand total of zero of the extra tests and interventions that had been suggested to us, and we both agreed that we ended up absolutely loving the pregnancy experience after that. And now as new parents, we’re continuing to keep our parenting eyes zoomed out and not go down the many available rabbit holes of measuring this or that and just assuming it must have value for what we actually care about. Aspects of healthcare and parenting advice remind of the so-called McNamara fallacy, where we decide that only what we can easily measure is important.
Tracy: Although parents are looking to be generalists, they are often scorned for it in our modern society, being called things like “google doctors” with a clear preference given to the specialists. Do you see this as a problem? How can specialists and generalists work together for parents instead of seemingly against them?
David: I think there has to be some sensible medium here. I don’t think it’s necessarily great for everyone to self-diagnose all the time with the first page of Google results. That said, I think there is ample evidence that actual doctors should ideally be on Google Scholar a lot more. I’m kind of joking, but not really. Not to be self-referential here, but, again, that article of mine that you discussed in a newsletter harps on practices that are incredibly popular, or even getting more popular, while a tremendous amount of evidence contradicts them. The typical pattern is: a therapy is implemented based on logic, or “bioplausibility,” or early suggestive research, and then research that constitutes a much higher level of evidence comes along and reverses earlier findings, but the train has already left the station, never to return. Or, not never, but it tends to require generational change, and I think that’s because there are no incentives, other than personal conscientiousness, built into the system for doctors to keep up with newer and better work that looks holistically at actual outcomes. So most of them don’t. And they’re already busy with their daily tasks. The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, has had an alarming number of retractions, but there’s no structural reason for doctors even to know that as they go about their daily work.
So while rampant self-diagnosis may be a problem and annoyance for doctors, I hope they can also use what parents come to them with as one of many inputs to learn about what that parent thinks and what they care about. Ultimately, the parent gets to make the decisions, and hopefully the doctor understands that and is in the role of helping inform those decisions as much as possible. When a parent becomes a “google doctor” and the real doctor thinks they’re wrong, fine! So then don’t prescribe the therapy the parent wants if that’s your professional judgment. What’s so hard about that?
I did some reporting on opioid addiction among athletes some years ago; typically the athletes were getting pills legitimately from team doctors, and I asked some doctors why they prescribed them. And they said the athlete demands them and needs to perform. Well, ok. But if I skateboard into a wall and ask for a prescription so I can do it again, would you give it to me, or would you tell me that if I choose to skateboard into the wall again I have to do so at my own risk and with my own pain tolerance? My point is that patients asking for stuff does not mean doctors no longer get to follow their judgment as to whether they will provide it. So is the main problem just annoyance for doctors? And that some people will be very wrong and get obsessive about being a “google doctor”? If that’s on one side of the scale, and on the other is a large number of conscientious people having more information for decisions and still also valuing the doctor’s input, I think the latter side wins.
When I was doing investigative stuff at ProPublica, sometimes in casual conversation people would say to me: “I know you can’t talk about what you’re working on…” And I’d respond: “I can, and here’s what it is.” I’m not worried about someone usurping my work, and sometimes they know something useful that I don’t. Maybe doctors can take the approach of sometimes parents know something useful. And as to medical hyperspecialists, I mean, somebody has to keep an eye on the outcomes we actually care about and the whole organism, not just the surrogate markers.
Tracy: In the section on problem solving, it becomes quite clear that there are many problems we need outsiders for to help us get to the answer. Obviously there are things like viruses and colds that are best left to those who have seen them over and over and can identify them quickly, but what about other parenting issues? What are the risks of going to a specialist when problems can be multi-faceted or have various etiologies?
David: Absolutely. I by no means wanted with this book to suggest a zero-sum situation where we need people with breadth to crowd out specialists. Not at all. As Freeman Dyson put it we need “frogs” and “birds”. The frogs are down in the mud seeing the small details, and the birds are up above getting a broad view, missing the details but keeping an eye on the overall system. Dyson’s concern was that we are only incentivizing and encouraging frogs, and for a healthy ecosystem, we need both. So I wanted to look at if and how people with range can and do make unique contributions, and realized while doing the research that such people often become more, not less, powerful as everyone around them rushes to be as narrow as possible—as there are fewer integrators.
This reminds me of Arturo Casadevall, the world-renowned scientist in the last chapter who is starting a new education program at Johns Hopkins where he aims to de-specialize the education of future doctors and scientists. That may sound crazy, but when I first met him he told me, “You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it.” When he arrived at Hopkins, he gave a presentation where he noted that the rate of retractions of scientific papers was accelerating faster than the rate of publication of new papers, so that if we keep going this direction all of science will soon be retracted. That was science gallows humor, ok, but what he was pointing out is that we’ve been producing an extraordinary amount of bad science, partly because we’re rushing people into very narrow areas of studies before they even understand how scientific thinking is supposed to work!
I saw him say on a panel about this retraction/replication problem say that we need to back up and teach broader skills first, and the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine—again, a leader in the so-called “retraction index”—said: oh no, we can’t do that, the training is already very long. So Arturo responded that he means we should get rid of all the didactic memorization and replace it with what we know is most important, teaching people how to think, otherwise we’re just going to get more of this retraction and replication crisis in science. After I saw that I went to visit him, and he’s an absolutely remarkable guy. I’m already going on too long, so I won’t give his life story, but suffice it to say that on his wall there is a community college degree in pest control operations beside a certificate of his election into the very prestigious National Academy of Medicine. Anyway, he described the endeavor of science to me as increasingly becoming “a system of parallel trenches,” an image I loved, in which everyone is deep in their own trench, and they never stand up to look in the next trench over, even though their answer may well be there.
This is a very roundabout way of addressing your question, but a system of parallel trenches is not a good structure for dealing with multi-faceted problems. And we’ve seen this so clearly in medicine. Mark Zuckerberg talked about how we should have all diseases cured in a century; obviously he doesn’t know what’s going on like Arturo does. And I think because Zuckerberg built a Web site and it’s easy to understand cause and effect in a Web site, he probably thinks, hey, the human is also a machine and so we just have to get the cause and effect down. Except, we didn’t build it and it’s complicated and in constant dynamic interaction with everything around it and cause and effect is complicated.
I’ve mentioned this idea several times now, but I think it’s so important: if you want to address a multi-faceted problem—and problems involving humans and behavior often are—someone has to be keeping an eye on the overall system. I think this is why MIT business students used to (or maybe still do) when they start class get this famous “beer distribution” problem, where each student plays a different role in the supply chain, and what they realize is that if they each optimize their own little slice of the process, they end up with a terrible outcome overall, because they aren’t considering how it impacts the entire system. And even when they start coordinating with the step of the process right next to them, it still happens. The way to solve it is to have one person outside the system who is looking at all the pieces at once. And, finally, I think this relates to the issue of “outsider” problem solvers in the chapter you mention. How is it that, to use an example from that chapter, NASA can be stuck on a problem for 30 years, and they post it online and an outsider solves it with a totally different method within months? How is it that a woman I profiled in that chapter that a part-time writing instructor and mother made a breakthrough medical contribution about her own two rare diseases when specialists were assuring her for her entire life she was wrong? I think—and this isn’t my hypothesis, as is clear in the chapter—that the answer lies in what is known as the “exploration/exploitation” question in research on innovation. Exploration is looking for new knowledge and solutions, and exploitation is drilling into what you already know to get the most out of it. As specialists become more and more narrow, exploration increasingly resides entirely outside of their field of vision, so outsider can sometimes find very obvious solutions to problems just because they aren’t constrained by the “home field” of the problem, as one of the researchers in that chapter put it. If it’s a well-known virus or a cold, of course, we know plenty and the exploitation of specialist knowledge is the way to go. If the problem is something more complex and fluid, or involves human behavior, then treating parts of a system as if they are independent isn’t a good approach. You end up playing the beer distribution game.
Tracy: One of my favourite parts of the book was on teaching methods, in part because I homeschool and it really has forced me to rethink how I teach my kids. From your research on this, what 2 or 3 changes do you think would be best made to the US education system (because you are American) to best help children?
David: The study that surprised me the most in the entire book is in that chapter, and while I shouldn’t describe in detail here because I’d go on too long (as you can tell from other answers!), as with other work in that chapter, the theme is: teaching methods that get the most rapid progress in the short-term often undermine development in the long-term. That is a deeply, deeply counterintuitive conclusion to grapple with, and yet, some of the work in that chapter is among the most well supported in all of cognitive psychology. The idea that proactively using methods and “desirable difficulties” that slow a student down and often make them feel more lost is actually building a conceptual scaffolding that will allow them to apply their knowledge to new problems later. And that’s what you really want, right?
In that chapter, the “using procedures” knowledge is just executing procedures for solving math problems, and you need some of that, but what you ultimately need is “making connections” knowledge, where the learner is forced to connect a problem to broader concepts. A dramatic example I used to illustrate the limits of using procedures knowledge was from a study of college students that revealed they had only learned using procedures knowledge, and managed to avoid learning any conceptual understanding that would ever allow them to approach a problem they hadn’t exactly seen before. So in that one case, the student was given 462 + 253 = 715, and asked to verify it. So he did 715 – 253 and got 462. Ok, then he was asked for another strategy, and amazingly could not come up with doing 715 – 462 to get 253. He had learned that you always subtract the number to the right of the addition symbol to check the answer. That’s not good, because it basically mean he can only solve problems that come in a form exactly like what he has seen in the past and knows rules for, and it turns out a lot of students can even get through college with that kind of knowledge, which gives them no concept of how to actually apply math and numeracy, and applying it and understanding is what you really want.
I want to point out one other thing, and then ask you a question. The one thing: “interleaving,” or mixing up problem types rather than practicing the same type many times in a row is one of the desirable difficulties for learning in that chapter, and here’s a brand new study just out, and it’s amazing. A randomized controlled trial in 7th grade math classrooms, where some students were taught in “blocked” form (where a type of problem is practiced repeatedly, then move to the next type and do the same, and so on), and other students in “interleaved” form, where problem types ideally come at random, so the student is forced not just to learn to execute procedures but to match a strategy to a problem. The effect size of interleaving in this randomized controlled trial when test time came around was enormous! A little more than 0.8 standard deviations. That’s about the equivalent of moving a kid from the 50th percentile to the 80th percentile on the test. I just wanted to point that out because I would have put it in the chapter if it had been published already. Ok, but now, if you’re willing, I’d be interested for you to add to this answer with what you took from that chapter. I know that one resonated with you specifically, and I had a whole book to share things I find interesting, and now that’s it going out into the world I want to hear what resonates (and doesn’t) with other people, not just in my own head. So I invite you to finish this answer, if you’re willing;)
Tracy: I am happy to add my thoughts here because it has actually changed how I have been homeschooling to a degree. The first bit is that I am focusing not on “solving” all the time, but brainstorming different ways of solving; that is, when faced with a problem, I am trying to work in more times where we just think about how we might solve it without actually solving it in that moment. Then we can work at going through the process of testing these hypotheses. I firmly believe this will help in my kids’ long-run ability to brainstorm and see how many different ways we can do things. In the same vein, when we do just go ahead and solve a problem, I will try to go back and show a different way of solving the same problem so that already there is the foundation for there not being one way to do things.
The second bit is this interleaving of ideas. It makes a bit harder when you use some workbooks (which we do), but I’m all over the place in them. In fact, it makes me appreciate the science book we’ve used – ‘Building Foundations of Scientific Inquiry’ by Betrand Nebel, PhD – because the entire book is structured as this interleaving of ideas. You start with categorization then move elsewhere and it returns in subsequent lessons. And I see the slow build of information there which is just amazing to witness.
The final bit for me is that I’ve become more focused on project-based learning when possible. This speaks to the generalist bit for me in that you can pick one topic and just start exploring different elements. I did this with the Bermuda Triangle (my first real attempt) and the different directions and thoughts that came was amazing. It was no longer just a look at a single phenomenon, but we ended up learning about Atlantis, magnetism, cloud bombs, and more. Each time we’ve done this, we see how one specific question can draw upon so many different areas of life and I think that’s one of the most important things I can teach my kids.
So thank you!
Tracy: How do you think the concept of ‘range’ works in co-parenting? Are parents better when they have disparate knowledge bases? We often hear that we all need to be on the same page for our kids, but what would a generalist think about that?
David: I should say, I certainly think there are aspects of parenting where it’s helpful to be on the same page. In fact, a primary benefit for my family of your sleep course was that it helped my wife and I get on the same page about certain things, which leads to less decision fatigue, which is in turn wonderful. I hadn’t thought much about that before becoming a parent, so I don’t think I could have appreciated how useful it can be. That said, my wife and I have some very different interests and modes of operation in the world. She likes to build things: she’s the founder and CEO of a non-profit focused on local journalism about public schools, currently in seven cities, and she co-founded a grant-giving organization to seed other similar non-profits focused on local news. I am very much not that. I’m not inclined to manage people and more inclined to work on my own sometimes amorphous projects. Some days she wakes up with a list of ten professional fires to deal with, ranging in size from single-match-stick to five-alarm-blaze. She has to have this shuffling list of priorities, but all in service of a clear goal. And, again, that is so not me. In personality, I’m more like Andre Geim, the Nobel laureate I describe in the last chapter who switches areas every five years. I loved his comment that he doesn’t do research, only “search.” That’s me. I’m more in my own head and very inefficient in a way that would be impossible in my wife’s work. But expansive searching, while it is inefficient, is also how I come up with unique projects. So where am I going with this? Basically, I think my wife and I have very different methods of work. But it’s kind of awesome because we sometimes sort of end up interviewing one another about how we’re doing something, and lean on each other for help when needed. And I hope and expect our partnership will be a wonderful thing for our son to see not just because we love each other, but because I think that even in our disparate professional areas we are a true team; we turn to one another for help in our areas of weakness. And beyond that, I think our disparate knowledge bases will help us expose our kid to more opportunities and ways of thinking.
And this is a bit of a tangent, but I should say that I no more plan to order our son to diversify his interests than I plan to order him to specialize in something, but what I would like to do is an informal form of “talent based branching,” a concept in the book in the section about maximizing “match quality.” Match quality is the term economists use to describe the degree of fit between an individual’s skills, interests, and what they do, and it’s very important for motivation and performance. Basically, I want to help him see the available opportunities, and then be his partner in helping him reflect on things that he tries so that he learns as much as possible about himself, and then uses that knowledge to zig-zag his way to a place where he can feel fulfilled. That’s basically what the research in chapters 6 and 7, on people who end up finding fulfilling work, suggests. They aren’t abiding by some ironclad long-term plan. They’re running a series of short-term personal experiments, and reflecting on them, and in the light of more self-knowledge adjusting accordingly.
Tracy: I love how you don’t throw specialists under the bus at all, but rather open the way for people to acknowledge the real value in being or having a generalist around. It seems to me like the mix of both holds the greatest evolutionary advantage, so why do you think that we seem to have veered so far towards the specialist in our own culture?
David: Hmmm, you may have said that better and more succinctly than I do! So I’ll say: I agree. I absolutely don’t think we should get rid of specialists or anything crazy like that. Basically, I think the research I write about shows that we’ve undervalued generalists, and if we want a healthy ecosystem, we need both. (I’m not concerned that we’re in danger of undervaluing specialists.) It’s hard to know why exactly we’re so obsessed with specialization, but I think some of it has to do with the cultural remnants of Taylorism—research on industrial efficiency. I think there was a time not so long ago when it made more sense to hyperspecialize in work, because the challenges one faced were more repetitive, and next steps more clear. That’s not as often the case in today’s knowledge economy.
I think it’s also just a much easier template and identity to conceive—pick some area and just drill down into it. That way you set yourself apart with knowledge no one else has. But I think some of the research suggests that as one loses the ability to connect that knowledge to other areas, it becomes, at best, ineffectual, and at worst—as discussed in chapter 10—completely ideologically blinding.
In my opinion, some of what you do in your own work is take areas of strong knowledge and connect them to issues people actually care about and need information on. I’m guessing that may be more impactful than if instead you were still drilling down only on whatever your PhD thesis was about. And that’s not to say we don’t need both of those things, it’s just that only one of them is really structurally incentivized in a clear way.
Lastly, I think there’s a sort of obsession with the “cutting edge” of knowledge and of course technology. If it’s at the cutting edge, it must be good. That’s why I loved the philosophy of the inventor in chapter 9: “lateral thinking with withered technology.” He basically said: while everyone is obsessed with competing at the cutting edge of electronics, which I can’t do, I’ll be back here just looking at all this great old “withered” stuff that nobody is paying attention to and I’ll connect it in new ways (lateral thinking). And he ended up leading the transformation of Nintendo from a playing card company to the titan of games it became, and they still work by his philosophy. But as you can see in his quotes in that chapter, he said engineers would sometimes say things like, “look at this idiot,” because he wasn’t a specialist in any particular thing. But his broad view allowed him to do what they couldn’t. They initially felt superior to him because they had specialized knowledge he didn’t, but how it can be used is really what mattered. So, I think there’s an identity component to all this.
I remember when I was in grad school in environmental science, my work was getting very narrow very quickly, and I started asking myself whether I was the type of person who wanted to spend my whole life learning one thing new to the world, or much shorter spans of time learning things new to me and connecting them and sharing them. We need both, but I’m definitely the latter, although some of the advice I got was that I was crazy to veer off course. Frustratingly, as I note in Range, I only truly learned how to do science as a journalist writing about science from the outside, not when I was getting my grad degree. So I confess in the book to having some published research that I no longer think is true, because I was rushed into a specialized area of study before I really knew how scientific thinking should even work. A perverse outcome of the pressure to specialize.
Tracy: Play feels like the most amazing blend of specialization and generalization. You watch a child play and they will repeat and master one particular element, but also blend it with a million more. Do you think this speaks to the way that we naturally look to learn and engage with our world? Do you think the reduction in play for young kids is having a detrimental effect on either their specialization or generalization skills?
David: Yes. Yes! So I keep mentioning sports stuff partly because that’s where I worked for a while, but also because a) it’s a nice symbol for parents of what often becomes a specialization crazy area, and b) it’s a useful analogy for broader concepts. Unstructured or lightly structured play appears to be so important for developing the general skills—which will later support specific skills—of athletes, that the French soccer development program decided to put very strict time limits on when coaches were even allowed to talk to kids who are playing. As one of the designers of the program said: “there is no remote control.” Basically, he meant we should let them play. A French kid who is very good at soccer will play about half as many structured games as an American kid. France began overhauling their system in that way a few decades ago, and then last year they won the World Cup. And in Brazil, kids don’t play soccer on a big field, they’re playing a game called “futsal,” with a tiny ball that stays on the ground and in tiny spaces, on sand or cobblestones or some different space every day. The space is small so everyone is involved, and the problem solving has to happen quickly. That is, in fact, the game that almost all soccer greats grow up on. It’s street ball, not some structured academy.
I think this sort of gets to a general principle that I discuss a lot in the “Learning, Fast and Slow” chapter, in the education context: you can make learning incredibly structured and you’ll tend to teach “using procedures” knowledge—and you absolutely need some using-procedures knowledge—or you can incorporate more exploration and you’re more likely to impart “making connections” knowledge, where, just as you said, an element is connected or blended into a larger context. What you ultimately want, whether a kid is learning soccer or math, is for the learner to figure out not just how to execute a procedure (a “closed skill”), but how to match a strategy to a type of problem, and particularly a problem they have never seen before. And the evidence suggests the making connections knowledge is crucial for that.
As an aside, two of my favorite characters in Range are in the last chapter. Andre Geim, who I mentioned already, and Oliver Smithies, another Nobel laureate. They both did their ground-breaking work not on a weekday while working on funded projects, but in their play time! Literally, Geim calls that time “Friday evening experiments,” and Smithies, who passed away recently, called it “Saturday morning experiments.” Totally independent of one another, they just realized they needed to set aside time for professional play. Smithies would play with anything, a habit his colleagues noticed. Rather than throw out old or damaged equipment, they would leave it for him, with the label NBGBOKFO: “no bloody good but OK for Oliver.” These scientists incorporated playfulness into their work, because I think they recognized that it’s something the enjoyed about the work in the first place, and it’s also important for learning.
Honestly, I don’t think the reduction in play is only a problem for children, I think a dearth of play is also a problem for adults. Oh, and I just remembered early in the book I mention Claude Shannon, who combined telephone call-routing technology with a century-old logic system he learned about in a philosophy class, and showed that you could encode and transmit any type of information electronically. It was the fundamental insight on which all computers now rely. I mention him because, tellingly, the title of his biography is, “A Mind at Play.”
Tracy: You argue in one chapter about the overreliance on quantitative data and it seems particularly relevant to discussions on parenting as science tries to make parenting more of a checklist issue than an art form or relationship. How do you think parents can best use quantitative data in making parenting decisions without becoming overly reliant on it?
David: Huh, you condensed that issue better than I would have! That’s a really good question. In that chapter, (which was the greatest structural writing challenge I’ve ever had), I definitely don’t mean to leave the impression that quantitative data isn’t uniquely valuable and extraordinarily important. It’s just that, again to reference the McNamara fallacy, it becomes problematic when the only evidence we accept as valid is that which is easily quantified. We don’t get the whole picture. Consider research on recovery—meaning how people recover physically and mentally from work or exercise or stress or whatever they’re dealing with. There’s all this work on measuring brainwaves and skin temperatures and hormone levels and heart rate variability and on and on. And yet, as one of my favorite science writers, Christie Aschwanden, has pointed out in her work, none of these disembodied “measurables” end up doing nearly as good a job of assessing recovery as writing in a journal about how you feel. That isn’t nearly as sexy, but it’s a measure of the whole organism, whereas all those other things are just proxies.
I think this is now an official theme of this Q&A: if your gaze is too narrow, you end up looking at surrogate markers or proxies for what you actually care about, meanwhile there are ways to consider more directly and holistically what you actually care about. I think that’s the perspective I hope to keep as a parent. Quantitative data is great as long as you use it as a decision aid, and recognize its limitations, rather than as a checklist or variable that single-handedly makes the decision for you. You’re the coach, and all your advisors and all your data and all your experiences are assets that can inform your decision making.
But, in my opinion, we often get this backward. We basically outsource our decision making to the checklist, and the checklist isn’t holistic and it doesn’t know us and it doesn’t know our kids. That’s one thing I liked about your daycare book. To me, it wasn’t trying to be prescriptive so much as highlighting issues related to daycare that one should think about, and presenting possibilities for sticking to certain core values no matter the reality of one’s actual life situation.
I think you struck a great balance of: here is important information, here are some ways parents can use it, but also life doesn’t go according to plan and you have to personalize this to your life and child; the information can’t do that for you. That’s how I felt about it, anyway. Basically, the checklist should be serving us, we shouldn’t be serving the checklist. I once read a saying in an old Buddhist text: “Stay on top of the lotus, don’t let the lotus get on top of you.” I interpreted it to mean that the life suggestions in the text were meant to serve the practitioner, not the other way around. I like to keep that idea in mind.