David Epstein: Biography highlights
Best-selling author and science writer David Epstein has made it his mission to uncover the keys to achieving high performance in any domain, and to debunk popular myths along the way. His top 10 New York Times best-seller, The Sports Gene, took readers inside the surprising science of extraordinary athletic performance.
Full biography of David Epstein
David Epstein’s Background
David Epstein is the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and of the top 10 New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene, which has been translated in 21 languages. (To his surprise, it was purchased not only by his sister but also by President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.)
He was previously a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica, and prior to that a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, where he co-authored the story that revealed Yankee’s third baseman Alex Rodriguez had used steroids. His writing has been honoured by an array of organizations, from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, to the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Center on Disability and Journalism, and has been included in the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology.
His story “Following the Trail of Broken Hearts,” on sudden cardiac death in athletes, was chosen as one of the top 100 stories of the last 100 years by Columbia Journalism alumni.
David has given talks about performance science and the uses (and misuses) of data on five continents; his TED Talk has been viewed 7 million times and was shared by Bill Gates. Three of his stories have been optioned for films: a Sports Illustrated story on the only living Olympian to have survived a concentration camp; an Atlantic/ProPublica piece detailing the DEA’s fraught pursuit of Chapo Guzman’s rivals; and a 2016 “This American Life” episode he wrote and narrated about a woman with two rare diseases who shares a mutant gene with an Olympic medalist.
David has master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism and is reasonably sure he’s the only person to have co-authored a paper in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research while a writer at Sports Illustrated. (Like many of the characters in Range, he has benefitted from a winding career.) He has worked as an ecology researcher in the Arctic, studied geology and astronomy while residing in the Sonoran Desert, and blithely signed up to work on the D-deck of a seismic research vessel shortly after it had been attacked by pirates.
David enjoys volunteering with the Pat Tillman Foundation and Classroom Champions. An avid runner, he was a Columbia University record holder and twice NCAA All-East as an 800-meter runner.
Watch David in action
“For reasons I cannot explain, David Epstein manages to make me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong. I loved Range.”
“Range is an urgent and important book, an essential read for bosses, parents, coaches, and anyone who cares about improving performance.”
Arthroscopy Association of North America
“Your message was perfect. Interestingly, the feedback has been as overwhelmingly positive about the science that you provided in addition to the message. Our group thought you had hand designed the presentation for us as sports scientists, and it resonated deeply. The way you approached the book as well as how you presented what you found, combines imagination with well-grounded data and makes your message beyond entertaining…exactly what we were looking for. Thanks again, and look forward to seeing what you get us into next!”
Pat Tillman Foundation
“David’s presentation made a huge impact at our annual leadership summit. His flawless, enthralling presentation on late specialization was a complete package of fascinating data and illustrations. Speaking to an audience of elite military veterans studying medicine, business, public policy, mental health, law, and the arts, his message was universally applicable to those with unique skill sets who may feel momentarily ‘behind’ in a new career. He was the highest rated speaker for the second year in a row by our attendees!”
“Epstein…will leave you questioning the next steps in your career—and the way you raise your children.”
University of Pittsburgh Johnstown
“What an awakening and powerful commencement address to the UPJ class of 2019…I raised my children on the Gallup Philosophy and not only did you expand on it as it relates to today, you confirmed to them I’m an awesome mother!”
AMSSM Annual Meeting
We were fortunate to have David Epstein, our presidential keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the American Medical Society of Sports Medicine. He was phenomenal. He was very accommodating and gave an outstanding, informed and entertaining lecture. A few examples of the overwhelmingly positive comments from the audience follow: ‘One of the best speakers we’ve ever had;’ ‘Best session of the day;’ ‘Certainly enjoyed this discussion.’ ‘Best talk of the conference, hands down;’ ‘One of the best lectures I have ever heard. Fascinating, well researched, and funny.'”
“David Epstein’s keynote address was a huge hit with the Strata audience. Through the combination of humor and skillful storytelling, David was able to make sports science come alive for our diverse crowd of data enthusiasts. The most successful keynotes require excellent pacing, great content, and the ability to draw people in and keep them engaged. David did all three successfully at Strata Santa Clara. Based on the comments we’ve received, his presentations were definitely crowd favorites at this year’s conference.”
David's speaking topics
The Power of Range: The secret to success in any domain
What’s the most effective path to success in any domain? It’s not what you think. Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start.
But a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule. Best-selling author on the science of performance David Epstein has examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists.
He discovered that in most fields—especially those that are complex, unpredictable, and difficult to automate—generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.
0.5%: The margin between good and great, and how to find it
As sports have become high stakes, global competitions, the performance margins that differentiate good, great and legendary have shrunk dramatically. Fortunately, cutting edge science has shone a light on the best path to peak performance, and it contradicts the most popular notions about skill acquisition, like the famed “10,000-hours Rule.” That argument says that only accumulated hours of practice matter to success.
In fact, though, future experts start off practicing less in their eventual discipline than their peers. David Epstein explains just what it is that future elites are doing during that time that primes them for later (and greater) success. He also dissects how — once at the top competitive level — athletes are using “small data” to find what factors most matters for performance, and which of those they can change in the pursuit of the final 0.5% of performance. The conclusions from elite sports can guide any individual or team in the search to find their personal 0.5%.
No matter the industry, every business thrives or dies on educated guessing about what the future holds. In a tour of fascinatingly counterintuitive research, David explains how specialists often develop worse judgment about the future as they gain knowledge and credentials in a particular domain, and how interdisciplinary thinkers can reverse that troubling trend.
Employing studies of “serial innovators,” David explains how HR policies at mature companies often accidentally screen out employees with the highest potential for creative contributions, and what recruiters and hiring managers can do to counter that. But the power of range doesn’t stop with recruiting; David shares research on how employees with diverse work experience can make an organization more competitive, more agile, and better prepared for the unexpected.
Increasing specialization in healthcare has been necessary, but also means that individual providers now see a smaller piece of the total health puzzle than ever before—a trend that has led to some eyebrow-raising outcomes. David discusses how generalists can enhance specialized environments, and how healthcare organizations can hire, develop, and cross-train to improve performance and the patient experience.
Students & Parents
As any graduation speech will tell you, the key to success is knowing where you want to be years from now and determining the steps to get there. Except, research shows that’s precisely the opposite of how most successful and fulfilled people develop their lives and careers. David discusses work showing that top performers assiduously avoid rigid long-term planning and premature specialization. Along the way, he shares how anyone can adopt habits that will help them work toward an optimal fit between who they are and what they do.
Drawing on the latest research, David shares how learners of all ages, and their educators, can thrive in an increasingly complex world — not by picking a single specialty and mastering it, but by sampling many areas, changing (and failing) often, and focusing on the kind of analytical thinking skills that transfer between domains. His talk explains how to learn, teach, and create educational institutions primed for the 21st century.
In an age of rapid technological change, it can feel like hyperspecialization is a necessity for reaching the cutting edge, never mind pushing it. But in fact, there has never been more opportunity for “lateral thinking” generalists to drive technological progress. David discusses the habits of mind that lead generalists to make connections that their more specialized peers miss, and how organizations can be structured so that specialists and generalists enhance one another’s performance.
As information becomes more rapidly disseminated, it is increasingly difficult (read: expensive, in time and money) to gain an information advantage. However, more information means more opportunity to take advantage of analytical inefficiencies in a market. Who is best suited to analyze the same information that everyone else has? People with range. David shares surprising research on the habits of mind that can lead to an analytical competitive advantage in an information-rich market.