28 May 2019 02:54pm

Book reviews: honing drive and ambition

David Epstein’s book challenges the assumption that single-minded focus leads to success, arguing that a broader approach pays off

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Caption: This month we review books on goal-setting, focus intuition and ambition

RANGE: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein, Macmillan

Tiger Woods, one of the foremost sportsmen of the Noughties, seems to offer a blueprint for how to succeed in a chosen career. From the moment his father spotted his talent, he was immersed in the world of golf.

Except there was another sportsman dominating the sports headlines of the 2000s, and he had spent his childhood mucking around. Roger Federer’s early career seems to offer a much more confusing type of blueprint – don’t push your talented child in any direction and they still could come up trumps. In Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein argues that the Federer path is more likely to be the norm.

Despite proven successes in particular fields – such as Laszlo Polgar, who trained his daughters to be chess champions – most of life is too unwieldy and “wicked” as a learning environment to benefit those who rely on a formula. Rather, exposure to different fields helps the human brain make connections and problem solve.

Struggling to make sense of something leads to a greater understanding of the principles. Just listen to the music of the illiterate, three-fingered Django Reinhardt, who created the whole genre of gypsy jazz. Range is a warning against over-specialisation. One cautionary tale is the physician who consistently correctly diagnosed typhoid fever by feeling a patient’s tongue with his hands – completely missing the fact it was he who gave it to them in the first place.

It is also reassuring for anyone whose interests pull them in different directions, or just feels they are “behind” their peers. Sport may still impose certain physical deadlines, even for someone as gifted as Federer. But most of us can be undecided for far longer and yet, if we stumble across our true vocation, still be passionate enough to succeed in it.

CONSCIENCE: The Origins of Moral Intuition, Patricia S Churchland, WW Norton & Company

In 1989, the neuro-philosopher Patricia Churchland was invited to talk to the Dalai Lama about the human brain.

Over lunch, she casually asked the monks what the Buddhist equivalent of the Ten Commandments was. The monks politely explained that in Buddhism, morality was not rule-based. Our assumptions about conscience – even universal principles – are up for debate.

Although Churchland draws on the arguments of Socrates, she mainly mines biology for her definition. She examines the obligations mammals have to their young, how hormones can affect attachment, and the impact of reward training. There are also interesting chapters on how conscience links psychopaths, who appear to lack it, and those with OCD, who perhaps have too much.

Even political divides may reflect deeper biological tendencies. Churchland is first and foremost a scientist, and her technical language may put the casual reader off. But her conclusion – that conscience is not as fixed or universal as we might like to think – is a fascinating and provocative one. Even if it lacks the reassuring certainty of the Ten Commandments.

Julia Rampen is a writer and editor specialising in culture, politics and finance