We love stories about people who triumph despite the odds. The underdog genre—as old as David and Goliath—is a Hollywood favorite. Films from Miracle (2004) to Ali (2001) focus on sporting events where teams or individuals pull off upsets and become national heroes. The theme extends to creative endeavors as well. A famous literary anecdote recounts that Stephen King faced 30 rejections from publishers for his first novel, Carrie (1974), before Doubleday bought it.
The principle holds true in the visual arts, too. Take for example beloved
, who was born into poverty in the Jim Crow era and got his start carving tombstones for his sister’s deceased children. And
, who was one of the worst draftsmen at the Art Students League before becoming one of the 20th century’s most important painters.
Pollock’s story is included in David Epstein’s new book Range (2019), which is filled with miniature biographies of artists and public figures, from tennis champion Roger Federer to former Girl Scouts CEO Frances Hesselbein. Despite their disparate endeavors, the subjects’ tales all feature meandering—or rather, ranging—paths. Epstein argues that these trajectories are integral to success in any field. He suggests that artists should be generalists, unafraid of trying different disciplines, before focusing on their craft.