The Case for Generalists
An excerpt from Range by David Epstein. One of the three best business books of 2019.
We are often taught that the more competitive and complicated the world gets, the more specialized we all must become (and the earlier we must start) to navigate it. Our best-known icons of success are elevated for their precocity and their head starts — Mozart at the keyboard, Mark Zuckerberg at the other kind of keyboard. The response, in every field, to a ballooning library of human knowledge and an interconnected world has been to exalt increasingly narrow focus.
From a young age, children are encouraged to choose an instrument or sport and stick with it, following the now-ubiquitous 10,000-hours-to-expertise rule. Stories like that of Tiger Woods’ hyper-focused childhood playing golf from the age of 2 abound. Less lauded — but far more common — are stories of athletes like Roger Federer, who dabbled in numerous sports before getting serious about tennis.
As it turns out, elite athletes at the peak of their abilities do spend more time on focused, deliberate practice than their near-elite peers. But when scientists examine the entire developmental path of athletes from early childhood, it looks like this:
Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a “sampling period.” They play a variety of sports, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area. The title of one study of athletes in individual sports proclaimed “Late specialization” as “the key to success”; another, “Making It to the Top in Team Sports: Start Later, Intensify, and Be Determined.”
The professed necessity of hyper-specialization forms the core of a vast, successful, and sometimes well-meaning marketing machine, in sports and beyond. In reality, the Roger path to sports stardom is far more prevalent than the Tiger path, but those athletes’ stories are much more quietly told, if they are told at all. Some of their names you know, but their backgrounds you probably don’t. Prominent sports scientist Ross Tucker summed up research in the field simply: “We know that early sampling is key, as is diversity.”
The same applies to careers outside of sports. Though we’re increasingly pushing college students to select majors that will lead to specialized, lucrative job prospects, early sampling pays dividends down the road.
It takes time — and often forgoing a head start — to develop personal and professional range, but it is worth it.
One study showed that early career specializers jumped out to an earnings lead after college, but that later specializers made up for the head start by finding work that better fit their skills and personalities. A raft of studies have shown how technological inventors increased their creative impact by accumulating experience in different domains, compared to peers who drilled more deeply into one; they actually benefited by proactively sacrificing a modicum of depth for breadth as their careers progressed. There was a nearly identical finding in a study of artistic creators.
Many of history’s most remarkable people, like Duke Ellington (who shunned music lessons to focus on drawing and baseball as a kid) and Maryam Mirzakhani (who dreamed of becoming a novelist and instead became the first woman to win math’s most famous prize, the Fields Medal) seem to have more Roger than Tiger in their development stories. It takes time — and often forgoing a head start — to develop personal and professional range, but it is worth it.
Mark Zuckerberg famously noted that “young people are just smarter.” And yet a tech founder who is 50 years old is nearly twice as likely to start a blockbuster company as one who is 30, and the 30-year-old has a better shot than a 20-year-old. Researchers at Northwestern, MIT, and the U.S. Census Bureau studied new tech companies and showed that among the fastest-growing startups, the average age of a founder was 45 when the company was launched.
Zuckerberg was 22 when he said that. It was in his interest to broadcast that message, just as it is in the interest of people who run youth sports leagues to claim that year-round devotion to one activity is necessary for success, nevermind evidence to the contrary. But the drive to specialize goes beyond that. It infects not just individuals, but entire systems, as each specialized group sees a smaller and smaller part of a large puzzle.
Early specializers can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident — a dangerous combination. In their own versions of the “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” problem, interventional cardiologists have gotten so used to treating chest pain with stents — metal tubes that pry open blood vessels — that they do so reflexively even in cases where voluminous research has proven that they are inappropriate or dangerous. A recent study found that cardiac patients were actually less likely to die if they were admitted during a national cardiology meeting, when thousands of cardiologists were away; the researchers suggested it could be because common treatments of dubious effect were less likely to be performed.
The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, and even demands, hyper-specialization. While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases — as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part — we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.