The Case for Generalists
Today’s world calls for range, not specialization
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.”