Let’s start with a couple of stories. This first one, you probably know.
The boy’s father could tell something was different. At six months old, the boy could balance on his father’s palm as he walked through their home. At 10 months he could climb down from his high chair, trundle over to a golf club that had been cut down to size and imitate the swing he’d been watching in the garage. At two—an age when physical developmental milestones include “kicks a ball” and “stands on tiptoe”—he went on national television and used a shoulder-height club to drive a ball past an admiring Bob Hope. That same year he entered his first tournament and won the 10-and-under division.
At eight, the son beat his father for the first time. The father didn’t mind, because he was convinced that his boy was singularly talented, and that he was uniquely equipped to help him. The boy was already famous by the time he reached Stanford, and soon his father opened up about his importance. His son would have a larger impact than Nelson Mandela, than Gandhi, than Buddha, he insisted. “He has a larger forum than any of them,” he said. “I don’t know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One.”
This second story, you also probably know. You might not recognise it at first. His mum was a coach, but she never coached him. He would kick a ball around with her when he learned to walk. As a boy, he played squash with his father on Sundays. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming and skateboarding. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, and soccer at school. “I was always very much more interested if a ball was involved,” he would say.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
by David Epstein
Many experts argue that in order to be successful in any field, one must start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. But what if the opposite is true? Some of the world’s best athletes, musicians, scientists, artists and inventors are actually generalists, not specialists, and they present a powerful argument for how to succeed in any field.
Though his mother taught tennis, she decided against working with him. “He would have just upset me anyway,” she said. “He tried out every strange stroke and certainly never returned a ball normally. That is simply no fun for a mother.” Rather than pushy, a Sports Illustrated writer would observe that his parents were “pully.” Nearing his teens, the boy began to gravitate more toward tennis, and “if they nudged him at all, it was to stop taking tennis so seriously.”
As a teenager, he became good enough to warrant an interview with the local newspaper. His mother was appalled to read that, when asked what he would buy with a hypothetical first paycheck from tennis, her son answered, “a Mercedes.” She was relieved when the reporter let her listen to a recording of the interview. There’d been a mistake: The boy had said “mehr CDs,” in Swiss German. He simply wanted “more CDs.” The boy was competitive, no doubt. But when his tennis instructors decided to move him up to a group with older players, he asked to move back so he could stay with his friends. After all, part of the fun was hanging around after his lessons. By the time he finally gave up other sports to focus on tennis, other kids had long since been working with strength coaches, sports psychologists and nutritionists. But it didn’t seem to hamper his development. In his mid-30s, an age by which even legendary players are typically retired, he would still be ranked No. 1 in the world.
In 2006, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer met for the first time, when both were at the apex of their powers, and they connected as only they could. “I’ve never spoken with anybody who was so familiar with the feeling of being invincible,” Federer would describe it.
Still, the contrast was not lost on him. “[Tiger’s] story is completely different from mine,” he told a biographer in 2006. Woods’s incredible upbringing has been at the heart of a batch of bestselling books on the development of expertise, one of which was a parenting manual written by his father, Earl. Tiger was not merely playing golf. He was engaging in “deliberate practice,” the only kind that counts in the now-famous 10,000 hours rule to expertise. Reams of work on expertise development shows that elite athletes spend more time in highly technical, deliberate practice each week than those who plateau at lower levels. And Tiger has come to symbolise that idea of success—and its corollary, that the practice must start as early as possible. But when scientists examine the entire developmental path of athletes, they find that the eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will later 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.
In 2014, I included some of the findings about late specialisation in sports in the afterword of my first book, The Sports Gene. The following year I accepted an invitation to talk about that research from an unlikely audience—not athletes or coaches but military veterans brought together by the Pat Tillman Foundation. In preparation, I perused scientific journals for work on specialisation and career-swerving outside the sports world. I was struck by what I found. One study showed that early career specialisers jumped out to an earnings lead after college, but that later specialisers made up for the head start by finding work that better fit their skills and personalities. I found a raft of studies that showed how technological inventors increased their creative impact by accumulating experience in different domains, compared to peers who drilled more deeply into one.
I also realized that some of the people whose work I deeply admired from afar—from Duke Ellington (who shunned music lessons to focus on drawing and baseball as a kid) to Maryam Mirzakhani (who dreamed of becoming a novelist and instead became the first woman to win math’s most famous prize, the Fields Medal)—seemed to have more Roger than Tiger in their development stories. I encountered remarkable individuals who succeeded not in spite of their diverse experiences and interests, but because of them.
And I found more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range—and that it is worth it. I dived into work showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident—a dangerous combination. And I was stunned by an enormous body of work demonstrating that learning is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks a lot like falling behind.
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, even demands, hyperspecialization. While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.