Other than being among the greatest to ever play their sport, they were all ‘late specializers.’
- Nash grew up playing soccer and did not start playing basketball until he was 13.
- Tom Brady spent much of his childhood playing baseball; he was drafted into professional baseball before football.
- Roger Federer sampled a wide array of sports before focusing on tennis in his early teens.
What do two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, six‐time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, and 20‐time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer have in common?
“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.” – David Epstein
Late specialization is the norm among elite athletes. Late specialization is also the norm among people who have lucrative, fulfilling, and impactful careers.
Range = Success & Fulfillment
Todd Rose, director of Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program and neuroscientist Ogi Ogas set out to study people who were successful and fulfilled at work. They interviewed a wide range of people from master sommeliers, animal trainers, and midwives to architects and engineers. When they concluded their study, they decided to call it the Dark Horse Study.
Why Dark Horse?
Every successful and fulfilled professional they interviewed thought they were odd for not knowing what they wanted to do early on, and not taking a straight path to their ultimate profession. They told researchers, “Most people don’t do it this way,” but they were wrong.
The majority of people with successful and fulfilling careers seemed lost at the beginning of their careers. Instead of specializing, they sampled many different roles in many different fields and worked with a variety of different people. They didn’t have five‐ or 10‐year career goals. They had 90‐day goals at best.
The Dark Horse Study researchers summarized the mindset of the most successful people in the study as follows: “Here’s who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, and here are the opportunities. Which of these (opportunities) is the best match right now?”
Most of us think we know ourselves well. We know what we’re good at, we know what we’re interested in, so we think we know what we’ll be good at five, ten, twenty years from now but the science says otherwise. David Epstein says, “(It’s clear from the science that) our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same because we do not stay the same.”
Just think back to the career you were sure you wanted ten years ago – does it align with who you are now? Or does it seem ridiculous knowing what you know about yourself now? Think about all the people who realized halfway through medical school that it wasn’t a good fit…
The key is NOT marrying yourself to one path too early, and instead, dating several possibilities to see what work you have a deep connection with. Start your career on a six‐lane highway, not a one‐way street ‐ hop between the lanes by taking different roles that interest you. As you pursue a range of experiences, develop a range of skills, and face a variety of new problems, remember: It’s going to feel inefficient and messy, but that’s a great sign; effective learning is never smooth or easy.
When you have doubts, and you feel like you’re falling behind your peers, fear not. Epstein says, “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.”
Take your time and accumulate a range of experiences and skills, but when you feel like you’ve sampled enough and you know yourself well enough, go deep on an interest and get really good.
Roger Federer may have changed sports when he was young, but eventually, he decided to master the game of tennis. Tom Brady didn’t change sports after determining football was the sport for him; Brady committed to be the best quarterback he could.
Breadth before depth helped Federer and Brady rise to the top. It helped the majority of people in the Dark Horse Study find fulfilling careers, and it’ll help you and I do the same.
“We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” – David Epstein
Career Change Checklist
- Has this job become too procedural?
- Do I interact wit a diverse group of people?
- Am I still learning (experiencing) healthy struggle?
- Have I samapled many different roles before specialiazing?
Note: If you didn’t chck two or more boxes, it might tome for a change.
David Epstein’s “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” presents a compelling argument in favor of broad-based learning and the advantages it offers in today’s specialized society. Through extensive research and engaging storytelling, Epstein challenges the prevailing notion that specialization is the key to success, advocating instead for the benefits of a more diverse and interdisciplinary approach to education and career development.
The book begins by debunking the popular myth that early specialization is the only path to mastery and achievement. Epstein draws on numerous examples from various fields, including sports, music, and science, to demonstrate that individuals who start with a broad foundation of knowledge and skills often surpass their specialized counterparts in the long run. He highlights the importance of acquiring a range of experiences and insights before settling on a particular area of expertise.
Epstein delves into the concept of “kind” and “wicked” learning environments, explaining how these different types of challenges shape individuals’ abilities to solve complex problems. He argues that generalists, with their diverse background and wide-ranging knowledge, are better equipped to navigate the ambiguous and unpredictable nature of wicked environments. The author cites research studies and real-life examples to support his claims, emphasizing the unique problem-solving abilities that arise from interdisciplinary thinking.
One of the book’s central themes is the power of analogical reasoning and transferable skills. Epstein illustrates how individuals with a diverse range of experiences can draw connections between seemingly unrelated domains and apply knowledge from one domain to solve problems in another. This ability to think across boundaries and make connections is a hallmark of generalists, enabling them to approach challenges with fresh perspectives and innovative solutions.
Throughout the book, Epstein explores the stories of successful generalists who have made significant contributions in their respective fields. He highlights the achievements of individuals such as Charles Darwin, Vincent van Gogh, and Roger Federer, showcasing how their broad interests and multidisciplinary approaches have shaped their accomplishments. These stories serve as inspiration and provide compelling evidence for the benefits of range in a specialized world.
Epstein also tackles the issue of early specialization in education, examining the trade-offs and potential pitfalls of hyper-focused training from an early age. He advocates for a more balanced approach that encourages exploration, curiosity, and the development of a broad knowledge base, which can ultimately lead to greater creativity and adaptability later in life.
“Range” offers a refreshing perspective on the value of generalization in an increasingly specialized world. Epstein’s writing is accessible and engaging, making complex ideas and research findings relatable to a wide audience. The book is meticulously researched, drawing upon a wide range of studies and interviews with experts to support its arguments.
While the book primarily focuses on the benefits of generalism, Epstein acknowledges that specialization has its place, particularly in certain fields that demand deep expertise. However, he stresses the importance of striking a balance between specialization and generalization, as too much emphasis on narrow expertise can lead to tunnel vision and limited adaptability.
In conclusion, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” is a thought-provoking and well-reasoned exploration of the advantages of a broad-based approach to learning and career development. David Epstein presents a compelling case for the value of generalism, backed by compelling evidence and engaging storytelling. This book challenges conventional wisdom and encourages readers to embrace a more diverse and interdisciplinary perspective, ultimately inspiring them to pursue a path of range in a specialized world.
Overall Rating: 4.25/5
Recommendation: I highly recommend “Range” to anyone looking to challenge their assumptions about success and innovation, and to gain valuable insights into the benefits of generalism. The book is accessible and well-written, making it a great choice for a wide range of readers.