What does it take to become an elite athlete, musician, or craftsman? Is talent innate or acquired? What kind of practice is best for becoming great at something? Does it really take “10,000 hours” to become an expert?
As a society we are obsessed with these questions. And many parents can often find themselves struggling with the fear that if their child doesn’t start violin lessons at age 4, or practice chess for 6 hours a day, or drill in advanced logic puzzles, then they won’t be “successful” as adults. This pressure often leads us to overschedule our kids’ days, filling every available hour with scheduled and structured activities – lessons, rehearsals, workshops, classes. And as a consequence, our kids have less time and space to experiment and play.
Pushing Back Against Early Specializing
David Epstein is an investigative reporter and author. His research provides a much needed caution against pushing our kids to specialize too early. Epstein instead commends the winding path, in which general curiosity is the name of the game, and where specialization occurs much later after general skill sets have been developed. In his TED Talk below (based on the research in his book Range) Epstein showcases some counterintuitive findings.
For example, he shares that when you track elite athletes over the course of their development,
The future elites actually spend less time early on in deliberate practice in their eventual sport. They tend to have what scientists call a “sampling period,” where they try a variety of physical activities, they gain broad, general skills, they learn about their interests and abilities and delay specializing until later than peers who plateau at lower levels.
This pattern also holds when comparing career trajectories for early specializers versus later specializers: “the early specializers jump out to an income lead because they have more domain-specific skills. The late specializers get to try more different things, and when they do pick, they have better fit, or what economists call “match quality.” And so their growth rates are faster. By six years out, they erase that income gap. Meanwhile, the early specializers start quitting their career tracks in much higher numbers, essentially because they were made to choose so early that they more often made poor choices. So the late specializers lose in the short term and win in the long run.”
Epstein’s research leads him to conclude that, “in the well-meaning drive for a head start, we often even counterproductively short-circuit even the way we learn new material, at a fundamental level.” By giving our kids space to “sample” various activities and to pursue different interests, we can protect against this short-circuiting, and remove a lot of the stress that comes with trying to predict what skills will be most valued in the labor market a decade from now. As the world continues to change quickly, it is ultimately the generalists who will be best positioned for success.