Do It Better

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David Epstein Makes the Case for Being a Generalist

A new book argues that specialization—in sport and life—is overrated

David Epstein argues that going broad—not narrow—is the best route to lasting success and wellbeing. (Stephanie Ecate/Unsplash)
Photo: Stephanie Ecate/Unsplash book

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A new book argues that specialization—in sport and life—is overrated

 In 2014, science writer David Epstein rocked the sports world with his debut book, The Sports Gene, which uncovered the vast impact of innate talent on athletic performance and showed readers how they could nurture their nature. The book debunked the then-celebrated 10,000-hour rule, or the notion that you could be great at anything with 10,000 hours of practice. Turns out, your DNA matters too. Now, Epstein is back with a new book that slays yet another sacred cow: the notion that if you want to achieve peak performance, you should specialize early on. In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Epstein argues that going broad—not narrow—is the best route to lasting success and wellbeing. I recently caught up with him to discuss why you should prioritize growing your range. 

book
(Courtesy Riverhead Books)

OUTSIDE: What was the biggest surprise to you in researching and reporting Range?
DAVID EPSTEIN: The single most surprising study in the book, to me, was conducted at the U.S. Air Force Academy: The study found that teachers who are the best at helping students do well in their own class today systematically undermine the development of those same students tomorrow, who go on to underperform in future classes. That’s a deeply counterintuitive finding, but it’s also a theme in the book—that behavior which causes the best performance in the short-run can damage development in the long-run. 

What are three practical takeaways that people can use starting tomorrow?
First off, I think something that applies to every level of athlete is that they should introduce variety into whatever they’re doing. This improves performance and reduces injury. 

Secondly, there is this cultural notion that we can simply introspect or take a personality quiz and learn who we are. But it doesn’t work like that. To better understand your strengths, weaknesses, and interests, you actually have to try stuff. In other words, you learn who you are in practice. Experimentation, trying different stuff, can feel like wasted time, but in fact you are working toward maximizing what economists call “match quality,” or the degree of fit between your skills, interests, and what you do. Your growth rate is much higher with good match quality. Time experimenting is not a sunk cost. It’s an investment in long-term development. 

Lastly, drop your obsession with precocity, or what I call the “cult of the head start.” Voluminous evidence shows that head starts tend to show a “fadeout” effect, both in sports and other areas. A common trait amongst happy high performers is that they adopt a “plan-and-adjust” mentality, rather than sticking to ironclad long-term goals. 

What do you see as the “next big thing” in talent development?
Outside of sports, I think there is still tremendous untapped value for the kind of coaching that already occurs inside of sports. I would love to have a coach walking hand-in-hand with me as I try to learn about myself and improve my writing, the same way I did when I was running. I think there is a grand total of zero professions that couldn’t benefit from coaching. I think most of us, when we become competent, keep doing the same things over and over. We get stuck in a rut of competence because we gravitate toward ease and convenience. We have to vary up our challenges to avoid plateaus, and I think coaches can really help with that.

Otherwise, my top recommendation for talent development in any endeavor is usually the same: market the activity more widely and diversify the entry and development pipelines such that you give a chance to as many people with as many different trajectories as possible. I think when we push early selection and specialization, especially in sports, we do the opposite of that. We allow only kids with a narrow developmental trajectory and timing to make it. So you are essentially de-selecting people before they even have a chance to develop.

What areas are you most excited to watch over the next decade?
I’m excited to see burgeoning contributions in diverse fields from people who embrace breadth.

If you had to leave Outside readers with one piece of advice, what would it be?
We learn who we are in practice, not in theory. If you haven’t done some proactive experimentation, reflected on it, and adjusted accordingly, you almost certainly haven't optimized your match quality. Better match quality means better performance.

Anything else we should have covered?
Read The Passion Paradox. Sure, I’m playing to the home audience, but it’s also a new book and I’m serious. I happen to think there are a lot of commonalities between our books and the discussion they provide in hopes of helping people better evaluate their pursuits. Both books grapple with big ideas—finding and managing passion; how broad or specialized to bethat everyone thinks about and is interested in but that are hard to define and usually only discussed with pure intuition. Both books try to gather up a bunch of concrete angles and stories and research to bring to bear on these normally amorphous, abstract conversations. We’re sort of peering to the edge of what’s known, which is really neat. In no way do I consider these books the final word on any of this, but I do hope they work together to make the discussions people have more interesting and productive. 

Range, by David Epstein, is published by Riverhead Books and comes out May 28, 2019. It is available wherever books are sold.

Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) is a performance coach and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is also bestselling author of the book The Passion Paradox. 

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