The Dangerous Myth Of Early Specialisation As the Only Road to Success

Malcolm Gladwell with his famous book “Outliers” (2008) proclaiming the supremacy of the 10,000 hour practice rule in order to be good at anything, and Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (2011) have definitely had their bearing on Gen Z.

Due to these authors and their very influential theories of how success is created by LOTS of practice and discipline, this generation has been drilled to do a few - exclusive - things super well, preferably Maths and Music (Amy Chua’s ideal) and simply become the best at it. Add to this the book “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle- stating that greatness and talent are not ‘born’ but are ‘grown’ - and the thesis for specialisation and single minded practice is complete. Or is it?

The question is, are these theories actually always true? If talent is ‘grown’ and very frequent practice from a young age (multiple hours a day) is required to achieve a high level of expertise and specialisation, teens are expected to be well on their way of becoming specialists in whatever they do; that single sport, that one musical instrument or in the academic subject they choose to read at university even before starting a degree. If everyone aims to be a specialist, does this terminate the concept of the all-rounder, the generalist; the person doing multiple things, trying out different sports, subjects or instruments?

David Epstein in his book “Range; why Generalists triumph in a Specialist world” says it does not. He calls the theories about early specialisation and endless practice a “tidy narrative”, an oven-ready model for success that requires little more than an early start and a rigorous practice schedule. It would discourage those who like to do many different things (and hence ‘missed’ the early start to allow them to become specialised) from thinking they could ever truly succeed in one of their many interests.

He sets out to prove that generalists (and admittedly that is what most of us are) also can achieve great (or even greater) success than the specialists, although their talents may develop a bit later due to previous wanders around other sports, topics and hobbies. He argues that those who are doing more than one single thing, are definitely not at any disadvantage and the diversity of their interests may even help them become better at the things they finally settle on.

David Epstein uses two famous athletes as examples to prove his point: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. One is the picture-perfect Malcom Gladwell, Daniel Coyle and Amy Chua model of starting early to hyper-specialise - the golfer Tiger Woods. He started taking an interest in golf at 6 months old, started playing at 2, was featured in Golf Digest at age 5, and the rest is history.

But Roger Federer is the opposite of Tiger Woods. He tried and played many sports other than tennis at a young age. He tried rugby, skiing, basketball, wrestling, swimming and when – age 8 - his tennis coach wanted him to move up a level to train with older boys, he was not interested. At age 11 he became one of the top 3 tennis players in Switzerland and only at age 14 he left behind all other sports to focus solely on tennis and a professional tennis career.

Following Malcolm Gladwell’s and Daniel Coyle’s theory (not Amy Chua as she considered her daughter’s desire to play tennis a waste of time), Federer could not have succeeded as the chances to ‘grow’ and practice his talent were ‘missed’ in his early years, because in order to get to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours one needs a minimum of 2 hours a day, 365 days a year, for almost 14 years!

Who is right? Is there a perfect answer? Not really. However, there are clearly more ways to succeed in life, other than pursuing that ‘one’ thing. Studies show that all-rounders, although they may arrive at their chosen careers later, may stick to them longer and with more fulfilment than some early specialists.

So, undecided on your subjects? Fearful of being a jack-of-all-trades? Future jobs may very well require that varied ‘out of the box’ skillset that comes from having multiple interests and multiple career starts. Trying different things can be good after all. Happy all-rounders then?

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