Why diverse experience and experimentation are important components of professional accomplishment.
Arguing against the idea that narrow specialization leads to success, journalist Epstein (The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, 2013) mounts convincing evidence that generalists bring more skill, creativity, and innovation to work in all fields. The author begins by contrasting the career trajectories of Tiger Woods, who began training as a golfer before he was 1, and Roger Federer, who dabbled in a range of sports before, as a teenager, he “began to gravitate more toward tennis.” Although he started later than players who had worked with coaches, sports psychologists, and nutritionists from early childhood, a late start did not impede his development. His story, Epstein discovered, is common. When psychologists have studied successful individuals’ “paths to excellence,” they have found “most common was a sampling period” followed only later by focus and increased structure. “Hyperspecialization,” writes the author, is not a requisite for achievement, and he offers abundant lively anecdotes from music, the arts, business, science, technology, and sports. Drawing on studies by cognitive psychologists and educators, Epstein examines how knowledge develops and, equally important, how it is assessed. He distinguishes between teaching strategies that emphasize repeated practice, leading to “excellent immediate performance” on tests, and “interleaving,” an approach that develops inductive reasoning, in which students “learn to create abstract generalizations that allow them to apply what they learned to material they have never encountered before.” Interleaving, he asserts, applies to both physical and mental skills: to a pianist and mathematician as well as to Shaquille O’Neal. The author critiques higher education for rushing students to specialization even though “narrow vocational training” will not prepare them for jobs “in a complex, interconnected, rapidly changing world.” Although he admits “that passion and perseverance” are important precursors of excellence, “a change of interest, or a recalibration of focus” can also be critical to success.
A fresh, brisk look at creativity, learning, and the meaning of achievement.