We’ve all been told that you have to start young, specialize quickly and get in 10,000 hours of practice or you will not succeed. Yo Yo Ma starting to play the cello at age 4. Tiger Woods showed interest in golf at 6 months old and won the Masters for the first time at age 21. Prodigies, however, are the outliers of those who achieve success, not the rule, says David Epstein, author of the book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.”
Through his exploration of scientific breakthroughs, career arcs, and musical and athletic prowess, Epstein demonstrates that more commonly people are successful when they have a broad background and can draw upon a range of experiences and skills. He encourages us to explore what interests us, to recognize frustration and confusion as signs of learning (not failure), and to quit when we hit a dead end.
By sampling and experimenting, we learn who we are as individuals. Epstein asserts that tools like strength finders pigeon-hole people and make it harder to develop, grow, evolve, blossom and discover new things. We want answers, but what we need is to experiment and see what happens. We do best when we sample activities, jobs, careers and social groups, then adjust. Thinking we need to stick with one thing limits the possibilities. To achieve breakthroughs, we require time to dabble with meandering exploration and even go down rabbit holes.
We erroneously assess progress by how we are doing right now. However, in moments of real learning we become frustrated and believe that we are not making progress. Epstein sites a study of Air Force cadets who were randomly assigned different teachers to learn calculus. The grades of the cadets were analyzed with how they evaluated their teacher. Then the researchers followed the cadets through their academic career, recording grades and teacher evaluations. The students who got the best grades in calculus were also happiest with their teachers. Several terms later, it was apparent that the students with lower grades and low teacher satisfaction had retained the most information. Struggle is essential to deep learning.
Epstein doesn’t necessarily want us to be gritty – sticking with something even when it is feels like it isn’t working any more. The ability to recognize when something isn’t working and when it’s time to move on is perhaps more valuable. Sometimes, we need to cut bait and try another fishing hole. We humans resist quitting when we’ve invested time, energy and sometimes money. When we don’t quit and move on, we lose the opportunity to try something that may be a better fit.
Ultimately, Epstein’s goal for writing his book was to help people stop feeling like we are behind. Too often, we think it is too late to make successful changes, whether it’s changing careers, seeking education, learning an instrument, or picking up a new sport. The only way to ensure you won’t be successful is to never start.