Conventional wisdom tells us adult experts benefit from being able to get a head start in their chosen field when they were younger – that is, compared to non-experts, they benefited from concentrating at an earlier age on developing their talents. But is this always the case?
In his book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World, David Epstein explores the science of success and makes the case for why being a generalist is in the long term often more advantageous than being a specialist. Drawing on examples from sport, business, and beyond, Epstein provides insight into the benefits of diversifying your skillset and explains how to raise a generalist. For parents and coaches, Epstein’s book Range, contains many useful lessons to think through how we can best help our children and athletes reach their full potential.
Tiger v Roger
Epstein begins his book by telling the talent development stories of two world-renowned athletes: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.
As many of us will know, Tiger’s story starts with his father, Earl. Earl Woods had a vision for his son at an early age and helped to shape him to become one of the best golfers in history by taking him out onto the course almost every day from when he could barely walk. I’m sure many of you will have seen the footage of a two-year-old Tiger woods putting on television. In many ways, Tiger’s talent was the result of deliberate practice and early specialisation.
On the other hand, Roger Federer’s talent was more a product of breadth and generalism. Federer started playing tennis at the age of eight, but unlike Tiger, he didn’t focus exclusively on tennis; he also played soccer, badminton, and basketball. This helped him develop a well-rounded skill set that would serve him later in his career when he decided to specialise. Epstein is often quoted talking about Roger’s parents as being ‘pully-parents’. They didn’t push him too hard in any one area, but rather encouraged his talent and passion for sport (broadly). They also ensured he got a good education so that if things didn’t work out with tennis, he had an alternative career to fall back on.
While many of us are familiar with the Tiger development story, it would be fair to say, not as many know about Roger’s development story.
It’s worth pausing for a moment and asking why is this?
The fact that you probably have heard about the Tiger story before but not the Roger story sheds some light on how we as a society think more broadly about talent and talent development.
Unpacking how we think about talent & talent development?
Epstein suggests there are a few reasons why the Tiger Woods development story has got much more visibility than the Roger Federer story (and consequently has been held up as THE model for talent development).
- Society has a predilection for child prodigies – talented children make for better news and YouTube clips. As such, it is these types of stories that get media time, and as such these are the stories that we are generally exposed to.
- The 10,000-hour. Epstein describes how a study by Anders Ericsson published in 1993 which was later popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, has become a bit of a cult for talent development. In the study, Ericsson argues that talent doesn’t exist and that anyone can be good at anything with enough practice (deliberate or otherwise). He suggests you need to do roughly ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. This idea has been widely accepted and is now seen as THE path for talent development.
- The story of talent development through specialisation fits with our beliefs about talent itself (i.e., talent is innate or genetic). Epstein suggests that this narrative also explains why people will often say things like, ‘she was born with talent’ or ‘he’s just naturally gifted’ when they see someone perform well (i.e., anything other than deliberate practice is assumed to be talent).
- The story of talent development through specialisation also fits with our beliefs about IQ and learning ability. In particular, talent is innate and talent development is about the acquisition of knowledge. This idea has become quite popular in recent years with people like Carol Dweck promoting the idea that talent can be developed through effort and not just talent.
- It fits well with our understanding of how we learn from experts (i.e., direct instruction). Epstein suggests that this might be one of the reasons why Tiger’s father was so successful in developing his son – he followed a model of instruction where he would give Tiger direct feedback on his golf swing.
Kind environments v Wicked environments
At this point, it might seem like I’m advocating against early specialisation in sport, but it should be noted that according to Epstein, certain types of skill sets can benefit from early specialisation.
The key is to understand what type of skills you’re developing and how what type of environment these skills are matched for. To this end, Epstein draws on the work of Robin Hogarth to make a distinction between two types of environments for solving problems: kind environments and wicked environments.
In kind environments, to solve a problem or complete a task
- all the information is available
- common patterns often repeat
- feedback is immediate and accurate
- the only human behaviour is your own.
Examples of these types of environments include playing golf and chess.
In wicked environments, to solve a problem or complete a task
- you will have to draw on imperfect information
- situations are often dynamic, and often involve the behaviour and decisions of other people
- feedback to your actions is often delayed or unclear, if it comes at all.
Examples of these types of environments include any sport where you compete against another player at the same time and any pursuit that requires you to work with other people.
While it might be tempting to become hyper focussed on supporting young people to develop a particular skill or set of skills, especially if they match well with a kind environment, for parents and coaches, the key here is to lift and consider the long-term picture when it comes to their children’s or athlete’s development. As Epstein says,
“We should resist the temptation to place children in narrowly circumscribed environments – or worse, push them prematurely into such environments – and instead, provide experiences that are likely to foster a growth mindset, creativity and a lifelong love of learning.”
This is where Range comes in. Epstein argues that, in a world where specialisation is becoming increasingly common, the generalist has become an undervalued asset. And he provides a wealth of evidence to support this argument.
The benefits fo diversifying your skillset
So, what are the benefits of being a generalist? Epstein identifies three key advantages:
- Firstly, generalists are better prepared for change. As our world becomes more and more complex, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be an expert in one area. The days of the specialist are over. To succeed in sport and beyond, it’s advantageous to be a generalist.
- Secondly, for talent development purposes – athletes who are better at multiple sports are more likely to become the best talent within their chosen sport later on than those who focused on one activity early on. This is because they’ve developed an array of skills that in the long term help them excel at their chosen sport – talent development is a polymath enterprise.
- Thirdly, generalists are better problem solvers. They have a greater understanding of the world around them and can therefore bring together insights from different disciplines to solve problems in novel ways.
A diversified development experience is shown to long term make people better at solving problems and enacting tasks in a wicked environment.
The risks of specialising early
It’s important to note that there are expert and talented athletes who specialised early. Whether their success can be attributed to them specialising early (or would they have been successful regardless) is hard to unpack retrospectively. What we don’t hear much about is the stories of athletes who specialised early but didn’t make it, or worse suffered negatively because of specialising too early.
When we think more broadly, the evidence is pretty clear that early-specialisation for athletes comes with risks as well as the opportunity costs of missing out on the benefits of being exposed to more variety in their development years.
How do I know if my child/athlete is talented?
If you’re new to talent development and talent spotting, you might be wondering how do I know if my child/athlete is talented. Epstein doesn’t provide a definitive answer to this question, but he does provide some practical guidance:
- Firstly, don’t try to predict just because your child demonstrates talent in one area (e.g. running) that they have talent in another area (e.g. tennis). This is not a given and talent spotting is more complex than this.
- Secondly, don’t try to predict talent from early performance – i.e., don’t assume because your child/athlete wins their first race that they’ll become the next Usain Bolt.
- Thirdly, talent spotting requires observation and experience – i.e., it’s more of an art than a science. If you want to spot talent in children (or adults), Epstein recommends looking for evidence of talent rather than talent itself:
- Look for patterns across different contexts – talent is domain-general; not domain-specific.
- Look for consistent excellence – talent is a propensity to do something better than others, more often and under more conditions.
- Finally, look for passion and engagement – talent is not only about what you’re good at but also what you love doing.
It’s also important to caveat those perceptions of talent can change from person to person – coaches in particular need to be careful with making early judgments and applying early labels to athletes about them being talented or not.
How do I nurture the talent in my child/athlete to help them to reach their potential?
So, what are the key lessons for parents and coaches when it comes to talent development?
- First, understand that talent is not innate – it’s developed over time through practice and effort.
- Second, know that there is no one pathway to success – athletes who specialise early on might be successful, but they’re also at risk of burnout and injury.
- Third, diversify talent development by experimenting with a wide range of sporting activities – this will provide athletes with the best chance to develop talent in their chosen sport later on.
- Fourth, talent development is a polymath enterprise – it requires coaches and athletes to develop talent across multiple disciplines in order to succeed.
- Fifth, talent development takes time – the best coaches are patient and know that talent develops over years rather than months or weeks.
- Sixth, talent development involves a lot of trial and error – talent is developed through the feedback that comes from making mistakes and correcting them over time. It’s important to set up an environment where athletes can make these mistakes without fear of failure or punishment.
- Finally, talent development needs to be fun – if it’s not enjoyable, athletes are less likely to put in the time and effort required to develop talent.
In summary, the best way to develop talent is through diversification, patience, and a fun learning environment. Talent development takes time, and it’s important not to put too much pressure on athletes to succeed early on. Coaches need to be patient and allow athletes to make mistakes, while also providing them with the feedback they need to improve over time. And finally, parents should provide a supportive environment that allows their children to explore different activities and find what they love doing. This is the best way to foster talent development in any domain.