This title might be a bit confusing to you. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
Many people have the mindset of needing to specialize in one particular area or subject to be able to achieve greatness (whatever you define that as). In that regard, David (not Jeffrey) Epstein provides us with a very fitting quote in his book Range:
While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases — as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part — we also need more Rogers: People who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.
But what does this have to do with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer? In David Epstein’s book, Tiger Woods is used as a prime example of early specialization and incredible dedication to but one thing – golf. I’ve read many headlines about him in the past few years, but I never really knew what his story was. Apparently he won his first golf tournament when he was only two years old – in the ten-and-under division. His father recognized his talent and went on and nurtured it heavily over the coming years. As most of you probably know, Tiger Woods stuck with the sport and proceeded to become one of the greatest golfers of all time.
Roger Federer on the other hand tried many different sports when he was a kid: Squash, basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, badminton, soccer, the list goes on. Apparently he found that the type of sport itself didn’t really matter much to him, as long as it included a ball. He obviously also did some skiing since he’s Swiss, but we’ll just ignore that for the sake of the ball narrative. Anyway, in his teen years he began to focus on tennis. Interestingly enough, his parents actually told him to stop taking it so seriously instead of heavily encouraging him like Tiger’s father did. Furthermore, when he was already playing at a decent level and his tennis instructors wanted to move him up to a group with older players, he asked to remain where he was so he could stay with his friends. Despite all that, he went on to become one of the best tennis players of all time.
So we’ve got ourselves two very different stories with a very similar outcome here. To go back to the quote at the beginning, my question is: What kind of career path and upbringing should we encourage and seek out, Tiger’s or Roger’s?
Before we can answer that question, we have to understand some of the disadvantages of early and heavy specialization. To do that, we have to move away from sports and turn towards academia and the working world, since that’s a more common trajectory. Besides the obvious possible negative effects of “tiger parenting”, being trained to recognize patterns within a specific ruleset of a specific discipline will probably result in a lack of critical thinking ability. The understanding of a specific ruleset and patterns of one discipline will probably prove to be invalid for most of the other disciplines.
In one of his studies, the researcher James Flynn examined how the GPA (Grade Point Average) of senior students at one of America’s top universities compares to their performance on a test of critical thinking. The students came from various majors, ranging from Neuroscience to English. The test checked the students’ ability to apply abstract concepts from sciences and logic to real-world scenarios, and the correlation between their GPAs and test results turned out to be zero.
In a similar vein, there’s another interesting point that David Epstein brings up in his book:
In research in the game of bridge where the order of play was altered, experts had a more difficult time adapting to new rules than did nonexperts. When experienced accountants were asked in a study to use a new tax law for deductions that replaced a previous one, they did worse than novices. Erik Dane, a Rice University professor who studies organizational behavior, calls this phenomenon “cognitive entrenchment.”
I think all of us can think of a situation where we fell victim to cognitive entrenchment. A researcher named Christopher Connolly wrote his PhD thesis referring to this exact topic. One of his findings was the following:
Early in their careers, those who later made successful transitions had broader training and kept multiple “career streams” open even as they pursued a primary specialty. They “traveled on an eight-lane highway,” rather than down a single-lane one-way street. They had range. The successful adapters were excellent at taking knowledge from one pursuit and applying it creatively to another, and at avoiding cognitive entrenchment. … They drew on outside experiences and analogies to interrupt their inclination toward a previous solution that may no longer work. Their skill was in avoiding the same old patterns.
Additionally, keeping up with various career streams, activities and interests might help with preventing a loss of passion for one of them in the long run. It will most likely also help with finding creative solutions to problems by combining knowledge from multiple different fields. Many interdisciplinary research areas have emerged in the past years and decades, and more will follow in the coming years.
If you’ve found that the Tiger path was exactly right for you, then that’s great. If not, remember that it is not the only option, as the Roger path also exists, which seems just as promising if not more.
Let me know what your thoughts and experiences on this matter are and see you next Sunday!