‘Range’: The Case for Diversification on the Pathway to Excellence

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Who do you want to become when you grow up?

Such a familiar question to many of us, I believe. This question suggests that one needs to decide early, and start moving towards the chosen direction as soon as possible. Indeed, achieving something great needs a lot of work, sustained focus and persistence, hence, the earlier you start the better, right?!

About a decade ago Anders Ericsson’s research into expertise popularized the 10,000-hour rule – a principle that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become an expert in any field. This gave raise to the idea of early specialization and long-term devotion to one specific field. There seems to be plenty of evidence too: Mozart was first seated in front of a harpsichord when he was three, the former world No. 1 tennis player Serena Williams took the racket in her hands at approximately the same age, and the current world chess champion Magnus Carlsen was introduced to the game at the age of five. Naturally, all of them mastered their art with devotion and focused attention. As such, the common wisdom goes that if you want to do something well you need to concentrate on it, you can’t be good unless you dive deep, and ‘jack-of-all-trades’ is synonymous to mediocracy…

A recent book by David Epstein challenges these popular understandings though. In ‘Range’, David Epstein builds a comprehensive case for generalists and the pathway to excellence through breadth of interest and well-roundedness. Although Serena Williams was hitting the tennis ball from an early age, tennis legend Roger Federer played many different sports before specialising in tennis. Although Mozart was a music prodigy from the beginning, Vincent van Gogh arrived at his passion for art in his thirties, after working in various other domains. David Epstein argues that specialists can flourish in so-called ‘kind’ learning environments, which have recurring patterns and provide quick and clear feedback (like chess), while generalists are better off if we speak about ‘wicked’ learning environments. Wicked environments, such as soccer, emergency room medicine or jazz, are rather messy, patterns are harder to notice, and receiving coherent feedback is difficult. A broad set of integrative skills make generalists more adept to wicked environments. Moreover, as Epstein suggests, diversity of interests and different experiences allow generalists to end up with a better “match quality”, which means that starting off broader and sampling may help in finding the passion that sticks.

‘Range’ made me think about the professional domain and global work. As often discussed in my blog, the current work environment is rather fluid, volatile and unpredictable – hence, rather ‘wicked’ in Epstein’s terms. Moreover, given the prospects of automation progressively taking over standardized and simple-patterned jobs, the case for developing a range of integrative skills, as opposed to depth, seems very relevant. Finally, the notion of range reflects the concept of a multistage life that I have recently written about, and which personally strongly appeals to me.

All in all, shall we introduce an alternative to ‘Who do you want to become when you grow up?’ How about we actively cultivate our growth mindset, encourage diversity of interests and seek opportunities to try different things?

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