Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life
The most interesting people I know
Didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives
Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t
Back in 1997, these lyrics jumped out at me. Buried in the middle of the Baz Luhrmann’s spoken word song “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,” these words stood in stark contrast to the messages my students were receiving from their parents, our school, and the college admission gods. For most of my 8th grade students, they felt they should already know what they wanted “to be” when they grew up, or more specifically, what specific career that they wanted to pursue. They took proficiency and interest tests in Middle School Advisory so they could choose their high school courses so they could choose their eventual majors so they could find ultimate bliss in their ordained career.
They were 13. And they were being groomed to specialize.
The book “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell only intensified this specialization. In this book, Gladwell opines that if you practice a skill correctly for 10,000 hours, you can become a master. What’s the best way to hit the 10,000 hour mark? Start early, specialize, stick to it and then practice, practice, practice. And don’t ever quit.
But the years (and then the decades) passed. I moved into the high school teaching ranks, and slowly saw scattered alumni reach out or return, frequently sharing their stories of university uncertainty and then career doubt.
They felt unsettled.
Their lifetime of specialization, focused hoop-jumping wasn’t going as planned.
Although I kept seeing this pattern emerge, I didn’t fully understand what was happening until coming across the 2019 book by David Epstein – “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.” Epstein offered that although those who specialize in skills/hobbies/careers might get an initial head start, within years they are often surpassed by the late bloomers who took time to dabble in a range of pursuits before settling on a path. The specialists oftentimes just peak. Or they get injured emotionally or physically from overuse. Or they grow disinterested, and then just settle and resign themselves to stay on the specialized path, even though they truly hate that path. Because that’s all they know.
Epstein uses the story of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer – a golfer and a tennis player who became the best in the planet at their pursuits. Tiger specialized. He had a golf club in his hand in infancy, and probably hit the 10,000 hours master mark by the time he was a teenager. He became the best golfer in the world. Federer didn’t specialize. He wrestled, swam, skateboarded, skied, and played basketball, ping pong, handball, soccer, badminton and tennis. He stayed away from any one activity and instead dabbled in dozens. He too became the best at his eventually chosen field – tennis – but he didn’t start to focus his efforts until late teenage years, long after the age that Tiger had made his mark.
Epstein argues that Tiger’s success was an anomaly. In today’s world hyper specialization at an early age rarely pays off. According to Epstein, it only works in “Kind” learning environments – environments where the rules don’t change, you get immediate feedback, and you can practice the same exact skill over and over again. Swinging a golf club.
But tennis isn’t a “Kind” learning environment. It’s “Wicked.” Wicked worlds have changing rules, inconsistent or unavailable feedback, and experience can sometimes take you down the wrong direction. This is true for tennis.
It also turns out that it’s true for most of life.
Life can be wicked – it’s unpredictable, the rules change, and you can think you’re going down the right path, but you turn out to be wrong.
That’s where Epstein argues it’s better to have Range – to be a generalist. To experiment with all the world has to offer, and gradually figure out what truly fits with your interests and your aptitudes, all the while gaining skills that will later be transferable. Being a generalist takes a long time to pay off, and people want to see results fast. But in the rush to be first, to see fast results, we often set people, and our children, to struggle in the long run.
We over care when our kids are first to walk, or talk, or read, or shoot a basketball, or learn their times tables.
I noticed this “over care” when I taught 3rd grade, and it was our first parent teacher conference. One mother broke down in tears because her daughter was struggling with her 7’s times tables, and at a recent luncheon her maternal peers were boasting about how their children had already memorized through the 12’s. She was worried her child was falling behind and the golden ticket to a Harvard admission would now be out of reach. Her daughter was eight years old. The next mom who entered the room was Haakon’s mom, and I had to tell her I was worried because her son couldn’t read yet.
She laughed. And then she told me that in Norway, school achievement isn’t a race. Children spend their first few years outdoors and exploring. Sure, he couldn’t read now, but she had no doubt he would. I shouldn’t worry. And she was right. By the end of the year, he had risen to the top of the class, and any initially perceived gap was quickly filled.
Although some of us can see the logic in this formula – experiment with the world, internalize skills, watch as your mind and body make sense of all the information and you emerge stronger. We struggle to believe it. We are preoccupied with precocity (achieving a skill earlier than usual…think “precocious”). We think the faster we can show success in something the better.
But first isn’t always best. Epstein argues for the other path, the path where you develop a range of skills that can later be transferable to the life you eventually choose. Think Vincent Van Gogh. He was a failed preacher, teacher, book seller, art dealer, and then at age 27 he bought some art supplies and eventually became one of the most renowned (and prolific) painters the world has ever known, creating close to 900 pieces in just ten years. Van Gogh took a life of experiences and integrated that knowledge into pieces of art that revolutionized the field.
Examples of generalists integrating knowledge and experiences and making their mark later in life doesn’t end with Van Gogh. You probably know a ton in your life. Where my university friends ended up had nothing to do with their majors. One History major buddy became an endocrinologist. Of my two dorm mates who were Communications majors, one became an energy lawyer, the other designs hospital infrastructures. Of my two friends who started pre-med, Organic Chemistry swallowed them both, and one eventually then became a firefighter, the other an executive in the hotel industry. And my friend who majored in Math went on to run marketing campaigns for Facebook for a bit, but now he does contractor’s work on homes and drives UHaul vans around America transporting and selling random bulk items of stuff he buys online.
Each of them had learned the art of quitting. And it is an art. In the book “Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away,” Annie Duke discussed how important it is to not just stick with something through the 10,000 hour mark, with the hope that maybe, just maybe it’ll click down the line. Get out of friendships that aren’t working. Stop going to activities you don’t like. Quit the job that doesn’t leave you fulfilled. Learn when to quit.
But this word “quitting” scares parents. We don’t want our children to just give up. That “quit” word is icky. So maybe, don’t call it quitting. Maybe call it “pivoting to explore” a bit of the untapped world.
So is specialization bad?
Definitely not. For some people who do find their “passion,” who are able to diversify their thoughts over time within an experience, a hobby, a career, they can totally make it work. But in thinking of specialization, of following that 10,000 hour benchmark, maybe think about making the focus in a transferable skill, one that can carry over to other areas of your life.
My son asked me over break if I’ve hit 10,000 hours in anything. I thought for a bit. Yep. Yammering. I talk. I talk a lot. And I’ve had a lot of practice. For the first twenty years of my career, in the age where it was ok to be a sage on the stage, I would talk 4-6 hours a day in front of a class, with colleagues, with parents. 4 hours a day, 180 days a year, 20 years – 14,400 hours. And that was the number hit by 2015. My yammering hasn’t decreased since. And this talking skill got me some years in the classroom, helps me in my current job, allows me to survive in awkward social situations, and could one day serve me well if ever I journeyed away from school. Discoursing is a transferable or “soft” skill that pretty much every industry needs.
I’ve also seen individuals and families unknowingly practice their specialization over time, and then find the moment where they’re remarkably, and surprisingly good at a brand new skill, and they might wonder why. An AAS family went surfing together over the holiday break, and within minutes all five of them could get up on the wave. That ain’t easy. The surf instructor was flummoxed. He just doesn’t see this happen from beginners. But were they truly beginners, or had they spent a lifetime practicing the skills of being together as a family, encouraging each other, taking risks, laughing off initial errors, watching each other for encouragement and motivation? They had specialized in family-ing.
So whether you’re watching your middle schooler experiment with different friendship groups, or watching your college kid narrow down their eventual major, or watching your newly-into-the-workforce older children explore different careers, don’t worry if they haven’t yet specialized.
They might just be navigating our wicked world with range.
And they just might turn out to be one of the most interesting 40-year olds you know.