The traditional path to success has emphasized excelling in a single discipline or field rather than being a generalist. But writer David Epstein is challenging that wisdom, contending that it’s sometimes better to be a jack of all trades.
Author David Epstein: “I think most people have absorbed at least the gist of the Tiger Woods story. His father gave him a putter when he was six months old. He was physically precocious and dragged it around everywhere in his circular baby walker, started imitating a swing at 10 months. By 2 years old, he was on national TV showing off his swing in front of Bob Hope. By 3, his father started to media train him. Fast forward to 21, he’s the best golfer in the world. He’s very focused on golf — large amounts of deliberate practice where it’s like technical training.
Roger Federer, on the other hand, played a dozen different sports from skiing and skateboarding, rugby, badminton, basketball, soccer, all sorts of things. He delayed specializing. His mother was a tennis coach and refused to coach him because he wouldn’t return balls normally. When his coaches tried to kick him up a level, he declined because he just wanted to talk about pro wrestling with his friends.
When he first got good enough to warrant an interview from the local paper and they asked what would he buy with his first check if he ever became a pro, [they thought] he said a Mercedes. His mother was appalled and asked if she could hear the interview recording. She did, and Roger had actually said “mair CDs” in Swiss-German, which just means he wanted more CDs, not a Mercedes, so she was OK with that.
He kept playing badminton, basketball and soccer years after his peers were focusing only on tennis, and obviously he turned out OK. So, which one of these is the norm? If you look at the science instead of just individual stories, which is a norm?
It turns out it is the Roger pattern. All around the world, sports scientists track the development of athletes and found they have a so-called sampling period, where they gain these broad general skills to scaffold later learning. They learn about their interests. They learn about their abilities. They systematically delay specializing until later than their peers, who plateau at lower levels.”