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Why Parents Should Raise Kids to Be Generalists, Not Specialists

David Epstein, the author of "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, discusses why parents should value long-term learning techniques at the expense of short-term improvement.

You know the story: Tiger Woods received a golf club when he was a toddler. He was on television at two-years-old, showing off his technique. As a result of his father’s urging and singular focus on the sport, he became the best golfer in the world. This is how parents raise prodigies. That’s how you master a skill. Jack of all trades, master of none. Jack of golf, master of golf.  

But here’s the thing: this story isn’t entirely true. Earl Woods didn’t force golf on his son; he saw Tiger take a liking to the sport and made room for him to pursue it. David Epstein, a senior science writer for Sports Illustrated, a former reporter on drug cartels for ProPublica, author of best selling The Sports Gene, debunks this myth in his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Drawing, in particular, on the myth of Tiger Woods, Epstein writes about why golf is a terrible model for talent acquisition, why parents should value long-term learning techniques at the expense of short-term improvement, and why parents should throw let their kids explore a lot of activities and unstructured play time and let them figure out their interests themselves. Fatherly spoke to Epstein about Range, what he learned about the world of specialization, and why raising kids who understa 

In the introduction of your book you set up the comparison of Roger Federer vs. Tiger Woods, in that Federer is an example of someone who sampled a lot of activities and Woods was more singularly focused. Why?

Tiger Woods — if you don’t know the details, you absorbed the gist. His father gave him a putter at seven months old. He carried it around in his baby walker. He was very physically precocious. He’s on national television at 2-years-old, showing off his swinging in front of Bob Hope. When Tiger is three, his father is media training him. Fast forward to today, and he’s the greatest golfer in the world. That story probably became one of the most influential stories of development in the world and extrapolated to all of these other domains.

Then Roger Federer — who is, at least as distinguished as a professional athlete — his mom was a tennis coach and refused to coach him because he wouldn’t return balls. He played badminton, basketball, soccer, swimming, wrestling, skiing, table tennis, volleyball, rugby, skateboarding. I’m sure I’m missing a couple but point being it was a bunch [of sports]. When his coaches tried to move him up a level, he declined because he just wanted to talk about pro-wrestling with his friends after practice.

He was very much in a different mindset than Tiger. And obviously, he went on to dominate. So, my question was: we only hear one of these development stories. Which one does the research say is the norm? And it’s definitely the Roger path. And also, golf is a horrible model for most other things you’d want to learn. So we’ve been extrapolating from a uniquely poor domain.

Is golf a bad model because it’s just practicing the same movements over and over?

Pretty much. As the psychologist Robin Hogarth put it, it’s a “kind learning environment.” That basically means that people are talking turns, all of the information is clear, the next steps are clear, and you can count on being asked to do the same thing tomorrow as you did yesterday. You get feedback that’s automatic and perfectly accurate right after you do something. There are all of these characteristics are basically industrial tasks, where you just have to do something over and over and you go for as little deviation as possible. That’s called a “kind” learning environment.

Chess is a kind learning environment, even though that is something we usually equate with much more elaborate cognitive skills. But it’s actually almost entirely based on pattern recognition. Which is why it’s so easy to automate. Computers are even better at pattern recognition.

It seems like there’s a difference between these solo, kind-learning environment situations like golf or chess and team sports.

Scientists who study team sports call them “invasion sports,” where you’re trying to get past people or get a ball past them. In these sports, the things that happen actually occur way too fast for us to react to. So, elite athletes don’t have faster basic reaction times than the rest of us. They pick up on cues: that could be the arrangement of players they see in front of them, or the spin of the ball. Those are called anticipatory cues that allow them to start reacting to something before it happens. That’s what makes them look so quick.

And that’s different from golf.

It’s a totally different skill than just performing known movements over and over. It turns out that you get an advantage if you’ve done a variety of invasion sports when you’re younger. So the Australian Institute of Sport kept data on that. When they saw people who played at least three invasion sports when they were younger, those people would then subsequently pick up any other one more rapidly. You have an advantage from learning those anticipatory skills, which turn out to be the most important thing, whereas the more technical stuff is actually much easier to teach and learn later.

I can really see the connection here between invasion sports, kind learning environments, and the public education system, which provides very specific tests for kids to respond to, and ace at, to advance in the school system.

There’s a chapter in the book that is all on learning. One of the concepts there is called “interleaving.” That basically means mixing up the challenges someone is facing. So, 7th grade classrooms are assigned different types of math training. Some of them are assigned what’s called ‘blocked practice,’ where they do problem type AAAA and then type BBBB, CCCC, and so on. When they do that, on immediate quizzes, they do really well, because they’ve just mastered that problem. It’s a form of teaching a test.

Other classes get interleaved problems, where they never see the same problem type twice in a row, ever. They get more frustrated. Their immediate progress is slower. They rate their teachers and their own learning as lower. And then when the test time comes around, if they are facing problems they’ve never seen before, they destroy the other group. It turns out that the quickest way to make progress for a test is to impart what is using “procedure skill” — learning how to execute something. The knowledge that allows you to do what psychologists call “transfer,” which is the ability to take what you learned and apply it to new problems, is making connections knowledge. You have to learn how to match a type of a strategy to a structure of a problem. That learning turns out to be quite a bit slower.

This is a theme of the book: the type of teaching that can cause the quickest short term improvement can actually undermine your long term development.

So, in terms of the Myth of the Head Start or the myth of specialization, did that really begin with Tiger Woods?

I think the Tiger Woods success story accelerated it, particularly in sports. But I think it goes back to Taylorism, the science of industrial management, where it actually made a ton of sense in a largely industrial economy to specialize. In those skills, you are going to face repetitive challenges and the rules aren’t going to change and you’re not going to have to do the same problem solving. You’re in a more kind learning environment. Not only did that mean that people basically got better just with experience, but also, that means that there are tremendous barriers to lateral mobility. You just need to practice this thing over and over and over. These broader skills that allow people to move between jobs are not as relevant. We’re just sort of slowly adjusting to what was a very rapid change with the explosion of the knowledge economy.

In the army, when the economy changed, they started hemorrhaging their highest potential officers because those people had broader skills and realized that they could find work that fit them better by making lateral moves out into the world, and so they started doing that.

I spoke to a guy named Ted Dintersmith last year. He wrote a book on the public education system and argued that public education fails the modern American student because the economy that public education prepares you for doesn’t exist anymore — you know, it was developed alongside a rapidly industrializing society, which prioritized these quick tasks and project completion.

Totally. In the learning chapter, I featured some questions comparing what Massachusetts 6th graders would get on their basic proficiency tests, a generation ago vs. now, to establish the same level of basic proficiency, and the current test is way harder. People call this test the “Nation’s Report Card.” There is no question that current students have a better mastery of basic skills than their parents do. No question. The problem is, the challenge [to educate for the knowledge economy] has gotten so much more difficult. It hasn’t kept up. And the theme of the book is the things that you can do to get the quickest, short-term improvement, can systematically undermine your long-term development.

So, again, if you look at these athletes who go on to become elite, they spend a huge amount of time in unstructured play early on. I honestly think that playing multiple sports thing is just a proxy for the diversity of challenges they’ll face. If you go to Brazil, the kids aren’t playing soccer like they are in the US. They’re playing this game futsal, where the ball is small and heavy and stays on the ground. One day they’re playing on sand, the next day, cobblestones. The next day, on a basketball court. It’s always a small space. They end up being the really creative players. Nobody is driving them. But they are having opportunities to participate in this unstructured activity. So for my own kids, I think that I’ll make a lot of things available, but I don’t think I’ll say “This is the class you’re taking this semester.” It’s about trying to facilitate that unstructured activity.

What do you think parents need to know and take away from the book? Like, it’s not like parents can go to the education board and say, “You need to change the entire national education system now.”

My feeling is, first of all, I think they should be aware that we’ve been actually telling the Tiger and the Mozart story — that’s probably the second most famous one — wrong. So, Tiger and Mozart both had these prodigious displays of interest and prowess that their fathers responded to, by facilitating a lot of practice. Tiger said his father never once asked him to play golf. He was always the one bugging his father.

Mozart, this musician was visiting their home to play with his father in another group. Mozart wanders in and is asking if he can play second violin, and his father is like, “No, you haven’t had a lesson, no, go away, you can’t play.” And he starts crying. So one of the musicians says, I’ll go and play with him in the next room. And then they hear a second violin coming from the next room. They come in, and watch, and the letter says, verbatim: “Little Wolfgang was emboldened by our applause to insist that he could also play the first violin.” They see that he can really play and he’s made up his own fingering and all this stuff. And then his father responded to that. So, these two incredibly rare cases, were actually the father’s responding to the child’s show of interest.

So that’s not manufactured. [Parents] don’t have to worry about missing that. The best way to have a chance for that to happen is to expose [your kid] to a bunch of stuff and see if they take to something with that maniacal intensity, which most kids won’t do, no matter what.

So it’s all about variety.

There’s this system in the army that I write about called “talent-based branching.” When they started hemorrhaging their highest-potential cadets because of the knowledge economy, it was because they were in this strict up-or-out hierarchy. They started throwing money at those people and that didn’t work. The people who were going to stay took and it the people who were going to leave, left. That was a half a billion dollars in taxpayer money.

They realized the problem was that these high-potential cadets weren’t able to explore their match-quality: the term that economists use for the degree of fit between their interests and ability and the work they do. That turns out to be super important for people’s motivation and performance persistence and all this stuff.

If you find people that have who have good match-quality they will persist in their work. And work a lot harder. And, the talent-based branching approach, instead of saying, “Here is your career track, get up or out,” They say: “Here’s a coach we are going to pair you with. Here’s a bunch of career tracks. You can try another, and another, and a couple more. And then each stop your coach will help you reflect on how this fits you and what your options are until we triangulate a better fit for you.” They had much better retention with that than with throwing money at people.

I view my role, as a parent, to also be a talent-based branching coach. “I’m going to facilitate a bunch of opportunities for you, let’s try some, and I’ll help you reflect on it in a way that helps you get the most of a lesson about yourself from each one.” That’s how I view my role — not that I want to parent, like, an army officer.

All of these books that talk about rising well rounded kids fly in the face of the structure of achievement for kids. You know, good grades, elite college, upon high school graduation at age 18 , kids are supposed to know what they want to do for their career. Do you think that would change?

I mean, I think it should. The work world changes so fast. I knew exactly what I wanted to do from the time that I was 16 — which was to go to the US Air Force Academy, be a test pilot, and be an astronaut. Obviously I didn’t do one of those things, even though I was dead set on it.

Instead, I ended up at college and I went to grad school in environmental science. I was living in a tent in the Arctic when I decided to try to become a writer for sure. I sort was like, well, I’m getting off the science track and that was a waste. I got to Sports Illustrated as a temp fact checker and realized that my very ordinary science skills are suddenly totally extraordinary at a sports magazine and that’s what shot me from being a behind-my-peers temp fact checker to being the youngest senior writer in Sports Illustrated.

I don’t think people know how to carve out niches for themselves until they’ve done some stuff. When Mark Zuckerberg was 22, he said “Young people are just smarter.” But if you look at the data, the average age of a founder of a blockbuster startup on the day of founding is 45 ½.

In a concrete sense, one economists looked at specialization timing and higher ed in England and Scotland, because they have very similar school systems, except for specialization timing. The Scottish students can keep sampling and the English students have to specialize because they have to apply to a specific program in college. And he asked: who wins this tradeoff? The early or late specializers? It turns out that the early specializers do jump out at an income lead because they get more domain specific skills. But a few years out, the late specializers pick better matches, so they have higher growth rates. So, by a few years out, they’ve totally erased the income gap, and then the early specializers start quitting in much higher numbers. They were made to choose so early that they make a lot more mistakes. I always think if we thought of careers like dating, we would stop pressuring people to settle down so early.

Of course, the fear of being behind your peers and the need to jump ahead to make good wages really stops people from exploring their options, right?

I think it all gets to this quote that has stuck with me. I wrote about the work of this woman named Herminia Ibarra. She studies how people both find work that fits them and career-transitions, because as the work world is changing really fast, most people have to career transition at some point. Her quote was, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.

What she meant was all of this psych research shows, even though there are all these personality quizzes and career gurus who are basically telling you either explicitly or implicitly [what to do], irrespective of who you are, and then march forth confidently, that actually all the research shows that the only way you learn who you are is by doing stuff.

You have to go do stuff, and that’s how you learn about yourself. I think it’s almost a dangerous idea to give people a commencement speech kind that says, “Picture yourself in 20 years and just march towards that.”

The period from 18 to your late 20’s is the fastest time of personality change in your entire life. If you are being forced to pick, then, for the rest of your life, what you are going to do. You’re trying to make a choice for someone you don’t even know yet, much less in a world that you can’t conceive yet. It’s not actually a helpful message, even if it’s meant to be inspirational.

So, parents need to chill out. They need to get their kids into some activities.  They need to help them do the stuff they like. And they need to let their kids play

The good message of this is: enjoy your kids. When I lived in Brooklyn, up until recently, there was a youth-7 travel soccer team that met across the street from me.  I don’t think anybody in the world thinks that 6-year-olds can’t find good enough competition in a city of nine million people that they need to travel. It’s that those kids are customers for whoever is running that league. And they want them in as early as possible, even though all the data shows that is not the approach and that, in Germany and France, where they won the last two world cups, they totally reformed their development pipelines to emphasize unstructured play and all the stuff like that. These organizations are preying on parents insecurities that they will let their kids get behind. So, I think the message is nice, in a way: Be more focused on helping them find match-quality than picking some skill and hoping its a fit and having them drill into that.