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Going Broad—Not Narrow—is the Best Route to Lasting Success

An interview with David Epstein.

Brad Stulberg

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

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In 2014, our good friend (and even better science writer) David Epstein rocked the sports world with his debut book, The Sports Gene, which uncovered the vast impact of innate talent on athletic performance and showed readers how they could nurture their nature. The book debunked the then celebrated 10,000-hour rule, or the notion that you could be great at anything with 10,000 hours of practice. Turns out, your DNA matters too. Epstein is back with a new book that slays yet another sacred cow—the notion that if you want to achieve peak performance, you should specialize early on. In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Epstein argues that going broad—not narrow—is the best route to lasting success and wellbeing. We caught up with Epstein for an exclusive discussion of his new book.

1) What was the biggest surprise to you in researching and reporting on RANGE?

I would say the research on the cognitive psychology of learning, in the "Learning, Fast and Slow" chapter. I get press releases about "learning hacks" on a weekly basis, which tells me there's obviously widespread hunger for learning how to learn. But few, if any, of those hacks are really evidence backed. There are, though, a small number of learning techniques that have extremely robust evidence behind them, and that in large part apply to both physical and cognitive learning. But they get so little attention and are so rarely implemented. I was stunned when I was in the lab of a world expert in the cognitive psychology of learning, and I asked him what the professors a few blocks away who train future teachers think of his work, and he said he'd never met any of them. The people studying learning and the people training and teaching seem to be hermetically siloed from one another, so we haven't implemented those techniques [that actually work] as we should. There's no room to go into them in detail here, but I'll say that the single most surprising study in the book, to me, was conducted at the U.S. Air Force Academy: The Academy provided a unique environment for studying the impact of teaching quality on learning, because students have to take the same sequence of courses and the same tests, and they are randomized to professors, and then re-randomized for each subsequent course, so you can truly track the impact of teaching. Basically, the study found that teachers who are the best at helping students do well in their own class now also systematically undermine the future development of those same students, who then go on to underperform in future classes. That's a deeply counterintuitive finding, but it's also a theme in the book—that behavior which causes the best performance right now can damage longer-term development.

2) What are three practical takeaways that people can use starting tomorrow?

First off, and for sport, in particular, I think something that applies at every level of athletes is that they should introduce variety into whatever they're doing. A good symbol to keep in mind is Cirque du Soleil, which, by the way, includes plenty of former Olympians. They experimented with having performers learn the basics of disciplines outside of those they actually perform and found that, among other benefits, it dramatically reduced their injury rates.

Second, one of my favorite phrases in the book is from Herminia Ibarra, who studied how people find careers that fit them (often by changing multiple times): "We learn who we are in practice, not in theory." What she means is that there is this cultural notion she calls the "true-self model," this idea that we can simply introspect or take a personality quiz and learn who we are. In fact, that simply gives a cross-sectional snapshot of who we are based on our limited roster of previous experiences. To better understand your strengths, weaknesses, and interests, you actually have to try stuff—in other words, learn who you are in practice. And then you have to reflect on each personal experiment as if you are a scientist of yourself. And then move forward accordingly, continually triangulating your place in the world. We don't take enough time to reflect on what we've just done, even though it is a staple habit of the best learners. Personally, I started what I call a "book of experiments," which I use the way I once used my notebook when I was an environmental science graduate student. I find something I'd like to try or learn, put down my hypothesis for what I think it'll teach me, then try and reflect. It's actually been great. It led me to take an online fiction-writing class which I think really improved my writing. I also set aside time each year to do some volunteer work, and this past year decided to spread that thinly over about a half dozen organizations, to see which I thought would allow me to both learn something and use my skills and network to make an impact. Now I've narrowed it down to two that fit the mold and where I'll concentrate my time, and I'm very happy with the result of that experimentation. Experimentation can feel like wasted time, but in fact, you are working toward maximizing what economists call "match quality," the degree of fit between your skills, interests, and what you do, and your growth rate is much higher with good match quality. So the experimentation time is not remotely wasted. Think of it not as a sunk cost but as an investment in long-term development.

Lastly: Drop your obsession with precocity, or what I call the "cult of the head start." Voluminous evidence shows that apparent head starts tend to show a "fadeout" effect, both in sports and other areas. In the chapter about the "Dark Horse Project," on how people find careers where they feel fulfilled, what I write about is that those "dark horses" (so-called because they all feel like they came out of nowhere to succeed) don't look around and agonize about who has more than them at a younger age. They say: "Here's who I am now; here are my skills and interests; here are the opportunities in front of me; here's one worth trying, and maybe a year from now I'll change." The dark horses' common trait was that kind of short-term plan-and-adjust mentality, rather than sticking to ironclad long-term goals.

3) What do you see as the "next big thing" in talent development?

Well, outside of sports, I think there is still tremendous untapped value for the kind of coaching that already occurs inside of sports. I would love to have a coach walking hand-in-hand with me as I try to learn about myself in an effort to improve my writing, the same way I did when I was running. (Fair warning for my prospective coaches, my favorite SI editor once described me as, "The athlete who only hears the boos." Working on that...). I think there is a grand total of zero professions that couldn't benefit from coaching, and while I think there's acknowledgment of that now in the business world and some other areas, I think there's still a lot of room to grow in terms of application, and in terms of expansion to more areas. I think most of us when we become competent, we keep doing the same things over and over. We get stuck in a rut of competence because we gravitate toward ease and convenience. I talked about this with economist Russ Roberts, and he said it's not so much a rut as a hammock because it's really comfortable. We have to vary up our challenges to avoid a plateau, and I think coaches can really help with that.

Otherwise, I have to say, my top recommendation for talent development in any endeavor is usually the same: Market the activity more widely and diversify the entry and development pipelines such that you give a chance to as many people with as many different trajectories and solutions as possible. I think when we push selection, especially in sports, earlier and earlier, we do the opposite of that. We allow only kids with a more narrow developmental trajectory and timing to make it. On the other hand, sports have marketed themselves extremely effectively to get massive participation, but I worry about the narrowing of developmental pipelines, where you essentially de-select people before they even have a chance to develop. As JM Tanner, at one time the world's expert in body growth and development (and a world-class hurdler) once said: everyone is different, therefore for optimal development, everyone should have a different environment. Clearly, there are also common principles that work, but I think it's true that we shouldn't artificially restrict the pipeline so that only performers who fit a certain mold have a good chance to make it. And here's my bridge to non-sports: in chapter nine, I talk about Abbie Griffin's research on "serial innovators," and her main advice to HR professionals is that these serial innovators are always more broad and interdisciplinary and more generalist or polymath looking than the candidates who most easily fit the roles that HR wants quickly to fill. They look like oddballs. They look like they may be behind, or like their interests change frequently, or like they can't stick to a single discipline. So it makes them confusing hires, but they are in fact the highest potential-for-impact employees. So we need to keep those job descriptions from being too narrowly defined. As Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience put it: "It appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality they are channeling and strengthening them."

4) What is the most controversial thing you cover in the book?

That probably depends what professional domain the reader is in. If the reader is a business professor, it's very likely to be my critique of one of the most famous business school case studies of all time, which I think got something very important wrong. For a general reader, it will probably just be the idea, that appears in many chapters, of the "fadeout effect" of a head start—that it is possible to move ahead in a way that helps ensure you will fall behind in the long run. For a certain readership, though, I think my discussion of the limitations of the psychological construct of "grit" will probably be the most controversial. It is clear to me that some of the most enthusiastic grit proponents—including school systems testing kids for grit—either did not read the actual research or did not understand it. I want to be sure to add here that I took the most important aspect of those limitations right from the original papers by Angela Duckworth and colleagues. I'm not discovering anything new here. They were really honest about it, it just seems that some very important points and statistics were lost between research papers and popular translation, which of course is often the case and always a difficult balance.

5) What areas are you most excited to watch the research and practice unfold in over the next decade?

Some of the stuff I document in the book, like the superior performance of comic book creators who work across many genres, and of inventors who spread their work across many technology classes instead of drilling into one, is simply happening on its own. As Andy Ouderkirk, the 2013 R&D Magazine Innovator of the year, notes, practitioners with breadth are increasing in importance and hyper-specialists—while still very important—are decreasing a bit in importance. Or, more specifically, we don't need as many. I'm excited to see these burgeoning contributions from people who embrace breadth. And in the most extreme manifestation, to see the proliferation of outfits like InnoCentive, which helps companies post problems that stump them and offer rewards to "outside solvers," who come from totally different areas. The massive success of InnoCentive—including solving in a few months a problem that stumped NASA for 30 years—has led to more operations that seek to embrace outside solvers. Kaggle is a really neat one, that looks for outside solvers for machine learning problems—truly cutting edge stuff where it's fascinating to see how much outside solvers can add. Again, this is basically a diversification of the pipeline, but in this case just regarding who gets an opportunity to try to tackle a problem.

6) If you had to leave readers of the Peak Performance newsletter with one piece of advice, what would it be?

We learn who we are in practice, not in theory. If you haven't done some proactive experimentation and reflected on it and adjusted accordingly, you almost certainly haven't optimized your "match quality," the degree of fit between you and your work, which is critical in determining your performance level. 

7) Anything else for readers of the PP newsletter?

Read The Passion Paradox. Sure, I'm playing to the home audience, but it's also a new book and I'm serious. I happen to think there are a lot of commonalities between our books and the discussion they provide in hopes of helping people better evaluate their pursuits. Both books grapple with big ideas—finding and managing passion; how broad or specialized to be—that everyone thinks about and is interested in but that are hard to define and usually only discussed with pure intuition. Both books try to gather up a bunch of concrete angles and stories and research to bring to bear on these normally amorphous, abstract conversations. We're sort of peering to—and in some cases past—the edge of what's known, which is really neat. In no way do I consider these books the final word on any of this, but I do hope they work together to make the discussions people have more interesting and productive.

Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes about performance and wellbeing. He is the bestselling author of Peak Performance and The Passion Paradox, and co-creator of the TheGrowthEq.com.

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This post originally appeared on Brad Stulberg and was published May 21, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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