May is graduation season, and high school seniors across the country are getting ready to move into their college years. It’s very common in the US to pick a major early on and then stick with it all the way through college. At the end, students graduate with a specialized degree in business, medicine, graphic design, or some other chosen field.
Specializing in one field of study has worked well for many professionals in the past. But David Epstein, author of the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, says that generalization rather than specialization might lead to greater success in life. Here’s why.
The more you hone in on one area of study early in life, the more you narrow your focus. You shut out other activities and opportunities that arise to focus on that one thing that’s driving you, the one thing that you’re hoping to achieve greatness in, whether it’s sports, music, or a career in some other field like science or medicine. This laser focus tends to exclude experiences and knowledge that could, in fact, help you become more successful in a chosen profession in the future.
Specification vs. Generalization in Action
Here’s an example. Tiger Woods chose the traditional route. He started playing golf at four years old. Through extreme focus and determination, he became one of the best golfers of all time, eventually being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Contrast Woods’s trajectory with that of Roger Federer, also one of the best athletes in his field. Federer didn’t hone in on tennis until he was in his teens. He spent his younger years engaging in other sports, including skiing, basketball, skateboarding, and badminton. He also played tennis when he was younger, but it didn’t stick at first. It was only after he’d tried out other sports that he decided he liked tennis best. Today, Federer credits his experience in these other sports with helping him develop the hand-eye coordination and athleticism he needed to become one of the greatest tennis players in the world.
The paths were different, but both athletes reached the top of their sport. So why not stick with the traditional specialized approach?
Three Key Reasons for Trying Everything
Epstein notes in his book three major lessons he learned during the research of this topic.
#1. Gathering a broad range of experience is just as good as, if not better than, taking the specialized approach. Many masters have chosen the generalized approach, including world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma and master painter Vincent Van Gogh. Experimenting with many different interests is a great way to broaden your experience, knowledge, and creativity, helping you determine what you like and what you don’t.
Key takeaway: It’s okay to try different things when you’re trying to choose what you want to be when you “grow up” — whether you’re 18 or 48.
#2. Having a broad range of experience helps you succeed when you finally do make a choice. Having experience in many different fields provides a more well-rounded view of life and teaches skills that can be used across multiple fields. Trying out different jobs, sports, or activities leads to better problem-solving skills, greater creativity, and a more innovative mindset.
Key takeaway: Companies should think about their hiring process. A candidate who’s worked in a variety of positions and industries may make a better employee than one who’s done the same thing their whole career.
#3. Specialized “experts” often don’t see the big picture. Another thing Epstein found through his research was that specialization in one field doesn’t necessarily make you a reliable expert. Too much specialization seems to put blinders on people, keeping them from seeing external forces that could impact their career, industry, or environment.
Key takeaway: A more generalized approach leads to a more open-minded, holistic view of the world.
Good News for Anyone Looking to Make a Change
I view all this as good news for today’s graduating seniors. Knowing you don’t have to know exactly what you’re going to do when you enter college or start a career takes the pressure off and allows you to enjoy the journey. Many may find it comforting to know the experience gained by trying new things can actually lead to greater success in the future.
Net-net: Don’t be afraid to try something new. It just may lead you to the success you’ve always dreamed of!