Contending with the ‘Cult of the Head Start’
Every kid is asked what they want to be when they grow up. Whether they dream of floating in space or walking down the runway, people are primed to think about their careers and what they want to accomplish from the onset of their childhoods.
As an unofficial childhood rite of passage, this question reflects the increasing importance of livelihoods to our very identities — which can have significant impacts in an era of hyper-specialization, where many of today’s occupations require a deep knowledge of individual disciplines.
This mindset has driven legions of parents and students to adopt “early specialization,” or focusing on one passion early in childhood to develop a head start for college and professional careers.
Widely influenced by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, the notion of concentrating on a singular activity — whether it’s playing an instrument or learning a sport — can help individuals achieve mastery, defined by Gladwell as reaching 10,000 hours of deliberative practice.
However, David Epstein’s book, Range, dispels the myth of the head start by demonstrating the necessity of experimentation in our personal and professional lives. The brightest minds in the world, he argues, have been shaped by a wealth of hobbies and interests rather than rigidly devoting themselves to a singular discipline.
Federer vs. Woods: case studies in mastery
He compares early specialization and experimentation in the first pages of the book through the case studies of tennis player Roger Federer and golf player Tiger Woods.
Federer stumbled upon tennis late into his teen years after trying a wide variety of sports, but is considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time; Woods, on the other hand, began playing golf at the age of three and with his parents’ support, became one of the greatest golf players of all time.
Deliberative practice, Epstein notes, can work wonders in predictable disciplines such as athletic fields. Woods effectively parlayed his natural abilities into an iconic golf career, signifying the strength of his passion for the sport.
In Federer’s case, he built a level of mastery later in his childhood and overcame the “head start” of his peers, many of whom spent years more on practicing tennis. Because of his previous athletic pursuits, he had a broader awareness of his skill set and effectively transferred his abilities to tennis.
Woods’ and Federer’s divergent paths to success highlight his broader point: Although early specialization can be advantageous, it doesn’t override the benefits of trying new activities. Exploration is not only integral for our own self-discovery, but also for the benefit of our professions.
‘Kind’ and ‘Wicked’ Environments
Athletic pursuits, though, differ significantly from today’s working world. They take place in predictable and uncontentious realms that are somewhat insulated from the realm of chaos — or what Epstein describes as “kind” environments.
Many professions today contend with multifaceted and unprecedented challenges that don’t fall neatly into preconceived notions or ways of operating. They require interdisciplinary solutions because of their chaotic nature and are thus classified as “wicked” environments.
In a group experiment that sought to predict the future of international affairs, researchers found that people paired from different disciplines and who had extensively different knowledge bases were eerily successful in combining their backgrounds in a wicked environment.
They were far more successful than groups paired together with similar areas of expertise, because of a problem-solving strategy Epstein notes:
The best forecasters view their own ideas as hypotheses in need of testing. Their aim is not to convince their teammates of their own expertise, but to encourage their teammates to help them falsify their own notions.” (page 227)
Applying knowledge to chaotic realms, he stresses, requires divergent knowledge and approaching each problem from uncertainty — which is all too often missed.
Epstein’s comments on the realm of academia are very insightful into how rigid disciplines discount our ability to learn from one another. He criticizes the lack of interdisciplinarity in American educational systems, which cultivates specialization.
When students feel compelled to take certain classes in high school or college to get a head start in their career trajectories, they miss out on valuable opportunities to investigate their interests.
Most colleges and universities set students on singular four-year paths that doesn’t encapsulate the student as a whole, instead requiring specific classes dependent on major without much bandwidth. Dabbling across disciplines is a key feature of successful people and allows students to become “generalists” rather than specialists.
His focus on scientific research further reveals the folly of over-specialization in academic disciplines.
In recent years, the need for further investigation into specific fields has grown while broader knowledge across a range of fields has stagnated. Generalists, however, have the capacity to see past specific disciplines and instead combine their knowledge to reveal new insights. As he writes:
“In a race to the forefront, a lot of useful knowledge is simply left behind to molder. That presents another kind of opportunity for those who want to create and invent but who cannot or simply do not want to work at the cutting edge. They can push forward by looking back; they can excavate old knowledge but wield it in a new way.” (page 189)
There is an entire realm of possibilities that we have yet to explore from combining our knowledge. With a better focus on cross-disciplinary research, we can cultivate an innovative future and strengthen our responses to “wicked” problems.
I really appreciated Epstein’s insights into the benefits of “generalization” and the folly in specializing too early. His detailing of how we (collectively) stand to benefit from greater knowledge sharing resonated on both personal and academic levels.
The “cult of the head start” has become a persistent worry for people of all skill sets and abilities, which can be hard to push back against. Having read Gladwell’s Outliers before Range, I was pleasantly surprised to have my preconceptions of cross-disciplinary experimentation shattered.
Personally, this book has served as license to experiment with my passions and learn more about disparate subjects. Often we become too wrapped in notions of who we are to see who we can become — simply by reaching beyond our horizons.
Taking the first step into a subject we’re curious about can be the first step in that self-realization journey, which as Epstein notes, may be a winding path through different careers to finally find ourselves where we need to be.
Differentiating from your childhood notions of success is not only okay, but it’s to be expected. The more you know yourself, he demonstrates, the more energy you can put towards endeavors that interest you.
To work beyond the collective problems we face today — whether it’s pollution, wealth inequality or discrimination — we also have to be willing to teach and learn from one another, which means rethinking our systems of research and disciplines. Choosing breadth over specialization can help us muddle through the wicked problems we currently face and cultivate a better future — together.
Corinne Neustadter enjoys writing about a broad range of issues when she isn’t reading.
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