In sports, early specialization appears to matter. Tiger Woods was less than 2 years old when his father began teaching him to play golf. He was on television by age three. By age of five he was in Golf Digest. Later he became the youngest U.S. Junior Amateur Champion. The youngest Masters champion. You get the point.
Since elite performers in any field tend to spend significantly more time on deliberate, focused, consistent practice as non-elite performers, the sooner you start, the better.
Roger Federer grew up playing soccer, handball, badminton, and basketball. Patrick Mahomes played baseball well into college. John Elway was drafted in the second round by the Yankees. Abby Wambach credits her soccer success, at least in part, to her time playing basketball.
In fact, the members of the 2015 U.S. national women’s soccer team played at least fourteen different sports besides soccer — and all believed participating in other sports enhanced rather than hindered their soccer careers.
That anecdotal evidence jives with science. According to David Epstein, the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World:
Among athletes who go on to become elite, early sampling across sports and delayed specialization is by far the most common path to the top.
According to Epstein, “eventual elites” tend to devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a “sampling period.” They play a variety of sports, mostly in unstructured — think backyard pickup games — or lightly structured environments. They learn. They develop. They gain a range of skills.
In the process, they discover out not just what they’re really good at… but what they really like.
Then they focus. Then they dedicate. Then they pursue excellence.
All of which sounds good. But maybe not so relevant, since few kids will grow up to become professional athletes.
Except the same premise holds true for career success.
One study showed that early career specializers jumped out to an earnings lead after college, but that later specializers made up for the head start by finding work that better fit their skills and personalities.
That research — as with most findings you can actually use — also makes intuitive sense.
Sure: Encourage your kids to focus on one path or pursuit, to the exclusion of nearly all others, and they will develop specific skills. They will gain specific experiences. The result? They likely will burst out of the (college) gate at a higher speed.
But they won’t know whether they might have found greater joy, purpose, and fulfillment in another pursuit. They won’t bring a broader variety of skills and experiences to their work.
And they won’t be what Epstein calls “slow bakers”: People who bounce from pursuit to pursuit, from interest to interest, developing a wide range of experiences and a wide range of skills. Succeeding at some things, failing at others… but always learning.
The same premise holds true when a child takes a first job — or launches businesses — that might not make sense to their parents.
The expression “young and foolish” describes the tendency of young adults to gravitate to risky jobs, but it is not foolish at all. It is ideal.
They have less experience than older workers, and so the first avenues they should (my italics) try are those with high risk and reward, and that have high informational value.
If they aren’t (succcessful), they can test something else, and continue to gain information about their options and themselves.
So don’t try to force your kids to find their ultimate path.
And don’t worry if they haven’t found it yet, even as adults.
Aaron Levie may have founded Box when he was 19. Yet despite the hype about youthful entrepreneurs, a study of 2.7 million startups found that the average age of the founder of the most successful tech startups is 45.
And that a 50-year-old startup founder is almost three times as likely to found a successful startup as a 25-year-old founder.
And that a 60-year-old startup founder is at least three times more likely to found a successful startup than a 30-year-old startup founder. And is nearly twice as likely to found a startup that winds up in the top 0.1 percent of all companies.
Because, as Epstein writes, informational value matters: Information about work, and life, and people… and most importantly, about yourself.
And because success is, for most, a winding path.
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