Your Best Career Path:  Tiger Woods or Thomas Edison?

I am not a golfer, but I know that Tiger Woods started playing the game as a toddler with his father as his coach.  Malcolm Gladwell captured his career in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, to support the premise that true mastery requires 10,000 hours of practice. The importance of extended dedication to specialization was bolstered by references to Bill Gates, the Beatles, and Robert Oppenheimer.  The take-away was that excellence sprang from a prolonged and specialized dedication.

David Epstein’s book Range:  Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World counters that premise.  He proposes diverse experience and a broad knowledge base produce excellence.  He supports this with the careers of Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Winston Churchill, all of whom leverage multiple knowledge and interests into stellar careers.  Current examples include new medical devices that sprang from merging engineering and medicine just as fusing mathematics and the stock market generated new trading algorithms.

These books raise serious questions for coaches:

  • Is specialization essential to excellence or does it lead to narrow thinking?
  • Does a generalist background yield a jack of all trades and a master of none?
  • Does the path to success depend on the environment, industry or organization?

Over my 30 years of experience, I have found that no one can offer a guaranteed career path. A one size fits all formula does not exist.  Career success for specialization appears in law enforcement, research, sports, medicine, engineering, technical vocations, and relatively stable industries.  And at the same time, generalists excel in small businesses; strategy focused roles; dynamic industries; and creative endeavors.

Career planning requires a broad lens.

It may be that lateral career moves are wiser than waiting for the next step up the linear career ladder, that following in the footsteps of former success stories may not be safe, that both specialization and generalist backgrounds offer rewards, and that switching career trajectories may not be terminal.

I think the message from both books is not to limit your options or ambitions.  The “right career” is one where you can take pride in your impact and continue to learn.


Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt is an award-winning author of "Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1984 to provide leaders with practical and effective solutions to navigate the modern business climate using situational mastery. Dr. Lippitt is a thought leader and speaker on executing change, optimal leadership, and situational analysis. She currently teaches in the MBA program at the University of South Florida. Mary is also the author of Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.

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  1. In this era of discontinuity, when everything is called into question, it is fundamental to know how to understand the direction of the great structural transformations taking place and to translate these intuitions into concrete actions. This requires the ability to manage all aspects of the organizational system: economic and social, strategic and technological. And also short and long term, local and global.
    When it comes to activating a change intervention, an overall view of the organization is necessary.
    In other words, specialists are found to be led by generalists. As a result, verticality gives way to horizontal, interdisciplinary and cross-functional collaboration.

  2. Mary, there is a case to be made for being a specialist. My first boss in the mortgage industry believed you should sell only one type of mortgage product but to sell it better than the competition. The problem with that philosophy was that there so may other mortgage products and programs on the market you were losing out on borrowers who met the underwriting criteria to write those loans. On the other side of the coin there were more products than there were borrowers. I personally favor having as many tools in my tool box as possible. I would rather have too many products and not need them as opposed to not having enough tools. Each business in every industry has their own dominant thought process on this subject. It is best for each business to follow whichever way best suits their needs. Thank you, Mary for this thought provoking article.

  3. I totally agree with your summary statement. The person might not be able to stay in the same career for long periods of time, but finds fulfillment and contributes to multiple organizations through a variagated career path. It is the wise leader who recognizes the value of multi-faceted individuals whose personality, skill, talent, attitude, motivation, and character all impact how well they will fit into the organization. I also agree with the baseline assessment that 10,000 hours should indicate a higher level of expertise than 2,000 – but at the same time if someone is gifted in the area of talent, they will likely gain expertise quickly.

  4. It’s an ongoing conversation, how we try to figure this out. I tell people that I have a wide knowledge base, it’s just not very deep. I know a little bit about a lot of things, but not a whole lot about any one thing. I can’t always find the answer, but I probably can set them up with someone who knows more about it than I do. I may not know exactly where to find what they are looking for, but I can probably help refine the search. When all is said and done, I’m not always at peace with my part in the process, but I know that in my current role, I can assist just about everyone, and that is gratifying. Thank you for shepherding this discussion, Dr. Mary… I wish I had more to add, but I will leave that to others who have a deeper grasp of the topic.