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.