Success potential of generalists and lateral entrants: Just no child prodigy syndrome

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Text comes from: Die Sigergene. Talent, Übung und die Wahrheit über außergewöhnlichen Erfolg (2020) und Es lebe der Generalist!: Warum gerade sie in einer spezialisierten Welt erfolgreicher sind (2020) from David Epstein, published by Münchener Verlagsgruppe (MVG), Reprints by friendly permission of the publisher.
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Our society nourishes the myth of the one-sidedly gifted child prodigy who follows his specialization early on. But generalism ends tunnel vision and leads to more success.

Success potential of generalists and lateral entrants: Just no child prodigy syndrome

Here writes for you:


David Epstein is a journalist at ProPublica.


From the author:



Even top athletes often start specializing late

When I began my research, I encountered both differentiated criticism and blanket rejection. “That may apply to other sports,” fans often said, “but not to our sport.” The most vehement protest came from the community of the world's most popular sport, football. But then a team of German scientists published a study at the end, as if on demand, that showed that the members of the German national team that had recently won the World Cup were usually athletes who specialized late and up to the age of 21 or older had only played in an amateur league.

In their childhood and youth they had only played recreational soccer and played other sports. Another study of professional football, published two years later, tracked the athletic development of young players at the age of eleven over two years. Those who played multiple sports and only played recreational soccer had made greater improvements over the two years than the comparison group.

Hyper-specialization as a marketing myth

Similar results have now been reported in a wide variety of sporting disciplines, from hockey to volleyball. The alleged need for early hyper-specialization forms the core of a vast, successful, and occasionally well-intentioned marketing machine - in sport, but also in other areas. In truth, there are far more top athletes who started out as generalists than highly focused child prodigies. In general, however, the former are not so effective - if they ever get known. You probably know a few big names, only their backgrounds are unknown.

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I remember a 2018 Super Bowl where a famous quarterback who played catcher baseball before his career as a professional footballer (Tom Brady) had an exciting duel with the quarterback of the opposing team, who in his youth was football, basketball , Had practiced baseball and karate and had only decided between basketball and football in college (Nick Foles).

The key is diversity and trying things out

Later that month, Czech athlete Ester Ledecká became the first woman to win gold in two different disciplines (skiing and snowboarding) at a Winter Olympics. In her younger years, Ledecká had played a variety of sports (she still plays beach volleyball and indulges in windsurfing) but focused primarily on school and was in no hurry to win youth tournaments. In one Article, which appeared the day after her sensational double gold medal win, the Washington Post wrote: "In an age of athletic specialization, Ledecká is a passionate advocate of diversity."

Shortly after her great performance, the Ukrainian boxer Wassyl Lomatschenko won the world title in three different weight classes, and faster than any other boxer. Lomatschenko, who had interrupted boxing training for four years as a teenager to learn traditional Ukrainian dances, said: “As a boy I did a lot of different sports - gymnastics, basketball, football, tennis - and I think in the end all of these did different sports have helped to improve my footwork. «The prominent sports scientist Ross Tucker sums up the research in this area in one sentence:» The key lies in the variety and in trying out. «

Late developers often find jobs that suit them better

In 2014 I included some of the findings about a late specialization in sports in the epilogue of my first book, The Sports Gene. The following year, I was invited to speak about the results of this research in front of an unusual audience - not athletes or coaches, but military veterans. During my preparation, I rummaged through scientific journals for articles on early specializations and professional detours outside the world of sports. What I discovered amazed me. Research found that people who had already specialized at the beginning of their careers initially earned more after college than others who specialized later. However, this supposed starting advantage was offset by the fact that the late developers found work that better suited their skills and personality.

I came across tons of studies that showed that technical inventors could improve their creative output by first gaining experience in different areas, unlike other colleagues who were very deeply immersed in a topic at an early age. In fact, the best creative minds have benefited over the course of their careers from having sacrificed a little profundity on their own initiative for a greater breadth of knowledge. A study of creative creators came to almost identical results. It gradually became clear to me that the careers of some of the people whose artistic work I deeply admired from a distance - from Duke Ellington (who skipped music classes as a child to focus on baseball and drawing) to Maryam Mirzakhani (who dreamed of Becoming a novelist and instead becoming the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal, the most famous award in the field of mathematics) - more closely resembled the career path of generalist Roger Federer than the child prodigy development of a Tiger Woods.

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Generalists in top positions

In my further research, I came across remarkable individuals who succeeded not in spite of their broad experience and interests, but because of it: A female CEO who took up her first leadership position at an age when others were retiring; an artist who had five different professions before he found his calling and changed the world, and an inventor who turned a small business from the 19th century into one of today's most famous brand names with his self-fabricated anti-specialization philosophy. Since I had just started doing research on specialization in the wider world of work, I limited myself to sport in my presentation to the military veterans. Although I only marginally touched on the other results, my audience immediately jumped at them.

They were all people who specialized late or changed careers. After the lecture, one by one came up to me to introduce themselves, and I found that many were at least a little concerned about their professional lives and some were almost ashamed. They had been invited by the Pat Tillman Foundation, which, in the spirit of the late NFL football player of the same name, who left professional football to become an Army Ranger, awards grants to veterans, active soldiers and their wives who are professionally involved reorient or go to school again.

Career changers are more successful

In this case, all of the fellows were former paratroopers and translators pursuing a second career as a teacher, scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur. They were bursting with enthusiasm, but there was a subliminal fear to be felt because their LinkedIn profiles did not reflect a linear career pathspiegelten that employers were told to want to see. They were nervous and tense because they sat next to younger (sometimes even much younger) students in the lecture hall or, at an age when others had long been firmly in the saddle, made a career change because they had been busy up to that point gain an incomparable life and leadership experience. Somehow a unique advantage had become a disadvantage in their perception.

A few days after my lecture at the Tillman Foundation, a former member of the Navy SEAL, a special unit of the US Navy, who approached me immediately after the lecture, wrote me an e-mail with the following content: "We are all there, to change our profession. Several of us got together after your talk and we shared how relieved we were about your words. "

Get out of the dangerous tunnel view

I was a little amused that a former Navy SEAL graduate with a bachelor's degree in history and geophysics, who was now pursuing a master's degree in business and administration at Dartmouth and Harvard, needed my validation on his life choices. Like everyone else in the auditorium, he had been implicitly and explicitly made to understand that it was dangerous to change horses in the middle of a race. My talk was so enthusiastic that the Foundation invited me to give a keynote speech at the 2016 annual conference and then speak to small groups in different cities.

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Before each lecture, I read additional studies, spoke to additional researchers, and found additional evidence that acquiring broad skills and experience, both professional and private, takes a certain amount of time - which is often at the expense of early professional success - but that these detours are definitely worthwhile. I delved into research that showed that highly qualified experts can develop such tunnel vision that they even get worse with increasing experience, but with increasing self-confidence. It's a dangerous combination.

Slow learning is more successful

And I was deeply impressed when, in our conversations, cognitive psychologists introduced me to an overwhelming wealth of often ignored literature that shows that a person achieves the greatest sustainable learning success when learning takes place in slow steps, so that the knowledge settles, and in the long term can be accessed - even if it means that learners do poorly on short-term learning assessments. In other words, the most effective way of learning is the one that seems most ineffective at first glance and gives the impression that the learner is lagging behind others.

A professional reorientation in the middle phase of life can appear similar at first glance. Mark Zuckerberg wrote the famous phrase: "Young people are simply smarter." However, the chances of success of someone who founds a technology company in their mid-fifties are almost twice as high as those of a 20-year-old founder. Researchers from Northwestern University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the US Census Bureau surveyed technology startups and found that the fastest growing companies were founded by people who were 45 years old when they were founded.

Older founders are more mature

Zuckerberg was 22 years old when he launched his famous phrase. He, of course, had an interest in getting this message across, just as managers of youth sports leagues have an interest in claiming that early laser-like focus on a particular sport is a necessary prerequisite for success, even if there is evidence that the opposite is true. The drive to specialize goes even further; it not only infects individual people, but also determines entire systems, with the result that these fragment themselves into silo-like groups of highly specialized blinker-bearers who only recognize smaller and smaller sections of the overall picture.

One revelation following the global financial crisis of 2008 was the extent of professional segregation within large banks. Legions of highly specialized financial experts who, like blinkers, focused solely on optimizing the risks of their own tiny mosaic tile from the overall picture, ultimately created the near collapse of the entire system. It was made worse by responses to the crisis, which revealed a dizzying level of specialty-induced perversity. A US program launched in 2009 gave banks an incentive to cut monthly mortgage payments from over-indebted homeowners who were still able to make partial payments.

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Get out of the silo mentality

A nice idea, but in practice it worked like this: the bank's mortgage department lowered the monthly mortgage payments; The foreclosure department noticed that the homeowner was suddenly only making partial payments. Thereupon she determined the payment default and confiscated the property. "Nobody could have imagined that such a silo structure existed within the banks," said a government adviser later.

Over-specialization can lead to collective tragedy, even if each individual acts responsibly and sensibly on his own. Highly specialized doctors have developed their own version of the motto: "If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Cardiologists have become so used to inserting stents for any form of chest pain - These are small metal tubes that are primarily inserted into calcified veins and expand them to improve blood flow - that they do it reflexively, even in cases where extensive studies have concluded that they either are ineffective or even harmful.

The end of tunnel vision?

A recent study found that cardiac death rates were lower when hospitalized during a cardiology convention when all cardiac specialists were out. The researchers suggested that this could be due to the fact that standard therapies with dubious effects were used less frequently during this period. An internationally respected scientist told me that increasing specialization had created a "system of parallel trenches" in the drive for innovation.

All dig deeper and deeper in their own trench, but seldom stand up to look over their raised mound into the neighboring trench, even if the solution to their problem can be found there. Said scientist made it his goal to try to de-specialize the training of prospective researchers. He hopes this strategy will eventually spread to all areas. In his own life he has benefited enormously from a broad development of knowledge and skills, although he too was under pressure from specialization. In the meantime he is expanding his sphere of activity and his horizons again and designing a training program in an attempt to give others a chance to leave the path of early one-sided specialization.

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