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August 16, 2019

Why you should be a generalist in a specialist’s world

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Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are two of the greatest athletes of all-time in golf and tennis, respectively. However, as former Sports Illustrated Senior Writer David Epstein observes in his book, Range, each man took a radically different path to the top.

While Woods was on his way to becoming a golf prodigy by the time he was in preschool, Federer didn't choose tennis as his primary sport until he entered his teenage years as he experimented by playing a multitude of other sports. Woods’ and Federer’s varying approaches illustrate the difference between a specialist and a generalist, according to Epstein. A specialist chooses a single discipline to pursue from early on in life and never deviates, while a generalist spends a long time “sampling” different disciplines until settling on one that matches their strengths later in life.

Epstein notes that, contrary to popular conventional wisdom, Federer’s generalist path is actually the path that most elite athletes follow, and it’s one from which people outside the sports world can also benefit. Here are a few reasons why it is a good idea to become a generalist in a specialist’s world.

Experiment
When you take a generalist’s approach, you are free to experiment by trying new things, which enables you to narrow your focus on your strengths and weaknesses. Are you a writer on the verge of burnout? Try picking up photography. Are you an engineer who is ready for a career change? Take a few business classes.

Most importantly, when you merely experiment with a new skill, you allow yourself to quit. You have the opportunity to try out a passion and see if it can become a strength. Hey, even if you don't become an expert in whatever you try, you might develop a degree of competency that can serve you later on down the line.

Learn
Humans have an innate hunger to learn. Studies show that people who seek to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge throughout their lives are healthier and happier. The generalist's approach allows you to constantly learn because you are continually trying new things.

Also, a broad range of acquired skills can help you master other skills faster and better. For example, it is easier for people who are bilingual to learn a third language than for individuals to pick up a second.

Push Yourself
Finally, the generalist’s approach forces you to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. When I was in high school, I had to make a difficult choice between attending two different universities after graduation. One was a small in-state school that a few friends were planning to attend, while the other was a large out-of-state school that I knew not only had better programs for my interests, but could also expand the horizons of my skill set further. I knew I would be more comfortable at the in-state school, but I chose the school that could teach me more. It was the right choice, and I’ve never looked back. (Boomer!)

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