Before Tiger Woods was two years old, his father Earl started teaching him to play golf. By the age of three he was on television; by the age of five he appeared in Golf Digest. He went on to become the youngest U.S. Junior Amateur Champion, the youngest to win The Masters... and, well, you know the rest.

As Eric Barker points out, Tiger Woods is often held up as an example of why kids should be started on a path to expertise as early as possible. Elite performers -- in any field -- spend significantly more time on deliberate, focused, consistent practice as non-elite performers. If it takes 10,000 hours to become exceptional... the sooner you start, the better.

Or not.

According to David Epstein, the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World:

Eventual elites typically 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, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can later draw; they learn about their abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area.

That premise doesn't just hold true for sports. It also applies to careers:

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.

Which makes sense. If your kids focus on one thing at an early age, to the exclusion of almost everything else, they will gain skill and expertise.

But they won't know if they would better enjoy another pursuit. Or have greater natural ability, that they can someday work hard to develop, in another pursuit. And they won't gain a variety of skills and experiences that they can then apply to their chosen fields or fields. 

Instead, they become one-trick ponies, and research shows that one-trick ponies are much less likely to be successful later in life.

The best approach is to encourage your kids to try things, succeed at things, fail at things... learn from those successes, learn from those failures... trusting that along the way they acquire a broad base of experiences they can later draw upon.

And that includes their first jobs. As Epstein writes,

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 try are those with high risk and reward, and that have high informational value.

Attempting to be a professional athlete or actor or to found a lucrative start-up is unlikely to succeed, but the potential reward is extremely high.

Thanks to constant feedback and an unforgiving weed-out process, those who try will learn quickly if they might be a match, at least compared to jobs with less constant feedback.

If they aren't, they go test something else, and continue to gain information about their options and themselves.

In short, you'll never know until you try.

That applies to you... and it definitely applies to your kids.

So don't worry if they haven't found their paths. The whole Mark Zuckerberg "start a business while still in college" thing sounds great, but a study of 2.7 million startups found that the average age of the founder of the most successful tech startups is 45. A 50-year-old startup founder is 2.8 times more likely to found a successful startup as a 25-year-old founder.

And a 60-year-old startup founder is 3 times as likely to found a successful startup as 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.

Proving that it's not where you start... it's where you finish.

And, just as importantly, how you start.

As Eagles guitarist (and eminent philosopher) Joe Walsh says in the documentary History of the Eagles: Part One

As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, non-related events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it's overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely-crafted novel.

But at the time, it don't [sic].

Let your kids write their own finely-crafted novels.

They'll be glad you did.

And so will you.

Published on: May 27, 2019
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