The best path to success in almost every field is to start out as a generalist, not a specialist. That runs counter to the career and parenting advice most people get these days. Yet it's the clear conclusion from the research in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by former Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein. On Tuesday, Bill Gates released a list of his five favorite books he'd read in 2020, and Range made the list.
To explain why, Gates recalled a charity tennis tournament where he was paired with Roger Federer for a doubles match. Federer is tied with Rafael Nadal for having won the most Grand Slam men's singles trophies, yet growing up, he wasn't focused on tennis. "He played a wide range of different sports, including skateboarding, swimming, ping pong, soccer, and badminton," Gates writes in a blog post about the book. "He didn't start playing competitive tennis until he was a teenager. Even then, his parents discouraged him from taking it too seriously."
It turns out this is the best approach to achieving mastery in all but a very few skills. The exceptions, such as playing golf or classical music, are occupations that are predictable and where excellence is achieved through repetition. Most endeavors are not like that, though. Instead, Epstein writes, life and work are most often like a game where no one has told you the rules, and the rules may change without notice. In a world like that, generalists prevail.
Back when he was running Microsoft, most people thought of Gates as being laser-focused on writing software, and indeed, he credits his early obsession with coding for his success. Still, he says, coding wasn't his only love. "My passion for computers was always mixed with many other interests," he writes. "I spent a lot of time reading books on a wide range of topics."
He definitely looked for generalists when hiring, he writes. "I believe that one of the key reasons Microsoft took off is because we thought more broadly than other startups of that era. We hired not just brilliant coders, but people who had real depth within their field and across domains." And of course, it's hard to imagine someone with a broader range of interests than Microsoft's other co-founder, Paul Allen, whose endeavors included real estate, brain science, space flight, owning an NFL football team, and founding a giant museum dedicated to science fiction and popular music.
As Epstein writes in his book, when researchers review the lives of great innovators, they find "systems thinkers" who combine disparate interests and connect the dots between them. Take Steve Jobs, who famously brought calligraphy to personal computing, or Elon Musk, who studied economics and physics and then started companies in such unrelated fields as internet banking, electric vehicles, space travel, and tunneling.
Unfortunately, today's world forces most people to seek out specialties early, and most parents nurture talents in their children so as to steer them to the right career. Rising tuition and student debt make it tough for most young people to go to college without a specific plan to join a high-paying profession as soon as they graduate. Given the economics, many are skipping college altogether in favor of hyper-specialized training such as coding schools.
Pressures like these often force today's young people to pick a specialty and confine themselves to it earlier than might be best for them. If you're facing those pressures yourself, consider putting that day off if you can. You never know when your wide-ranging interests might come together to create the next great innovation.