Two of my favorite books about human performance are written by David Epstein, one of the very best science writers in the world, due to his unusual ability to pair elegant prose with accurate summaries of scientific research. The first book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, focused largely on talent and focus in sports, whereas the second book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, focused largely on the importance of domain sampling and later specialization in a wide range of performance domains. Thus, when reading the two books side by side you get an integrated perspective on these issues. In an earlier interview for Psychology Today we primarily discussed sports, but this time around we talked about how his thinking has evolved since the writing of his first book.
In The Sports Gene you highlighted the importance of talent and focus, but in Range you highlighted the importance of sampling and later specialization. Can you discuss how you think about performance from these two seemingly opposite perspectives?
This might sound surprising, but some of what led me to write Range came out of questions I got about talent after The Sports Gene. Second to people who wanted to argue about my critique of the 10,000-hours rule, probably the most common question I got was from parents or coaches asking how to identify the sport or training plan that best fit their child or someone they were training. I think a lot of that came from the “Big Bang of Body Types” chapter that described research on how the physiology of elite athletes rapidly became more specific to particular athletic niches. Basically, as sports spread around the world and became more competitive, more people were essentially screened out of a given sport (at the elite level) by physiological factors. (The same goes for training, by the way. As sports have become more competitive, more people are screened out by either physiology or training. A century ago you might show up at the Olympics and be the only person with elite talent or the only person who knew anything about training, and you might win. Not so today, obviously.) So to get back to the link between the books, parents were asking me what lab measures their kids should get to determine whether their kid can be a pro athlete, or what sport they should try in. Well, there are a lot of factors other than the physiological parameters I mentioned that matter, and even when physiology is ante for the game, it often doesn’t tell you much more than that. If you blinded sports scientists to the identity of sprinters at the Olympics and let them have whatever physiological data they wanted, it wouldn’t help them predict who’s going to win. It’s just too multifactorial and complex.
Long story short, I realized that having a sampling period in which an athlete can try a variety of activities is a better way for them to help find the place where they fit—physiologically and psychologically—than any lab test one can give. I must say, I did not expect that the sports science would also show skill development benefits to sport diversity—like in studies that matched athletes for ability at a certain age, and then followed them as they focused or diversified—so that was a surprise to me. I thought the power of the sampling period would just be about talent matching. And I think that’s important, but I came to believe there’s more to it. (That’s not even to mention durability. I spent some time with the physiologist for Cirque du Soleil, and he told me that they created a program to diversify the movement patterns in their training of performers, and it cut their injury rates by a third.) But as far as the bridge from The Sports Gene to Range, it was around that question of how you find match quality in a situation that isn’t reducible to simple measurements. As I quoted Howard Finster, the legendary artist who discovered he could paint at age 59: “A person don’t know what he can do unless he tries. Trying things is the answer to find your talent.”
The Sports Gene focused, understandably, on sports, but Range provided a look at performance in all kinds of domains. In doing research for and writing these books, what did you learn about the similarities or differences in what goes into extraordinary performance across domains?
The main difference—and I realized this less explicitly when my own career as a college athlete ended—is that in many ways sports make the hardest parts of life easier. When I tell people I was an 800-meter runner in college, they tend to say “Oh that’s the hardest event!” (I disagree, but that’s another story). Let’s say it is. The hard parts are still in many ways easier than almost all of the work world. The next steps and goals tend to be extremely clear. Progress is often very easy to measure. The rules never change. Tried and true systems that have been in place for years or decades are there to support you, etc. etc. Much of the time, you can turn your brain off and just make sure to be tough and resilient and consistent in training. And if you have a strong team culture, even that becomes not so difficult. In fact, sometimes it even helps to not think so much and outsource the thinking parts of what you’re doing to, say, coaches. (Not always, but sometimes.) Some sports are the epitome of what psychologist Robin Hogarth called “kind learning environments”; clear goals, unchanging rules, quick and accurate feedback. There are absolutely principles and lessons from sports that can transfer to anything we do, but we also have to be careful about extrapolating too much. Most of the work that most of us do isn’t necessarily in kind learning environments. We may have to figure out our own next steps and goals; rules may be unclear or change; feedback may be absent, delayed, or inaccurate, and work next year won’t look like work last year.
Silver medalist figure skater Sasha Cohen captured this beautifully in a New York Times op-ed: “Olympic athletes need to understand that the rules for life are different from the rules for sports. Yes, striving to accomplish a single overarching goal every day means you have grit, determination and resilience. But the ability to pull yourself together mentally and physically in competition is different from the new challenges that await you. So after you retire, travel, write a poem, try to start your own business, stay out a little too late, devote time to something that doesn’t have a clear end goal.” In a nutshell, I think resilience and matching your work to your talents and interests are extremely important in both sports and other areas. But whereas refusing to change course no matter what comes is often a virtue in sports, opportunistic course changes are often where the competitive advantages in the rest of the work world reside. I’d say I’m something of a student of science history, and I think you probably are too, and I think many of the most important breakthroughs have come from actions—shifting focus to some unexpected but interesting oddity; starting and abandoning many different projects; pursuing curiosities with unclear goals or utility—that would have cost those innovators points on the grit scale.