Different ways of looking at building skills.

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Tiger Woods & Roger Federer.

As a follow on to my 10,000 hours post
in which I looked at the amount of time and effort needed to build a high level of expertise, I came across an article which set out an interesting addition to the debate; something I hadn’t really thought about.

The article was headed, ‘Generalise, don’t specialise: why focusing too narrowly is bad for us’ and was a condensed version of a larger work by David Epstein.

Epstein set up two very different examples by giving the back story of two of this century’s most stellar sportsmen; Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Essentially this was the story of ‘push’ and ‘pull’.

Tiger Woods was famously hothoused by his ambitious father; while Roger Federer, as a youngster, was given the freedom to access all kinds of sports and generally ball-based activities.

Woods was an example of hyperspecialisation, he was ‘pushed’ while Federer was risking what’s sometimes categorised being a ‘late developer’ and frowned upon by the establishments in whose interests it is to keep this mythology alive – for, as the article shows, it is a myth that a single focus specialisation is the only way to achieve success. Hence Federer was ‘pulled’ by the opportunities and enjoyment of tennis.

Epstein was able to draw upon multiple examples where athletes bounced from one sport to another before crucially moving into their specialised field. Federer was able to draw upon a broad base of physical skills to enhance his approach to tennis; his mother was a tennis coach and she found herself having to resist the urge to check his unorthodox approach to specific techniques and problems found within a tennis match; he was liberated from ‘textbook tennis’ and as such was allowed to flourish. Federer’s mother was worried that her son was becoming too obsessed with tennis. I couldn’t imagine that Tiger’s father Earl would have thought such a thing about his son.

Specialisation has a number of negative aspects, Epstein said, “I came across more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range – and that there are benefits to doing so. I discovered research showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination).”

Epstein’s conclusions were that although the generalised approach appears slower it has a greater shelf life than the specialising approach.

To give the other slant to this argument – very much drawing on the ‘mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice’ – read Matthew Syed’s book ‘Bounce’. Or read this neat summary by Paul Arnold, here.

As a postscript (and returning this back to being about martial arts) I wouldn’t be in a rush to go running around randomly ‘cross-training’ with other sports or other martial arts, particularly if you are at a point where you have clearly decided what your life’s focus will be.

I always think about a story of two men prospecting for gold. One just runs around digging lots of little shallow holes hoping to strike it lucky; the other does his research, locates his prime spot and invests time and money and digs one shaft really deep.

As I am a big fan of metaphors and also enjoy when the essence of one metaphor contradicts or reinforces another. On this theme, and to maybe complicate things, I would add one more; a quote from Thomas Merton.

“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall”.

*Recommended reading: ‘Range – why generalists triumph in a specialized world’, David Epstein.

Tim Shaw

 

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