Ten thousand hours. That’s the rule touted by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success to become world-class at something.This rule has taken on a life of its own ever since, with conventional wisdom saying that in order to fit in those 10,000 hours, you have to get started as early as possible. The violin? Start when you’re 4. By 6 years old you’re already too late. Ballet? Better start as a toddler otherwise you’ll never make it.
The Tiger Woods story makes this irresistible. He started swinging a golf club before he was a year old and six years later won the Junior World Golf Championships Under 10 section. He was seven. But the problem with a great story is that it becomes the only story.
David Epstein makes the point in his book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph is a Specialized World” that there are many ways to achieve success and mastery. Many leaders in their field didn’t specialize early but tried many different things before they settled on a specific career. He uses Roger Federer and Vincent van Gogh as two examples. And I must admit, I like that approach more.
I’ve always been proud of being able to do many things well instead of specializing in just one area. I have played piano at weddings, decorated birthday cakes for a home industry, and brewed a honey ale in my back yard. In fact, my current career of visual facilitator is less than 10 years old. And the value is that I can use skills learnt in a variety of fields in many different situations.
Epstein warns of the danger of looking through a too specialized lens – when you are used to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Rather spend time on learning many different things and use that wide experience to solve new problems.
When I was in Learning & Development in corporate I had to provide input on a document about auditing the HR processes in the business. The document consisted of the various HR processes – talent acquisition, performance, remuneration, development and employee relations. I worked through it and made some comment in almost every section. The project lead told me that I was the only one who read the whole document. All the other contributors only read the part relevant to their area of expertise. I remember being surprised by that. Surely their input into my section on learning would also be valuable? The world is complex and systemic – what happens in one process would impact on others. It was a great lesson.
I got the opportunity to attend the ASTD conference in San Diego in 2004. In preparation for the conference I checked with my manager on the lectures that I was planning to attend. They were all relevant to my job at the time. I remember her telling me to choose a lecture that has nothing to do with work just because I was interested in it. I did so and enjoyed it tremendously. It’s a rule I still apply today to conferences I attend.
My focus on being a generalist as well as a specialist stood me in good stead when I was planning to leave corporate. I had a long list of things that I could do pretty well, and that opened doors for me in my business. And during the pandemic of 2020 it was the general skills that helped me through rather than the specialized ones.
So, this is what you can do to foster a broad range of skills:
- Be curious. Ask questions, attend classes that you wouldn’t necessarily attend, read books that you don’t necessarily want to read. It could be a gateway to learning something amazing.
- Don’t be too quick to specialize in your career. Try new things, move from field to field, find your passion. And encourage your kids to do the same.
- Have a hobby outside of work. It’s easy to become engrossed in work. Make time to spend on hobbies. You might be surprised how much you can apply what you learnt there to a working world that is continuously changing.