Don’t Be in Such a Hurry to Choose Your Career
A new book shows why we must stop pushing students to specialize early.
Posted Aug 21, 2019
Right now college dorms are filling with eager new students, and freshmen radiate confidence as they tell me about the specialized course of study they’ve chosen. Their parents glow, “She’s always wanted to do that, you know.”
But other freshmen are sheepish. “I’m undecided, I don’t really know yet what I want to do,” they confess. They are embarrassed; they feel they should know what they want to do by now. Their parents try to convince them they’ve got time to figure it out.
This is the "ShouldStorm" that declares kids must find a life purpose by the end of high school. When I use my own story of meandering education from molecular biology to medieval history to medical school to encourage them, it helps. But we all still believe that I was an unusual case. We were wrong.
The remarkable bestseller by David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, is a fast read. It turns out many people have found successful careers not in spite of trying different things, but because they did. Epstein thinks it’s time to take on the “cult of the early start."
The author of Range switched careers himself.
When I spoke with the author, he told his story: “I was living in a tent in the Arctic working as an ecology researcher, and I just decided for sure to try to become a writer. I didn't think there would be that much to use from it, because what I was doing was pretty esoteric and niche.”
He moved into a series of odd jobs in journalism, including the job no one else wanted: overnight crime reporting for the New York Daily News. He never thought that would be useful either.
Then Epstein got a six-month temp job at Sports Illustrated as a fact-checker. He was six years older than the people he was doing fact-checking for: “I was decidedly behind, there was no question about that… But my very ordinary science skills, which were quite average for the world [of science], were totally extraordinary in the context of a sports magazine.”
He found that he could understand and evaluate evidence in a way the reporters trained in journalism had not learned to do. Before long, he was writing about crime and science in sports, and shortly after went from being the temp fact-checker to the youngest senior writer.
“One of the things that bothers me is that I think society at large and a lot of organizations don’t recognize [skills from other fields] as a source of strength. Instead, people are just made to feel behind. I want people [who change directions] to feel empowered because I think the research supports it,” Epstein explained.
From musicians to business people, scientists to athletes, Range shares stories of successful people who gained breadth before they went deep in one area. This is a key reason for their success because that varied experience helped them find match quality.
What is match quality, and why do we want it?
Match quality is the economist’s measure of how well our jobs fit us and bring us satisfaction. Under the rhetoric of “finding a passion,” I believe parents are actually hoping their kids find a quality match. When people try one thing and then change directions to another, they are refining their match. Epstein shared his surprise when he learned, “the returns to good match quality are extraordinarily large.”
One of his favorite examples in the book is a study of the higher education systems in England, where students are required to specialize early, vs. Scotland, where they specialize later. The study found that those who specialize early were “more likely to switch to an unrelated occupation, implying that the benefits to increased match quality are sufficiently large to outweigh the greater loss in skills from specializing early.” (Malamud 375)
Epstein noted that the early specializers do jump out to a lead in income, which he felt was “not so surprising because they have more domain-specific skills, and they are more directed.” However, the early lead didn’t last, and Epstein was impressed by “how quickly that lead evaporates, and then how much more likely they are to end up quitting their careers entirely… It would not have occurred to me intuitively that the returns to match quality would be so great, and that the head start would be attenuated that quickly.”
Why optimizing the short term can hurt your long term.
Epstein shared a key theme in his book, that "sometimes the things that you do that optimize your results in the short term, can undermine long-term development.”
This is actually a key principle of child development and one that pediatricians think about daily in a parenting culture bombarded with products and activities marketed to “maximize” our kids’ development. Natural child’s play and exploration, when freely pursued, lead us to grow skills in a variety of areas.
Having a diversity of experience can be powerful. For instance, “Labs in which scientists had more diverse professional backgrounds were the ones where… breakthroughs were more reliably produced with the unexpected arose.” (Esptein 141)
Children, who are natural innovators and experimenters until we restrict them, are always messing around with different things. That’s why my kids have taken all the boxes from my pantry to build a fort… again. When we look for innovators who do things differently, it helps if they have already done lots of different things.
Epstein brought it back to careers, “Some people call that skill stacking, where you don't have to be the best at any one thing, but if you have a diversity of experiences, you can overlap them in a way where you create a unique ground to work on or compete on.”
I believe that being an undecided college student is not a badge of shame, but an opportunity. It's time to change the way we talk about it.
Instead of, “I’m undecided,” try saying, “I’m exploring different options.” Or how about, “I’m curious and learning fascinating things. It's helping me understand my goals better," rather than “I don’t know what to do.”
Need more evidence? Range is there for the reading.
Epstein, David. (2019) Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. New York: Penguin Random House.
Malamud, Ofer. (2011) “Discovering One’s Talent: Learning From Academic Specialization.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 64, No. 2.