According to David Epstein, parents that are “pully” tend to produce more successful kids than those that are “pushy.” Take Tiger Woods and Roger Federer as extreme examples. Tiger was famously pushed from infancy to develop and hone his golf skills with little deviation. Federer had a near opposite experience. He grew up a complete sports generalist, merely being pulled to play sports, given his own choices. He didn’t really get serious about his tennis until he was a teenager. Two different paths, two incredible outcomes, with each reaching world-class status. Epstein says there is much we can apply to our own professional lives by studying their journeys to success – Federer’s in particular.
In his book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Epstein explains how the famous 10,000-hour rule may have worked for Tiger, but only because he’s a rare exception. Before engaging in the deliberate practice Tiger methodically employed from a young age, Epstein found most elite athletes “sample” a wide range of activities. In this period of development they figure out what they’re good and not good at, what they like and don’t like, and in turn, develop a broader “range” of positive experiences to draw from as they get laser focused later. Very few of the elite were completely focused on deliberate practice from a young age.
Beyond Federer, Epstein describes elite musicians like Duke Ellington who much preferred drawing and baseball as a kid, and mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani who longed to write novels growing up. The Tiger Woods examples are actually just really hard to find. In Epstein’s words, “I encountered remarkable individuals who succeeded not in spite of their diverse experiences and interests, but because of them.”
Whether we’re at the beginning, middle or end of our own career arc, whether we’re elite or just good enough, we shouldn’t be worried if we’re not completely obsessed and dedicated to one specific craft. Instead, if we cultivate our own unique range of personal interests, then we can focus on drawing influence from our own unique experience set.
Deliberate practice still counts, but if we won’t be the absolute best in the world, then practicing a uniquely diverse set of skills and learning to connect them together becomes our best way to stand out at whatever we do. Elite or not, a wide range of skills will carry us far farther than a narrow set. For ourselves and others: pull more, push less.
Check out this Sports Illustrated excerpt from Epstein. If still interested, listen to Epstein’s recent podcast interview with Patrick O’Shaughnessy, and check out his previous book, The Sports Gene.