Illustration by Sydney Goldstein

Work Culture

Want to become truly great at something? Do something else


Published on October 30, 2019

Does greatness come from pursuing one singular focus or from cultivating more varied interests?

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Consider these two very different stories:

First, on a cold December evening, in 1991, 15-year-old chess prodigy, Judit Polgár, faced off against chess grandmaster, Tibor Tolnai, in the final game of the Hungarian Chess Championship, in Budapest, Hungary. While Polgár only needed a draw to clinch the title, she played aggressively, toppling Tolnai’s king after 48 moves to secure the trophy. As she shook Tolnai’s hand over the table, the enormity of her achievement sunk in. At 15 years and five months, Polgár had just become the youngest grandmaster ever, beating the long-standing record of chess legend Bobby Fischer by a full month.

Second, on June 6, 2003, 22-year-old tennis ace, Roger Federer, sent a searing serve towards his opponent, Mark Philippoussis, who hooked his return, sending the ball spinning into the net. Federer immediately fell to his knees and threw his hands up in celebration. He had just won the Wimbledon tennis championship, one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world. It would be the first of a remarkable eight Wimbledon championships for a player who, today, is considered one of the greatest players of all time.

Polgár and Federer are of two most recognizable icons in their sports—but they reached elite status through two very different routes.

Polgár’s father, an educational psychologist named Laszlo Polgár, believed that geniuses are not born, but made, and he decided to test that theory with his daughter. Laszlo gave his daughter chess pieces in lieu of childhood toys and included a rigorous chess education as part of a homeschooling curriculum. “I grew up in a very special atmosphere," she told The Guardian. "Everything was about chess.”

Laszlo’s goal was to make a chess grandmaster and his methods quickly paid dividends. Under her father’s guidance, Judit attacked the game with a focus that bordered on myopia. She was a child prodigy and swept away her age-graded competition. Aged just nine, she won her first international competition. She later added eight more major tournaments, held the woman’s number one ranking for 26 straight years, and became the first woman ever to qualify for a World Championship.

Federer’s childhood was substantially less focused. His parents were never pushy and allowed Federer the freedom to dabble in anything that caught his interest. As a child, Federer played squash, volleyball, and basketball. He also skateboarded, swam, and, of course, skied. Although Federer eventually came to focus on tennis, his early life was never dominated by it.

The contrasting stories of Polgár and Federer present an interesting question: Does greatness come from pursuing one singular focus or from cultivating more varied interests?

The Grandmaster experiment

In 1993, Anders Ericsson, a professor at the University of Colorado, published a paper called ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.’ In it, Ericsson analyzed the practice times and abilities of young violinists and noticed a major discrepancy between those who excelled and those who didn’t. The elite performers in the sample typically amassed around 10,000 hours of practice. The less-able performers, on the other hand, averaged just 4,000.

Ericsson’s results seemed to suggest that ability wasn’t so much down to natural talent as careful practice. “Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years,” he wrote. In other words, Ericsson likely believed Laszlo Polgár was right when he said that geniuses are not born, but made.

For years, Ericsson’s theory, dubbed the ‘10,000-Hour Rule,’ formed the dominant theory of success. It’s an intuitive idea—if you want to become great at something, do it a lot—and one that seemed borne out in reality.

Despite its popularity, the 10,000-Hour Rule is far from proven.

There are thousands of famous examples of early specializers, but Tigers Woods is possibly the most well-known. His father gave him a golf club when he was just seven months and had him hitting golf balls for two hours a day as soon as he could stand. Woods engaged in thousands of hours of meticulous practice—and he quickly shone as an athlete. Woods won his first major tournament, the 1997 Masters, by a record margin and went on to dominate the tour for more than a decade. With so many stories like Woods’s to draw from, the 10,000-Hour Rule reigns supreme in popular culture. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code all extoll the virtues of extensive deliberate practice.

But despite its popularity, the 10,000-Hour Rule is far from proven.

Late specialization and success

Narratives like Polgár’s and Woods’s dominate the media—but they don’t tell the full story. When you analyze performance empirically, early specializers do not necessarily outperform those who take a more circuitous route.

Take this recent analysis of German soccer players, published two years after Germany won the Football World Cup. The researchers discovered that many of the players in Germany’s victorious national side spent the majority of their youth playing a variety of amateur sports. Indeed, many only entered a professional soccer setup in their early-20s.

Another study looked at the careers of successful scientists. It discovered a link between the level of international recognition a scientist receives and their interests outside of their fields. “Nobel laureates were significantly more likely to engage in arts and crafts avocations than Royal Society and National Academy of Sciences members, who were in turn significantly more likely than Sigma Xi members and the U.S. public,” read the paper. In other words, the more successful the scientist, the more likely they were to focus on things other than their work.

Researchers even repeated Ericsson’s original study to test its validity—and they found something interesting. The study’s authors, Brooke Macnamara and Megha Maitra of Case Western Reserve University, discovered that the amount of practice someone performs does matter, but not nearly as much as Ericsson’s original study suggested. “In our replication, we found that a number of the best violinists had accumulated less practice than violinists who were less skilled,” Macnamara told Dropbox in an interview. The 10,000-Hour Rule, she says, not only assumes all people are the same but also assumes all performance domains are the same—rather than differing in complexity, learning curve steepness, and performance rewards.

“Most people will not become Serena Williams or LeBron James or Yoyo Ma, even if they practice a lot.”—Brooke Macnamara

Since research suggests that late specialization is helpful for development, you may expect to see examples everywhere. Yet, Sports Illustrated and Forbes rarely run features on athletes and executives that meandered their way towards greatness.

Macnamara suggests that the prevalence of the 10,000-Hour Rule over late specialization advice may come down to two things. First, the former parallels the American Dream. It suggests that anyone can become anything if they work hard enough. “The problem is that it's not true,” Macnamara says. “Most people will not become Serena Williams or LeBron James or Yoyo Ma, even if they practice a lot.” Experts, by definition, are rare.

The second reason is the strength and simplicity of competing narratives. Polgár’s story is both simple and compelling: her father set out to create a grandmaster and she made it happen. But stories like Federer’s aren’t. And they don’t make films about people who tried a bunch of different things and picked the one they were best at.

The lack of stories about late specializers may suggest that people like Federer are rare—but they aren’t. In fact, if you look carefully, you can find them in droves.

Gunpei Yokoi, the genius behind the Nintendo Game Boy, wasn’t an electronics whizz kid. He joined Nintendo when it was still a playing-card manufacturer and dabbled in all sorts of projects and technology. Eventually, he threw some old electronic parts into a plastic case and created Game Boy. It sold 118.69 million units.

Tom Brady, one of the most successful professional football players of all time, was first drafted by the Montreal Expos in the 1995 Major League Baseball Draft. Brady eventually returned to football, where he won six Super Bowls, more than any other player in NFL history.

World-renowned composer and jazz performer Duke Ellington blew off music practice to play baseball as a kid. Maryam Mirzakhani, who became the first woman to win math’s most prestigious award, the Fields Medal, always dreamed of becoming a writer when she was young. And Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies skipped between scientific disciplines, only arriving in gene targeting, where he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, when he was 50 years of age. The list of late specializers goes on and on.

Even though the stories are not as captivating, late specializers deserve our attention—perhaps even more than single-track wunderkinds.

A case for diversity

Before famed technology writer Kevin Kelly helped launch WIRED magazine, he travelled Asia as a photographer. He drifted over Nepalese mountains, across Afghan desserts, and through Filipino jungles, capturing the “disappearing traditions of Asia.” When he ran out of money, Kelly picked up whatever odd jobs he could find. In the late-1970s, he even ran an English language newsletter for a military helicopter company in Iran, although the Iranian Revolution in 1979 cut that particular role short.

After decades of travel, Kelly returned home to America to work in publishing. By the time he came to launch WIRED, Kelly had lived a hundred lives and worked a thousand jobs. And he attributes much of the success of WIRED to that variation. Indeed, he’s a vocal critic of what he calls “premature specialization.” Instead, he says people should try as many different things as possible before deciding where to focus their time and energy. “When you're young, you want to be prolific and make and do things, but you don't want to measure them in terms of productivity,” Kelly told Mission. “Explore the possibilities, and there are so many possibilities, and there's more every day.”

Kelly, like Federer, Yokoi, Brady, Ellington, Mirzakhani, and Smithies, proves that success can come from journeys that meander rather than dash. Indeed, he even suggests that success is more likely from the meandering journey than the direct one. So the next time you want to truly excel at something, do something else.