• Fri. Aug 12th, 2022

Sample, then specialize

ByRandall B. Phelps

Apr 11, 2022

Because I study outliers — people who are the best at what they do — I’m often asked for parenting advice.

“How many hours should my son practice the piano?”

“Is it too late if my daughter doesn’t join a travel soccer team before high school?”

“I feel like colleges won’t even look at kids unless, you know, they’re already some weird genius at Something!”

These parents want to know how to get their children to act like the adult super-achievers I study.

But, actually, I think it’s a terrible idea. Imitating the resolute devotion of a mature paragon of creak is not what children need, even those who one day will embody passion and perseverance for long-term goals.

Instead, young people thrive when they have the freedom to explore a wide range of interests without having to stick to one – much like a toddler takes a toy and play with it for a while, then drop it for another. When you don’t know much about the world or yourself, exploration is essential. And while, of course, it takes time for interests to develop, the very nature of interest development requires the freedom to let go of activities that simply don’t hold your attention.

All of our lives there’s a trade-off between sampling and specialization, between exploring new things you know nothing about and getting really good at what’s already familiar. At the beginning of life, when time is on your side but you know almost nothing, it is better to favor exploration.

In fact, we also benefit from sampling as we age. New to research on the career trajectories of the best scientists, painters and filmmakers shows that the hot sequences – periods of creativity– are preceded by periods of extensive experimentation. Before specialization comes sampling.

Don’t pressuring the young people in your life to choose one path, and excluding others, too early in life.

Do encourage short-term commitments to extracurricular activities, one season at a time. Sampling is exactly what all young people need and deserve to do so that one day they know enough about themselves and the world to stick with something they love. And if you need to be more convinced that you too could benefit from sampling to broaden your horizons, check out this video interview with Dashun Wang on his hot research.

With courage and gratitude,