We all want the best for our children. We work hard to set them up for success, but the more I look around at the world, the more convinced I’m becoming that luck and serendipity play a much bigger role in life than I imagined. Reading Ranged by David Epstein has something to do with it.
The book is about the value of being a generalist over a specialist, and why the idea of early specialisation is the exception, not the rule. We’ve been led to believe the opposite by books like Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule and Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where parents push their children into activities early in life and drive them to put in hour after hour. People also point to stories of child prodigies for proof, like Tiger Woods who was beating grown men on golf courses aged 4. It’s a cultural story that Epstein believes is untrue. The more I reflect on it on the more I agree, the more I think of the push for specialising from an early age as unhealthy.
There’s an implicit idea of competition built into this story of ‘getting ahead’ or ‘giving them the best start’ that’s so prevalent in our culture. Even if you don’t agree with the idea in principle, the very way it’s framed leaves you feeling guilty about your choice, doubtful about your parenting, like you are doing wrong by your children. The opposite of getting ahead is falling behind. The ‘start you give them’ implies life is a race that we’re all in against others. This is called framing. It’s a very powerful and stealthy technique for changing how people think and behave, so stealthy in fact we really have to be on our guard against it. We’ll dig into that later, but before we do there are a few things to learn, starting with understanding more about ourselves.
We’re deluded about how the world works, and often fall into the trap of believing simple, narrow stories.
Our problem is we’re fairly simple beings. We love a simple, linear story of success, because it makes sense. It’s hard to overstate how important stories are to us humans. When we believe them, we attribute cause and effect to the world around us, which then changes how we act, which in turn changes the world around us. Some people believe the story that vaccines harm children. Despite overwhelming evidence this isn’t the case and evidence claiming it is proven to be false, some people believe it. As a result they don’t get their kids vaccinated. This creates other changes in the world. Once vaccination numbers decline diseases start to grow again, nurseries refuse to accept unvaccinated children, and levels of trust in medical evidence decline.
Think of it like this. John and Jane make a bet to see who can toss a coin so it lands on its edge. John thought that if he practiced, he’d be more likely to win, so he spent hours practicing.
Jane knows it’s not about practice, it’s about luck and probabilities. She turns up to meet John with 6,000 of her friends. In the first toss of a coin, someone on Jane’s team tosses a coin that lands on its edge. Jane wins, because there’s about a 1 in 6,000 chance of a coin landing on its edge. This is how life works. Despite John’s belief, the reality is a world of probabilities.
But, there’s a chance, a very, very, very small chance that it could go the other way. On John’s first toss, his coin lands on its edge. Boom. He feels like a god. He’s just beaten 5,999 people.
People are amazed. They start talking, trying to understand it.
“How did he do it? It must be the practice he put in. That’s it. That’s how he’s so talented.”
You see how comfortable and easy it is to make a story up about this? You don’t even have to try, you just slide into it. We do this so naturally because we are pattern matching, story consuming beings. We see animals in clouds and faces in trees. We will lay a story over a series of random events so we can make sense of the world around us. We create stories out of complex realities, believe the story and forget about the complexity of reality. Then we act on those stories, pass them onto our children, use them to guide how we parent, care for and show our love for our children.
Now we’ve got that down, let’s get back to what Epstein’s book shows us about the stories we’re holding in our heads. The ones that might be making our lives and our children’s lives more miserable for little real gain.
‘Getting ahead’ in what game?
Specialise early to get ahead we’re told, but in what game?
Epstein points to an academic paper by three academics, one from a business faculty, one an economics school and another the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute. The paper identifies two types of environment. Many of the examples of success and academic studies used to argue for the idea of early specialisation are focused on closed, ‘kind’ environments. Environments where feedback is clear, patterns repeat, disruption is minimal and the rules and information are known. The opposite are open systems and ‘wicked’ environments. Real life. Rules aren’t clear, feedback is sporadic, change is coming from all angles and there are a huge number of variables. Being good at chess, a closed environment, is no indicator to how well you’d do in a modern office environment. The former has clear rules, the latter has layers of social interaction, politics, strategy, cultural differences, perspectives, clear rules for all and unwritten rules for some.
Very few of the games in life are in closed systems. Your work, relationships, health and wealth are all open systems, or wicked environments. Wicked environments are complex and ever changing, so the best approach is lots of trial and error. We know this through concepts like evolution, the Agile Manifesto, military strategy and of course parenting. The best strategy here as Epstein and many others point out is diversity. As one Creative Director I worked with once told me, if you don’t keep putting new things into your brain, all that comes out are variations on what you’ve already thought.
Epstein’s work backs this up. People who are more creative, who come up with new ideas that matter in the world, only do so because they have different pursuits. Nobel laureates in science are three times more likely to have diverse hobbies outside of their fields than their less prominent peers.
One dad I interviewed said, ‘my job is to create the conditions for them. If they show an interest in table tennis, I sought out chances for them to play. They throw themselves into it because they want to. If they lose interest, that’s OK, we move onto something else.’
We all know how hard it is to get kids to do things they don’t want to, and as this dad said, how the opposite is true. Now we know continued repetition in a narrow field, like practicing the piano two hours a day, doesn’t really equip them for success in wider life. Unless they happen to bloody love those two hours, it’s probably not the best strategy for them in the long term or either of you in the short term.
But isn’t that just quitting? Shouldn’t we be teaching our children perseverance?
It’s not about determination or grit
Economist and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt conducted a study online in which participants who were considering a career change could flip a digital coin, heads to quit and tails to stay. Six months later, he found that those who’d flipped heads and changed jobs were much happier than those who hadn’t.
There’s a difference between struggling through something that you just don’t enjoy, and struggling at something you do enjoy. We’ve seen it with our son playing the guitar. When his teacher’s got him learning a song he just doesn’t like, getting him to practice feels like sprint training, by the end of it I’m knackered. But, when he realised he could play the Seven Nation Army riff, we couldn’t stop him playing. Night and day.
He likes playing the guitar, so we’re keen to get him to practice technique because we know it’s going to help him get more enjoyment out of it. We also know that it’s easier to just ask what songs he likes and get the music, or watch a YouTube video on how to play it.
This takes us onto something called ‘fit’.
Unless you’ve read his book, you probably don’t know that it was Tiger Woods who chose golf at 3, his dad just created the conditions for him to explore his interests. Tiger found the fit, not his dad.
In his book, David notes two studies about music. In one study of 1,200 young musicians, the people that quit were the ones who didn’t enjoy the instruments they were playing. The other study looked at musicians ages 8 to 18. The most successful ones only started practicing more when they found the instrument they wanted to play.
‘Fit’ is when you find something you like doing, so for parents, as well as creating the conditions, our job is also about introducing new activities, that our children might find ‘fit’ with. It’s not about us forcing them to fit an activity that we have deemed important for our own reasons.
Back to framing
At the beginning we saw how framing can make you feel bad even if you don’t consciously subscribe to the idea being framed. Just because you are not concerned about helping your child ‘get ahead’ because, as we’ve seen, it’s based on a falsehood, you are still victim to the framing. You are left with the implicit notion that, by not acting, you’re letting them your children fall behind in the competition of life.
Of course, this is only true if you see life as a competition against others on someone else’s points system. If instead you see it as a competition against yourself, to be the best person you can be, the insidious aspect of the ‘getting ahead’ frame won’t touch you.
Doing that isn’t easy. It seems that comparing ourselves to what others have, to who they know, to what they get to do is part of our default settings as humans. It must serve some evolutionary purpose, but now I don’t feel it’s helpful. If we, as parents, can do the hard work of consciously choosing to compete against ourselves not others, to catch ourselves when we find ourselves slipping back to our default settings, we have a better chance of passing this onto our children.
Childhood should be about adventure, exploration, learning, discovering new things and new possibilities in the world around you and in yourself. It shouldn’t be about working hard at something you don’t enjoy to get ahead in someone else’s game. A game our children will realise later in life wasn’t worth playing.