It’s Never Too Late: What Best-Selling Author David Epstein Teaches Us About Career Paths
Of all my Sports Illustrated alums/colleagues, few have fascinated me like David Epstein. His path to becoming a writer at the magazine was very non-traditional, and the way he thought of subjects and numbers was even more outside-the-lines. So when his publisher sent me a copy of his new book and suggested it would make me think differently about my potential path to the top, I absolutely took notice.
That book – Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World – was even more inspiring than I imagined it might be.
I called my friend and had a fascinating conversation with him about generalization and late-career performance. As someone who made a late-career transition myself—from writer to speaker—I’ve heard about the need for 10,000 hours of deliberate practice required to become an expert at something. It’s a rule made popular by the writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.
I’m committed to my career as a speaker, but I doubt I’ll ever get to my 10,000 hours—and I wonder sometimes if that means I can never be really best in class. So I wanted to better understand what David had learned.
I wanted to know how he came up with this idea to study the opposite of the 10,000-hour rule.
The answer was simple: by debating Malcolm Gladwell at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference in 2014.
The conference, put on by Houston Rockets GM (and analytics fanatic) Daryl Morey, invited David to come and present a counter-argument to Gladwell’s 10,000-hour theory, because David’s first book, The Sports Gene, took an in-depth look at how some athletes, despite their incredible level of practice and training, weren’t as successful as other athletes who didn’t train as much but were more genetically gifted.
It was the science of biology versus the science of self-improvement. Fun for all.
“Going into the debate Malcolm and I had never met or talked or corresponded, or anything,” Epstein told me. “I didn’t want to get totally steamrolled by him, because he’s probably a fair bit quicker than I am, and because of his wit.
“So I sort of tried to anticipate what he would argue. I knew he’d have to argue for early specialization because it was such a core part of the 10,000-hour rule as he framed it. And so just prepping for that, assuming that would be part of the debate, I looked at all of the science I could find that tracked later-career athlete development.”
What David found would change his—and other people’s—thinking.
“I started finding studies where young athletes were matched at certain times for skill and then tracked over several years. And what you saw was, in most sports, there was this sampling period where the athletes play this wide variety of sports, or they dabble, and they learn these sort of broader skills. They learn about their own interests, they learned about their abilities, and delay specializing until later than their peers.”
The prime example of the differing philosophies on development was Tiger Woods versus Roger Federer, two of the best athletes in their respective sports in the last 50 years.
Tiger, famously, was locked in on golf from an early age—making his television debut putting on The Tonight Show when he was just two years old. He spent his childhood on the golf range, often winning money from adults crazy enough to bet against him. Fifteen major championships later, and you know that his golf story worked out pretty well.
Federer, meanwhile, played soccer, squash, basketball, tennis, and handball—any sport with a ball. He followed his interests, which he credits with developing his overall athleticism and hand-eye coordination. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he began to focus on tennis, and today, at the age of 37, he’s won 20 major singles championships and is the third-ranked tennis player in the world.
“So I talked about this data with Malcolm,” David said, “and I told him this can’t comport with your hypothesis. And he graciously listened to my argument. Afterward, he said ‘You know what you got me on was that Roger versus Tiger thing.’ And he was like, ‘You should write about that.’”
Ultimately David did—and the resounding byproduct of his work is helping you and I understand that nothing we do is wasted. What we learn today in one area may yield surprising future results in a totally different area. Like Roger Federer, we may just be honing the very skills we need to succeed farther down the line.
It’s a lesson that David is bringing to a new role: fatherhood. He and his wife welcomed a son in January of this year.
“I just want to give him a lot of opportunities and make sure he learns as much as possible from them,” he told me as we talked about his first Father’s Day. “I want to facilitate him trying a lot of things, and then my role will really be to help him reflect on those things so that he gets the maximum lessons from each one as he sort of figures out where he fits.”
I think that’s a great lesson for all of us to learn and apply—one that I believe in so much, I’m thinking that thirty years from now, whatever Baby Epstein is doing, I wouldn’t bet against him.
Just like I won’t bet against myself—or you—finding our own Range and making our own push toward greatness.