I also began to realize that some of the people whose work I deeply admired from afar—from Duke Ellington (who shunned music lessons to focus on drawing and baseball as a kid) to Maryam Mirzakhani (who dreamed of becoming a novelist and instead became the first woman to win math's most famous prize, the Fields Medal)—seemed to have more Roger than Tiger in their development stories. I delved further and encountered remarkable individuals who succeeded not in spite of their range of experiences and interests, but because of it: a CEO who took her first job around the time her peers were getting ready to retire; an artist who cycled through five careers before he discovered his vocation and changed the world; an inventor who stuck to a self-made antispecialization philosophy and turned a small company founded in the nineteenth century into one of the most widely resonant names in the world today.
I had only dipped my toe into research on specialization in the wider world of work, so in my talk to the small group of military veterans I mostly stuck to sports. I touched on the other findings only briefly, but the audience seized on it. All were late specializers or career changers, and as they filed up one after another to introduce themselves after the talk, I could tell that all were at least moderately concerned, and some were borderline ashamed of it.
They had been brought together by the Pat Tillman Foundation, which, in the spirit of the late NFL player who left a professional football career to become an Army Ranger, provides scholarships to veterans, active-duty military, and military spouses who are undergoing career changes or going back to school. They were all scholarship recipients, former paratroopers and translators who were becoming teachers, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. They brimmed with enthusiasm, but rippled with an undercurrent of fear. Their LinkedIn profiles didn't show the linear progression toward a particular career they had been told employers wanted. They were anxious starting grad school alongside younger (sometimes much younger) students, or changing lanes later than their peers, all because they had been busy accumulating inimitable life and leadership experiences. Somehow, a unique advantage had morphed in their heads into a liability.
A few days after I spoke to the Tillman Foundation group, a former Navy SEAL who came up after the talk emailed me: "We are all transitioning from one career to another. Several of us got together after you had left and discussed how relieved we were to have heard you speak." I was slightly bemused to find that a former Navy SEAL with an undergraduate degree in history and geophysics pursuing graduate degrees in business and public administration from Dartmouth and Harvard needed me to affirm his life choices. But like the others in the room, he had been told, both implicitly and explicitly, that changing directions was dangerous.
The talk was greeted with so much enthusiasm that the foundation invited me to give a keynote speech at the annual conference in 2016, and then to small group gatherings in different cities. Before each occasion, I read more studies and spoke with more researchers and found more evidence that it takes time—and often forgoing a head start—to develop personal and professional range, but it is worth it.
I dove into work showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident—a dangerous combination. And I was stunned when cognitive psychologists I spoke with led me to an enormous and too often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.
Starting something new in middle age might look that way too.
Mark Zuckerberg famously noted that "young people are just smarter." And yet a tech founder who is fifty years old is nearly twice as likely to start a blockbuster company as one who is thirty, and the thirty-year-old has a better shot than a twenty-year-old. Researchers at Northwestern, MIT, and the U.S. Census Bureau studied new tech companies and showed that among the fastest-growing start-ups, the average age of a founder was forty-five when the company was launched.
Zuckerberg was twenty-two when he said that. It was in his interest to broadcast that message, just as it is in the interest of people who run youth sports leagues to claim that year-round devotion to one activity is necessary for success, never mind evidence to the contrary. But the drive to specialize goes beyond that. It infects not just individuals, but entire systems, as each specialized group sees a smaller and smaller part of a large puzzle.
One revelation in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis was the degree of segregation within big banks. Legions of specialized groups optimizing risk for their own tiny pieces of the big picture created a catastrophic whole. To make matters worse, responses to the crisis betrayed a dizzying degree of specialization-induced perversity. A federal program launched in 2009 incentivized banks to lower monthly mortgage payments for homeowners who were struggling but still able to make partial payments. A nice idea, but here's how it worked out in practice: a bank arm that specialized in mortgage lending started the homeowner on lower payments; an arm of the same bank that specialized in foreclosures then noticed that the homeowner was suddenly paying less, declared them in default, and seized the home. "No one imagined silos like that inside banks," a government adviser said later. Overspecialization can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action.