BY: DAVID EPSTEIN
Specializing earlier in life doesn’t necessarily better prepare people for careers.
This excerpt is adapted from the new afterword for Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein, published with permission from Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Random House, copyright 2021 by David Epstein.
One of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase “Jack of all trades” as an insult dates to 1592. In the New Latin form “Johannes factotum,” it was contained in a pamphlet by a playwright criticizing his own industry. The jab refers to a poet with no university education who was apparently involved in various other roles, like copying scripts and bit-part acting, even trying to write plays. The poet on the receiving end of the insult: a young William Shakespeare. The phrase evolved over time, and today it’s usually “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I think it is culturally telling that we habitually hack off the end of the long version: “A Jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”
Our notions of the relative merits of breadth versus specialization are often based on little more than adages like those above, but they needn’t be. In the nearly 430 years since that barb aimed at The Bard, researchers have compiled a mountain of work examining whether the Jack of all trades is, indeed, ever better than a master of one. My book, Range, which came out in 2019, is a journey through that research, and it shows that most of us would be better off with the long version of that quote. We’ve come to believe that people who specialize early and narrowly—like Tiger Woods, who was already on national television golfing at age 2—have an insurmountable advantage. But the research shows that those stories are in fact the rare exception en route to success, and typically confined to repetitive domains, in which work next year will look just like work last year—what psychologist Robin Hogarth termed “kind learning environments.” Most of us are not working in kind learning environments; it was eye-opening to learn about the advantages of breadth and delayed specialization. The research pertains to every stage of life, from the development of children in math, music, and sports, to students fresh out of college trying to find their way, to midcareer professionals in need of a change and would-be retirees looking for a new vocation after leaving a previous one.
We need to be aware of how easy it is to be fooled by head starts.
Needless to say, most people aren’t going to be William Shakespeare. And while many of the stories in Range portray uncommon achievements, I hoped those would serve as memorable portals-of-engagement into research that applies to a much broader swath of humanity. In fact, international research that studied thousands of workers—more than three-quarters of whom did not have tertiary education—produced findings that resonate with a major theme of the book: that sometimes the actions that provide a head start will undermine long-term development, whether that is choosing a career or a course of study, or simply developing a skill or learning new material.
A 2017 study published by four economists in the United States, Germany, and China analyzed education and employment data in 11 countries with large vocational education or apprenticeship programs, comparing people within each country who had similar backgrounds—including test scores, family background, and years of education—but differed in whether they received career-focused or broader, general education. Naturally, there was considerable variation between countries and certainly between individuals, but the general pattern was: People who got narrow, career-focused education were more likely to be employed right out of school and earned more right away, but over time both advantages evaporated; decades later, they had spent less overall time in the labor market and had lower lifetime earnings than workers who received general educations.
The early specializers often won in the short-term, and lost in the long run. Workers who received general education, the economists concluded, were better positioned to adapt to change in a wicked world, where work next year might not look like work last year.
The pattern was particularly pronounced in two countries with famously extensive apprenticeship programs, Denmark and Germany, an important finding given that, over the past decade, U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle have advocated for a move toward the German apprenticeship model. In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order to expand apprenticeship programs to prepare workers for “today’s rapidly changing economy.” The economists, on the other hand, concluded that the more rapidly a nation’s economy is changing, the greater the long-term advantage of general education. Of the three countries with widespread apprenticeship programs—Denmark, Germany, Switzerland—early specialization only resulted in a lifetime earnings advantage in Switzerland, which has had easily the slowest growing economy of those three nations in recent decades. “This comparison is consistent with the idea that those with general education are more adaptable to changed economic demands,” two of the economists wrote. “Vocational education has been promoted largely as a way of improving the transition from schooling to work, but it also appears to reduce the adaptability of workers to technological and structural change in the economy.”
Does that mean we should have no early vocational training or apprenticeships at all? I certainly don’t think so, and one of the economists who did this work pointed out that apprenticeships still work well in specific areas, like the building trades, but also that those trades are a small portion of unfilled jobs. In my opinion, we should preserve a variety of pathways, to fit a variety of life circumstances. But I also think we need to be aware of how easy it is to be fooled by head starts, assuming that they represent terminally stable trajectories, whether the head start be for child athletes, college students learning math, or workers entering the labor force. “The advantages of vocational training in smoothing entry into the labor market,” the economists wrote, “have to be set against disadvantages later in life, disadvantages that are likely to be more severe as we move more into being a knowledge economy.”
Over the past year, I have frequently felt behind. I’ve found it especially important to remind myself of the theme of research in Range: Development is not linear, and diversions that set you back in the short term frequently become powerful tools in the long term.