It was a scene every sports fan has seen before: a golfer bent over the ball, stepping back, taking another look at the fairway and to the green in the distance, flag above the hole flapping in the breeze.
The golfer, wearing black pants and a red shirt, pushed back his cap to reveal a hairline that was receding. But the look in his eyes, the focus and the intention, were every bit as intense as they were when he first entered the PGA tour, after a childhood – indeed a life – dedicated to fulfilling his father’s prediction that he would become the greatest golfer in the world.
And on that Sunday afternoon in mid-April 2019, the golfer stepped back up to the ball and swung. Clearing the water hazard, the ball landed on the green and set up the win of his first Masters Tournament in more than a decade – a decade of health challenges and front-page coverage of chaos in his personal life.
But he was back. After 11 years, at the age of 43, Tiger Woods was back.
Another scene every sports fan has seen before: a tall, lanky guy bent at the waist, bouncing a yellow ball once, twice, glancing up, brushing the hair off his sweaty brow, looking across the net at his opponent. His eyes squint, widen, as he bounces the ball twice more and then throws it into the air.
The racket in his other hand strikes the ball with the sound and velocity as if shot from a cannon. The ball streaks over the net and lands just inside the service line, skidding out of reach of his opponent who hasn’t moved a muscle. Ace!
The player had had his own share of health challenges on the way to his 2017 comeback. But today Roger Federer, at the age of 38, when most of his contemporaries have retired to the Seniors Tour and exhibition play, is the fourth-ranked tennis player in the world.
Woods and Federer, both hard workers, both intensely competitive, both incredibly gifted, both legends in their sports. But the paths they took to get there couldn’t have been more different.
Tiger Woods’ father, Earl, a former U.S. Army Green Beret, approached his son’s training like you would a special forces trainee – at two years of age he was already on television swinging a club alongside Bob Hope.
Roger Federer, in contrast, played soccer, squash, basketball, handball, tennis, skied, wrestled, and on and on. He played as a kid. His mother was a tennis instructor. But she never forced it on him. He chose it himself.
The perception that single-minded focus, 10,000+ hours of deliberate practice, and specialization is the preferred (perhaps only) route to success is popular. But as David Epstein explains in his 2019 book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” while this approach can be successful in certain domains, it’s not universally so. And, he suggests, many of the most important problems facing humanity cannot be solved this way. They demand a broader, more integrated approach.
Range and Adaptability
This echoes a theme that I’ve stressed repeatedly in this column. Many of us as petroleum geoscientists, whether recent graduates or experienced professionals, are confronting significant disruption in our chosen profession. The oil and gas business today is, once again, in transition. How do we each individually adapt this to this new reality?
It’s by exploring breadth – range – not just the depths of specialization.
Citing the findings of Dr. Christopher Connolly of TransitionExpertise, Epstein writes, “early in their careers, those who later made successful transitions had broader training and kept multiple ‘career streams’ open even as they pursued a primary specialty.”
When I speak to student groups, I talk about the fact that my personal and professional interests are at the interface of disciplines. I’m interested in how geoscience interfaces with business and policy. It’s one reason the oil and gas and energy businesses are fascinating to me.
Where are the interfaces that interest you?
On the Perils of Hyperspecialization
In a cautionary chapter about the hyperspecialized state of science today, Epstein describes the story of Prof. Arturo Casadevall arriving at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine several years ago.
Proportionally there are more researchers having to retract their scientific publications than there are new studies being published, warned Casadevall. And as Epstein put it, “part of the problem is that young scientists are rushed to specialize before they learn how to think … You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phones, but they have no idea how to integrate it.”
Casadevall and his colleague Gundula Bosch are recreating the education process at Johns Hopkins to “despecialize training” and thereby build more effective practitioners.
In fact, Epstein explains, Casadevall believes that reducing specialization is his life’s work, because “the further basic science moves from meandering exploration toward efficiency, the less chance it will have solving humanity’s greatest challenges.”
But what if you’ve already completed your formal training? You’ve become a practitioner, perhaps highly specialized or perhaps not, and are already on a career path. Perhaps this path has been disrupted. What about you?
One of the inspiring takeaways from the book is that a meandering path through life is the norm. Sure, there probably appears to be a story, a coherence, to what you’ve done in your life as you look back. But those connections are more obvious in retrospect than when you’re faced with the decisions.
And why is that?
Because “the precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been,” as Epstein writes.
So, look for something you can do that will teach you something new. Look for opportunities to take what you know and combine them with things you don’t.
You, me, we’re all works in progress and our future is just one step away.