Jack of all trades but master of none: we use the phrase to describe someone who is good at many things, but not exceptional in any of them. It’s a label that tends to carry negative connotations. We think of someone who may have dabbled in a number of different areas but ends up in an unsatisfying or low-paying job due to lack of focus necessary to pursue a more gainful line of work. Yet, being a master of one field but deficient in most others can also lead to a lack of that essential quality—well-roundedness—that we praise children for displaying.
The 10,000 Hours Theory
The modern emphasis on specialization stems from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, which popularized the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any given skill area. Following this line of thought, the secret to success in adulthood starts with focused training that begins at a very young age. To become a Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Elon Musk, etc., it’s important to develop and maintain a particular focus early in life. Conversely, he argues, people who pursue a wide range of interests simply do not have enough time for the deliberate practice required to achieve mastery of a skill.
This line of thinking comes with pitfalls. Gladwell’s 10,000-hour theory puts too much pressure on kids to figure out what they “want to be when they grow up,” and pigeon-holes them into a particular skill set.
As a result, older kids or young adults believe they’ve missed the boat if they haven’t already identified a talent while those who never develop a specialty at all feel like they’ve failed.
The Pressure on Children to Specialize
Anxiety over the need to master one skill or area of knowledge in order to be successful manifests in childhood education. Parents and educators often worry about how to maintain an appropriate balance between depth and breadth in a child’s education, and we feel that they have to choose between allowing children to be generalist or specialist learners. There’s also a natural proclivity, despite the obvious stress it puts on students and parents alike, to compare a student’s performance in different situations from the classroom to the sports field in the hopes of identifying some early secret to success.
The distinction between generalists and specialists came to education from the business world, where for years executives have debated which type of knowledge makes for more creative employees. According to a recent study published by the Harvard Business Review, specialists perform better in fields with a rapid pace of change whereas generalists perform better in fields with a slower rate of innovation. In other words, one style is not inherently better than the other. Rather, generalist and specialist performance outcomes are dependent upon the environment in which they are obtained.
Some elements of standard classroom teaching cater to either generalist or specialist learners. Standardized testing favors generalists, as it uses domain sampling to draw representative questions from a broad range of material. Performance assessments, like student-driven projects and papers, can help specialists shine by allowing them to show the depth of their knowledge and interest in a chosen subject. Most schoolwork, however, requires a mix of both to develop the skills necessary to place ideas in context.
The generalist vs. specialist debate relates to one particular source of anxiety among parents thinking about preparing their children for college: extracurricular activities. Extracurriculars are an important component of any college application, and some parents agonize over whether their child participates in enough to impress an admissions officer, or so many that it might appear they lack a clear focus.
There is no magical formula when it comes to how many or which extracurricular activities will lead to college admission. Interviews with admissions officers at a variety of universities emphasize that they want to build a class with a diversity of interests and experiences: there’s room for the student who has devoted themselves to one club and the student who has tried out many. They’re looking for students who are passionate about what they do, whatever it may be, and who will complement the student body as a whole.
Let Your Child Explore Their Interests
Some educators have advised changing our definitions of generalist and specialist to focus on skills rather than knowledge. For example, the terms could refer to different types of attention, with generalists switching between selective, sustained, and divided attention and specialists tending to focus exclusively on one task. No matter the exact definition, most experts agree that a balance of both breadth and depth is critical in K-12 education.
Regardless of whether a child has a specialist or generalist learning style, it’s important to build on strengths and work on weaknesses in order to become a lifelong learner. At the end of the day, the most important skill to have is the ability to continue learning after leaving school, and to have the confidence and desire to do so.
For students who want help exploring their interests without the pressure to have it all figured out, we offer career interest coaching and advice on how to avoid burnout. Our programs help students take ownership of their education, so that children who lose interest in school because they don’t feel successful can rediscover a love of learning, regain the confidence to approach life with curiosity, and try new things without fear.
To help your child’s teacher provide a more personalized approach this year to address your child’s weaknesses and enrich their strengths, we offer a FREE PDF on How to Prepare a Back to School Meeting with your Child’s Teacher. Click the button below to get started.