What Did Wimbledon Teach Us About Genius?

Jul 16, 2019
Originally published on July 16, 2019 11:09 am

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Sunday's tennis championship at Wimbledon between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer lasted nearly five hours, a record. It finished with a 12-12 tie in the final set, triggering a first-to-seven tiebreaker. For tennis fans, it was an epic struggle between legends in a storybook setting. The weather was perfect, and the hats were divine. For readers of David Epstein's new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, however, it was an academic nail-biter, a test case in a simmering war between specialists and generalists.

Range argues that professional success in most fields is not primarily the product of intense specialization but of generalization, of the cross-pollination of ideas and experiences. Range is an ode to late starters, like Vincent van Gogh, who wandered Europe and failed at all kinds of things, including preaching, before changing the art of painting. It's about the NASA scientists who failed to prevent the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, because they couldn't operate outside the discipline of their training. It extols violinists who start late and polymaths like Charles Darwin.

Epstein is also the author of The Sports Gene, about genetics and outcomes in athletics. Taken together, The Sports Gene and Range form something like a rebuttal to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and the whole gospel of the 10,000 hours, which suggests that mastery can be achieved only through consistent, unwavering focus. (The two authors, in their own classic bout, actually spent a lecture arguing about generalization and specialization at a sports conference this year. You can watch it here.) Range, like Outliers, is a book about ideas, success and brilliance, and both books rely on zillions of academic studies.

And it's about sports, of course, our most measured form of success, with a stop on the tennis court. The book opens with a story about Federer, who is described as the antithesis of Tiger Woods. (Epstein says he titled his book proposal Tiger vs. Roger.) Tiger Woods played nothing but golf, starting at around 2 years old. Federer, Epstein writes, was raised on a variety of sports. His mother specifically discouraged him from specializing in tennis. He was steered away from playing more competitive matches so he could hang out with his friends. His mother often didn't even watch him play.

Increasingly, writes Epstein, research about sports in particular and many fields in general is finding that early specialization more often leads to burnout and skill mismatches than success. The better path, statistically, is early and wide "sampling." It matches people to the best skills. It allows disciplines to inform one another. The numbers suggest this is true for most professional athletes, and, of course, we all want it to be true. Specialization is grueling, relentless and not really that charming.

But!

Djokovic won. Beat Federer at the end of five hours by one point.

And Djokovic is a specialist, in its most extreme form. There are no accounts of Djokovic dabbling, testing a bunch of different sports. A child prodigy, he picked up tennis at 4 and never strayed. At 7, he was interviewed for a television spot in Serbia. "Tennis is my job," he said, according to Sports Illustrated. "My goal in tennis is to become No. 1." He had no other interests.

Bummer. But, still, Range is a delight to read because it tells us what we want to learn: that aimlessness is the path to greatness, that our distractibility is not our weakness but our secret power, that genius and perfection can show up for us with luck, as long as we're just willing to amble around enough.

And you could hear that wish in the crowd, which was cheering for the lovely-to-watch Federer. No one wants to be Djokovic, the anxiety-ridden grinder. But he does seem to win a lot.

If you'd just finished Range and were pumped to dabble, and maybe get started on greatness later, Wimbledon was a real heartbreaker.

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