Should they take the "specialist" approach and encourage their children to specialize in that activity, or should they take the "generalist" approach and expose them to many different things to help them become well-rounded?
In my five-plus years of researching how to raise exceptionally successful people, I've seen most parents choose the latter; they enroll their kids in piano lessons and sign them up for baseball, golf, soccer, and maybe even chess or math club.
Early specialization: The key parenting approach for excellence
We're making it easier for you to find stories that matter with our new newsletter — The 4Front. Sign up here and get news that is important for you to your inbox.
Early exposure to a range of activities is a good thing. How else will you know where your interests and gifts lie? However, once you've found something where you can build on your natural talent, you've reached the opportunity to specialize.
Specialization doesn't mean that your kid gives up doing other things, perhaps for fun or even for developing additional skills. It merely means that they've picked the activity where they are committed to putting in the effort required to become as good as possible at it.
The reason for specialization is simple. You can never replace the amount of time you need to dedicate to an activity to acquire and develop the necessary skills.
As stated by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell's famous "10,000-Hour Rule," it takes a long period of hard work to achieve mastery of complex skills and materials, like playing the violin or getting as good as Bill Gates at computer programming.
So the earlier you encourage your kid to learn the basic skills of a field, the sooner they'll progress to more advanced skills. And the sooner they develop those advanced skills, the quicker they'll develop best-in-class skills. And the quicker they gain best-in-class skills, the more likely they are to attain a rare and elite level of proficiency.
The most exceptional people became specialists at a young age
Andre Agassi started playing tennis at around four years old. The now-retired tennis player won eight Grand Slam titles, as well as the "career Grand Slam" for winning each of the four major tennis tournaments at least once.
By the time his career turned professional at age 16, Agassi's opponents were in their prime. But he could keep up with them despite his youth because he specialized an early age and built the same volume of practice on the courts as players a decade older. Playing against the best further refined his skills, until eventually, he became the top-ranked player in the world.
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is another example. At the age of 10, he developed an interest in computing and learned about programming through a manual and a Commodore VIC-20 computer. When he was 12, Musk built a space-themed PC game called "Blastar" (which earned him $500 after a South African trade publication published its source code).
Then there's Warren Buffett, who became interested in business and money during his childhood, and purchased his first stock when he was 11. Today, the Berkshire Hathaway CEO is worth over $95 billion and is known as one of the most successful investors of all time.
For the world's top companies, specialists are assets
Specialization isn't just reserved for future sports champions and billionaire entrepreneurs. It's increasingly necessary if you want your kids to grow up and get good jobs that they enjoy working.
According to my interviews with world's top CEOs, many elite companies are moving away hiring well-rounded individuals who show moderate proficiency in many different things. Instead, they're searching for often-rare candidates who demonstrate outstanding ability in one or two areas.
Put yourself in a manager's shoes: Would you want to build a team filled with well-rounded people, or would you want a well-rounded team assembled with people who are each exceptional in their unique domains?
While there are strong cases for hiring more generalists (people who have a variety of experience and expertise can connect dots where others don't see a link), some experts have found that there are costs to generalizing.
As the saying goes, jacks of all trades are masters of none. This line of research argues that specialists, with their deeper understanding of subject matter, can better spot and seize on emerging opportunities.
The age at which you specialize depends on the activity you pick
Early specialization works well for domains where the outcome depends primarily on specific skills honed through repetition, such as tennis, computer coding, gymnastics and many others that require you to build particular muscles, techniques and expertise.
Specialization takes on a different form for domains where skills are transferrable or require a core foundation. You don't become an exceptional architect, physicist, surgeon, attorney or consultant, for example, by specializing in these professions as a youth. But just because no one becomes a patent attorney when they're 12 years old doesn't mean they weren't specializing.
My wife and I encouraged our kids to focus on math because they showed an early affinity for solving math problems. One grew up and earned a degree in applied mathematics, and the other, a degree in quantitative economics. Neither would have been possible without a robust quantitative foundation from an early age.
If you want your children to grow up and become exceptional in a field, you first need to find the area where they show a natural ability. Then, surround them with activities that will help build the foundational skills early. (Again, this doesn't mean your kids don't do other things; it just means that they focus on attaining mastery in one area.)
Keep them motivated when they encounter challenges or when they want to quit (as they invariably will), and provide a supportive environment so they can get back on track and look forward to learning.
Dr. Kumar Mehta, Ph.D., is the author of "The Innovation Biome" and "The Exceptionals" and founder of Bridges Insight, a think tank focused on researching sustained excellence and innovation. Dr. Mehta is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Digital Future, and a board member for the Committee for Children, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the well-being of children through social-emotional learning and development. Follow him on Twitter @mehtakumar.
- A psychotherapist says the most mentally strong kids always do these 7 things—and how parents can teach them
- Harvard psychologist to parents: Do these 7 things if you want to raise kids with flexible, resilient brains
- I raised 2 successful CEOs and a doctor—here's one of the biggest mistakes I see parents making