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Sample, Then Specialize

What comes before a hot streak

Because I study outliers in achievement—people who are the very best at what they do—I’m often asked for parenting advice.

“How many hours should my son practice piano?”

“Is it too late if my daughter doesn’t join a travel soccer team before high school?”

“I feel like colleges won’t even look at kids unless, you know, they are already a freakish genius at something!”

These parents want to know how to get their children to act like the adult superachievers I study.

But, in fact, I think this is a terrible idea. Imitating the single-minded devotion of a mature paragon of grit is not what children need—even the ones who will one day exemplify passion and perseverance for long-term goals.

Instead, young people thrive when given the freedom to explore a wide array of interests without an obligation to stick with any of them—much the way a toddler picks up a toy and plays with it for a while, then drops it for another. When you don’t know a lot about the world or yourself, exploration is essential. And while, of course, it takes time for interests to develop, the very nature of interest development necessitates the freedom to move on from pursuits that just don’t keep your attention.

All our lives, there is a trade-off between sampling and specialization, between exploring new stuff you know nothing about and getting really good at what is already familiar. Early in life, when time is on your side but you know almost nothing, it’s better to favor exploration. 

In fact, we benefit from sampling when we get older, too. New research on the career trajectories of top scientists, painters, and film directors shows that hot streaks—periods of unusual creativity—are preceded by periods of heightened experimentation. Before specialization comes sampling.

Don’t pressure the young people in your life to choose a path, and foreclose others, too early in life. 

Do encourage short-term commitments to extracurricular activities, one season at a time. Sampling is exactly what all young people need and deserve to do so that one day, they will know enough about themselves and the world to stick with something they love. And if you need more convincing that you, too, could benefit from some expand-your-horizons sampling, check out this video interview with Dashun Wang on his hot-streak research. 

With grit and gratitude,