Highly specialized health care professionals have developed their own versions of the "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" problem. Interventional cardiologists have gotten so used to treating chest pain with stents—metal tubes that pry open blood vessels—that they do so reflexively even in cases where voluminous research has proven that they are inappropriate or dangerous. A recent study found that cardiac patients were actually less likely to die if they were admitted during a national cardiology meeting, when thousands of cardiologists were away; the researchers suggested it could be because common treatments of dubious effect were less likely to be performed.
An internationally renowned scientist (whom you will meet toward the end of this book) told me that increasing specialization has created a "system of parallel trenches" in the quest for innovation. Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there. The scientist is taking it upon himself to attempt to despecialize the training of future researchers; he hopes that eventually it will spread to training in every field. He profited immensely from cultivating range in his own life, even as he was pushed to specialize. And now he is broadening his purview again, designing a training program in an attempt to give others a chance to deviate from the Tiger path. "This may be the most important thing I will ever do in my life," he told me.
I hope this book helps you understand why.
When the Tillman Scholars spoke of feeling unmoored, and worried they were making a mistake, I understood better than I let on. I was working on a scientific research vessel in the Pacific Ocean after college when I decided for sure that I wanted to be a writer, not a scientist. I never expected that my path from science into writing would go through work as the overnight crime reporter at a New York City tabloid, nor that I would shortly thereafter be a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, a job that, to my own surprise, I would soon leave. I began worrying that I was a job-commitment-phobic drifter who must be doing this whole career thing wrong. Learning about the advantages of breadth and delayed specialization has changed the way I see myself and the world. The research pertains to every stage of life, from the development of children in math, music, and sports, to students fresh out of college trying to find their way, to midcareer professionals in need of a change and would-be retirees looking for a new vocation after moving on from their previous one.
The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization. While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger's precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases—as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part—we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress.
People with range.
THE CULT OF THE HEAD START
One year and four days after World War II in Europe ended in unconditional surrender, Laszlo Polgar was born in a small town in Hungary—the seed of a new family. He had no grandmothers, no grandfathers, and no cousins; all had been wiped out in the Holocaust, along with his father's first wife and five children. Laszlo grew up determined to have a family, and a special one.
He prepped for fatherhood in college by poring over biographies of legendary thinkers, from Socrates to Einstein. He decided that traditional education was broken, and that he could make his own children into geniuses, if he just gave them the right head start. By doing so, he would prove something far greater: that any child can be molded for eminence in any discipline. He just needed a wife who would go along with the plan.
Laszlo's mother had a friend, and the friend had a daughter, Klara. In 1965, Klara traveled to Budapest, where she met Laszlo in person. Laszlo didn't play hard to get; he spent the first visit telling Klara that he planned to have six children and that he would nurture them to brilliance. Klara returned home to her parents with a lukewarm review: she had "met a very interesting person," but could not imagine marrying him.
They continued to exchange letters. They were both teachers and agreed that the school system was frustratingly one-size-fits-all, made for producing "the gray average mass," as Laszlo put it. A year and a half of letters later, Klara realized she had a very special pen pal.
Laszlo finally wrote a love letter, and proposed at the end. They married, moved to Budapest, and got to work. Susan was born in early 1969, and the experiment was on.
For his first genius, Laszlo picked chess. In 1972, the year before Susan started training, American Bobby Fischer defeated Russian Boris Spassky in the "Match of the Century." It was considered a Cold War proxy in both hemispheres, and chess was suddenly pop culture. Plus, according to Klara, the game had a distinct benefit: "Chess is very objective and easy to measure." Win, lose, or draw, and a point system measures skill against the rest of the chess world. His daughter, Laszlo decided, would become a chess champion.
This excerpt ends on page 16 of the hardcover edition.