David Epstein, author of the forthcoming Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, penned an opinion piece in the New York Times last week entitled, “You Don’t Want a Child Prodigy.” Epstein argues that the most elite performers, from athletes to musicians, didn’t specialize early. In their younger years, these elite adults sampled different activities, developing a range of skills and experiences before finding the field where they’d one day reach the very highest levels. Statistics, experience, and just plain common sense tell us that most of us—and our children—aren’t likely to reach the elite levels of the Roger Federers and Antonio Vivaldis (both of whom are mentioned in the article) during our lifetimes. They’re called “elite” for a reason. But there’s still a great deal of application for high school students here, regardless of their performance levels inside or outside the classroom.
A shift took place in admissions in the late 90’s when colleges and counselors began advising students that the term “well-rounded” wasn’t necessarily an admissions strength. In the growing drive to get accepted to famous colleges, many students had progressed through high school amassing long lists of varied interests—leadership, community service, sports, etc. The logic of the new approach was that those students who’d achieved a higher level of impact within a chosen interest were more likely to stand out in a pile of high-achieving applicants. And that advice, combined with an obsession with prestigious colleges, drove many families to push their students to find a passion early in high school and then stick with it.
The advice wasn’t and still isn’t necessarily misguided.
While there’s nothing wrong with a student who spends four years of high school picking things up and putting them right back down (they’re kids, after all), the resulting college admissions challenge is that an application full of activities that only lasted a short time makes it difficult for a college to ascertain what kind of impact this student could make when interest and energy are applied consistently.
The antipode for that circumstance, however, is not to force kids to pick one interest early and stick with it. In fact, that’s almost always a recipe for burnout and resentment. Most kids are likely to shop around a bit before they land on those things that both draw and sustain their interest. They’ll have some starts and stops. Those choices aren’t necessarily a sign of a lack of fortitude or commitment. They can also be a sign of curiosity, growth, and learning. Most adults have experienced fits where a new hobby or interest they were excited about lost its luster. Constants need time to emerge.
For the rare student who legitimately discovers a sustained passion early in life and finds joy in it, great. Dive in and stay in as long as it’s both enjoyable and rewarding.
But for those teens who resist pledging their undying devotion to one area, don’t worry that they’re somehow lacking forward college admissions progress. Encourage them to honor their commitments. But let them find those things that light them up, whenever those lights happen to start shining. Those are the areas where they’re most likely to thrive, to make an impact, and to show colleges just how much they’re capable of in whatever interest they pursue on campus.