In Depth

True grit: is perseverance overrated?

Well-rounded individuals may be more primed to succeed in a chaotic and fast-paced world

In a world in which we are increasingly encouraged to commit ourselves to a narrow career path from an early age, what we actually need is a return of the “Renaissance man”.

That is the premise laid out by ProPublica journalist David Epstein in his new book, Range. So is a jack of all trades really better off than a master of one?

What is grit?

Psychologist Angela Duckworth, who has studied the concept extensively, says “grit” is the quality that enables students to “pay attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming” and persist with long-term assignments “despite boredom and frustration”.

However, in Range, Epstein “makes a compelling case for actively cultivating inefficiency” and the advantages of dilettantism over dedication, even contending that “frequent quitters end up with the most fulfilling careers”.

Is dabbling underrated?

“Folk wisdom holds the trade-off between breadth and depth to be a cruel one: ‘jack-of-all-trades, master of none,’ and so forth,” writes Jim Holt in the New York Times’s review of Range. But the reality is far more complex.

Epstein argues that trial and error is a vital part of learning, and that trying our hands at a variety of skills, hobbies and even careers helps us develop the flexibility, self-knowledge and creativity and innovation to thrive in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

For instance, his research found that Nobel prize-winning scientists are 22 times more likely than the average scientists to have artistic interests outside their field.

While specialists “are very good at advancing knowledge in the paradigm that they’re familiar with”, writes Martin Rezny in Medium, “you need a generalist to come up with an entirely new way of solving a particular problem, or to notice an entirely new problem”.

He cites the example of Apple founder Steve Jobs, who had a wide array of interests in non-STEM subjects, from Buddhism to calligraphy. 

“Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on,” Jobs told college students in 2005. 

For instance, “if I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts”. 

So should we be discouraging specialisation?

The reality is that some people simply aren’t cut out to be generalists - and that’s okay. In Range, Epstein argues that specialists have their place in disciplines like chess, golf or classical music, “where patterns recur and feedback is quick and accurate”, says the New York Times.

The argument made by proponents of generalism is not that no-one should pursue a specialism, but that we should not be beholden to an unhelpful cultural paradigm which prizes dedication and disdains dabbling.

“We’ve become so focused on specialisation,” Carter Phipps, author of the book Evolutionaries, tells Forbes

“But just as there are truths that can only be found as a specialist… there are truths that can only be revealed by a generalist who can weave these ideas in the broader fabric of understanding.” 

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