Why you should get diverse career experience

Are you struggling to figure out your career?

As I was reading Range by David Epstein, he outlines how generalists tend to succeed in careers, especially in our current world. He talks about the benefits from gaining diverse experience, and the potential downside to becoming too specialized. He also highlights a handful of people who became successful because they were generalists, along with instances when generalists perform better than specialists.

You’ll get there eventually.
Photo by Thomas Dils | Accessed on Unsplashed.com

Main impacts

  1. The importance of sampling.
  2. Getting stuck in a specialization can create blinders.
  3. Find your fit.

The importance of sampling

A key part of career development is finding yourself, and you tend to find yourself through experience, not just through reflection. Reflection is important, but by itself it’s not enough. This means you need to actively try things and diversify your experience to find out what you like and what you’re good at.

Head start vs sampling

Near the beginning of the book, David talks about the difference of getting a head start versus sampling. He uses two famously successful athletes to discuss their career paths, with Tiger Woods representing the head start category and Roger Federer for the sampling.

Tiger got a head start in golf, as he started really young. Whereas Federer tried a bunch of different things before settling on tennis, which gave him a range of skills and coordination that he could then apply to tennis.

It is important to note that even though Tiger started when he was very young, he was always the one asking his dad to play golf, he was not forced to play golf.

One is not better than the other, just different, but both can achieve greatness. Typically, we hear a lot about stories like Tiger’s, where they start so young and become immensely successful. But we don’t often hear the stories of others like Federer who took a very different path. These are the kind of stories that David is highlighting in this book.

Even Vanessa and Serena Williams had immense range. They were required to try a bunch of different sports for different reasons or skills, and both were encouraged to have diverse educational backgrounds and learn multiple languages. If you want to learn more about the Williams, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie King Richard.

Reframe failure

Part of the value in sampling is knowing when to stop, and knowing when you’ve gained what you need to from an experience.

Grit is important, but more important than having grit is knowing when you need to apply it. You don’t need to commit whole heartedly to something that’s just not right for you. If you can find a balance between trying new things and fully committing to the most important ones, you’ll end up being both successful and satisfied.

It’s also important to comprehend that “failure” at something is not “failure” of yourself as a person. Choosing to move on or give up because it’s not right for you, does not make you a failure.

Failure is good. It can help get you where you need to be and provide you with experiences that may be useful later.

Try new things and don’t be afraid to move onto something new.

Getting stuck in a specialization can create blinders

This book was a combination of highlighting how diverse experiences are useful and complimenting it with examples of how becoming too specialized can also be a hindrance.

For instance, a lot of the best ideas and solutions come from outside a speciality. Usually this is because the individual can bring a different perspective and apply useful lessons from other areas. They aren’t limited by the natural constraints taught by that profession/speciality, or mentality of “that’s just how we do it.”

There’s a program where NASA crowd sources solutions in exchange for a reward. Often times the solutions come from people outside the industry, as they can apply new ideas or different perspectives to the problem. Sometimes the ideas are so simple, there’s an example of one that was only a few pages long, and all it needs was a different perspective to understand the solution.

Interdisciplinary careers

Some of the most applicable careers or degrees are interdisciplinary, but can be the hardest to justify or implement effectively. Interdisciplinary experiences allow you to gain a range of critical thinking skills. Then having the opportunity to apply different types of critical thinking across subjects/industries can be hugely instrumental and lead to breakthroughs.

Tied to this concept is the idea that some of the most influential inventions or studies are interdisciplinary, as they end up being useful across many specialities. They may also provide opportunities for knowledge to cross-over as it opens the door to multiple areas.

Interestingly, most executives in business have a diverse backgrounds. The varied experience may give them a better understanding of how different parts of the company work, having worked in similar situations, or help them to develop creative solutions to things.

Lateral thinking

A lot of this ties into the idea of lateral thinking, which is the idea of taking one concept or bit of knowledge and applying it elsewhere. It can also be things like taking a solution that works in one industry and seeing how it can be applied in other industries.

One example is how a battle strategy can help medical students solve a problem. When students heard both the medical problem and the battle story together, they were much more likely to solve the medical problem using a way that mirrors the battle strategy.

There’s also a lot of medical inventions inspired by aspects of nature or other parts of the world. It’s a matter of simply applying one concept in a very different situation.

Find your fit

As mentioned above, you find your self through experiences, not just reflection. It can take time to find your fit and what you want to do. That’s okay. Everyone has their own timeline.

It’s important to not get frustrated with yourself. Don’t feel like you’re behind, or like you’re supposed to be at a specific point by this age. You don’t need to start young to be successful.

I’ve heard this before, but I really like the reminder that you only need to compare yourself to yourself. You only need to be concerned with who you were before and who you want to be. In general, you need to find the best ways to continue growing and become the most un-encumbered self. Your experience doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s.

Remember, it’s fine for you to take time determining what works best for you. The experiences you have along the journey can only serve to help you in the long run, and you never know how something might end up being useful elsewhere. No experience is a waste, and all are ultimately helpful.

One example I thought was really interesting was about van Gogh. He tried so many things before turning to art, from being a teacher to a pastor. In each experience he was fully dedicated to whichever career path he was currently pursuing, even though he kept failing. Then much later he finally turned to art, and even then it took him time to find the best fit. First, he tried drawing and he knew he was close to a good fit, but was constantly told he was not good enough. Eventually he tried painting and he knew it was a perfect fit, so much so that he developed his own way of painting. Incredibly, most of his art are from the last two years of his life.

Final thoughts

I felt like this book was really hopeful. Less people are sticking with one career path these days. It seems like people are taking longer routes to the career they want, or change careers one or more times. This book just showed how much these choices can be beneficial.

It’s a great reminder that you don’t need to hide your diverse experience, or be ashamed of it. It’s actually a benefit and may even make you more desirable. You just need to understand the benefits and know how to talk about it.

Personally, my career has kind of been all over the place. Kind of like a meandering stream slowly working towards a career in an environmental field, and now I’m taking all that experience and hoping to make it useful elsewhere.

Needless to say, I found hope that this can all work out for the best and that my experiences are all valuable, no matter where I end up or stop along the way.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!


Leave a Reply