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The secret to thriving in your career (and no, it's not working more)

David Epstein
Author David Epstein's studies found that spending years dabbling in a mixture of pursuits is crucial to success Credit: Dan Callister

Many of us dream about changing career in mid-life but reason ourselves out of it on the basis that we can’t throw all that time and effort away. We’d be clueless in another vocation, anyhow – not to mention about 20 years behind everyone else.

But bestselling author David Epstein has a different view: that we’re likely to thrive, for the very reasons we fear we’ll fail. In his fascinating, forensically researched book Range - How Generalists Triumph In a Specialised World, Epstein studied the world’s most successful people; scientists, musicians, athletes. And he found that if we want to become accomplished in almost any field, spending years dabbling in other pursuits isn’t a waste of time, but crucial. 

It worked for Roger Federer, after all, with his apparently meandering route to greatness being the far more common (and effective) path. Conversely, Tiger Woods’s exclusive focus on golf from age zero is constantly referenced as the only way to excel. Actually, Epstein finds that the vast majority of elite athletes have what researchers call “a sampling period, where they learn broad skills” and “delay specialising.” 

The research, explains Epstein, who is based in New York, “pertains to every stage of life, from the development of children in maths… to mid-career professionals in need of a change.” Monomaniacal focus may work in the worlds of chess, golf, and fire-fighting, but Epstein explains these areas involve repeated patterns, and learning from the experiences they produce.

Trouble is, most of the world is random: you need conceptual reasoning power. And in our current climes, where transferable working skills are evermore valuable, Epstein shows it’s often the outsider who can most easily spot problems, largely because “specialists get such a narrow view that they lose perspective.” 

Over-specialising creates a danger of ‘cognitive entrenchment’ where everyone is deep in their own little trench of expertise, unable to see into the next one – a lack of context that spans from unhelpful to disastrous. Range is littered with examples of outsiders or latecomers beating the experts at their own game: 39-year-old Epstein cites the authors of a Harvard study on winding career paths, called ‘The Dark Horse Project,’ who interviewed fulfilled, successful types who had found their métier circuitously.

They noted that almost every interviewee insisted that people should not be advised to follow their lead, seeing their paths as proof that they had “got off-track... and got lucky at the end. I was just an outlier.” Their most common trait was short-term planning; an approach based on the here and now, and an “I’m going to try this, and maybe in a year I’ll change because I’ll find something better” ethos, Epstein explains. 

“It’s called self-regulatory learning, where they proactively experiment – ‘I think I’m going to like it but I’ll see if that’s true’ – and they keep zigzagging,” adds Epstein. “Usually we think of that as wasting time. I think we should try to revise that mentality.” He interviews Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, who says, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.”

'The average age of the founder of a blockbuster startup is 45 and a half – a concept at odds with the breathlessly told Mark Zuckerberg-style fairytale' Credit: REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File

Our personalities and priorities aren’t static, after all: “We change more than we think we will, so the idea... that we will consistently like it the same way and have the same abilities over time is not compatible with what the psychological research shows.” 

He quotes a recent Gallup survey of over 200,000 workers in 150 countries – 85 per cent were either ‘not engaged’ with their work or ‘actively disengaged.’ Meandering into a ‘best fit’ career won’t only benefit your wellbeing, then, but your prospects and your bank account. “‘Match quality’ is the phrase economists use to describe that degree of fit between an individual’s interests and abilities and the work they end up doing. Research shows it to be incredibly important for someone’s longterm motivation, and their performance,” Epstein explains. 

So why are we often so hesitant to switch? Partly because we’re conditioned to think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, particularly in fast-developing industries such as tech. Yet research shows the average age of the founder of a blockbuster startup is 45 and a half – a concept at odds with the breathlessly told Mark Zuckerberg-style fairytale.

“We don’t know the typical story of all these people who start companies when they’re in their mid-forties,” but they will likely have picked up more self-awareness than the average wunderkind along the way and, while those skills may not be “as snazzy,” Epstein says, “those traits are good for leadership.”

Another reason we might stick with a career we’ve fallen out of love with is the ‘sunk cost fallacy,’ where people think ‘I might as well keep going or it’s a waste.’ Changing career mid-life is dramatised as a wild, risky endeavour. But Ibarra found most transitions are a cautious process where people might attend a class or two, do some networking and “realise ‘maybe this is more than a hobby for me.’”

It’s still nerve-wracking, though: as Epstein says, citing Ibarra, “you’re not just changing jobs, you’re changing identity... You don’t just change identity overnight.”  But those who reach a point of strongly feeling the need to change, Epstein says, “would be better off once they did.”

Range: How Generalists Triumph by David Epstein (Pan Macmillan General Division) is out now. 

Do you agree that dabbling in a mixture of pursuits is crucial to success? Have you done this or know anyone who has? What tips and advice would you have for others considering this? Tell us in the comments section below.