Tiger Woods and Roger Federer took very different paths to the pinnacle of success in their sports. Woods was a golf prodigy who was beating adults at the game at age five and who broke 70 on a regulation golf course before he was a teenager.
In contrast, Federer experimented with soccer, basketball, and various racquet sports before becoming serious about tennis in his early teens. He was winning national junior tournaments at 15.
David Epstein contrasts the two superstars in the introduction to his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in A Specialized World. He notes that while early starters tend to advance more quickly, they are also more prone to burnout and emotional problems related to the intense pressure they experience at an early age. They can also become so invested in a defined skill that they fail to notice when the market has moved on.
In the long run, Epstein writes, people who experiment with several career options tend to earn more money over the long term than their specialist counterparts and enjoy longer overall stretches of success.
Winding paths vs. the express lanes
The example is instructive in a business climate that today places a premium on specialization. Hiring managers tend to look for recruits who have years of intensive experience and college degrees in their chosen field.
But the pace of change in business today favors adaptability. If you scan a few CEO biographies you’ll find a healthy number of accountants, electrical engineers, and information technology specialists. In fact, a 2018 LinkedIn analysis found that computer science was the most popular field of study among 12,000 members with CEO titles.
The business network also reported earlier this year its list of the top 15 most in-demand jobs includes experts in workplace diversity, digital marketing professionals, digital content creators, user experience professionals, and artificial intelligence specialists. These jobs barely existed a decade ago.
Technology is changing the hiring landscape in profound ways as well as redefining even well-established professions. In my own field of journalism, success used to be a function of cultivating sources, asking probing questions, taking precise notes, and writing quickly. While those skills are still important, today’s blockbuster stories are just as likely to come from analysis of massive amounts of data and trends teased out in social networks.
In the same vein, the most successful salespeople have long been the ones who were good at managing relationships and exercising powers of persuasion. Those skills still matter, but today’s best salespeople are just as skilled at mining prospects from social networks, quickly finding answers to customer questions, and managing the finer points of videoconference calls.
Some professions will always demand intense focus: think medicine, nuclear engineering, or atmospheric science. But the most accomplished people in those areas also tend to have a variety of interests. A 2008 Michigan State study found that Nobel laureates in science were four times more likely than their less accomplished peers to be musicians, 17 times more likely to be artists, and 25 times more likely to write poetry or fiction. A 1997 study found that pursuit of an intellectually stimulating hobby is a better predictor of career success than IQ.
Hiring for adaptability
These factors matter when making your own decisions about staffing a business. A varied background and intellectual curiosity may be greater indicators of long-term success than advanced degrees. Remember that the jobs you will be looking to fill two years from now may not even exist today.
IBM has codified this approach in a program it calls “New Collar Jobs.” Its New Collar website tells the stories of people who have carved out successful cybersecurity careers hailing from backgrounds in retail, early childhood education, and military intelligence. IBM has said that it aims for about 15% of its new hires each year to come from nontraditional domains.
The internet is your friend in promoting workplace adaptability. Programs like the nonprofit Khan Academy and A Cloud Guru teach in-demand technical skills at little or no cost. MIT makes nearly all of its courses available for free online.
David Foote, who tracks demand and pay rates for more than 1,000 IT positions, says the unpredictable demands of technology in the workplace make adaptability an essential skill. Colleges and universities can’t possibly satisfy the demand for people who can apply AI, blockchain, and robotics. “The only way to get people to use these things is to train them,” he says.
When scanning résumés or interviewing candidates, look for individuals who are eager to learn and have the willingness to do whatever it takes. While you’re at it, consider investing more of your own time in that hobby you let fall by the wayside years ago.
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