Most people would prefer to be the best in the world at one thing, rather than being well-rounded and proficient at many things. Becoming exceptional is all about reaching the very top in your chosen field.
The most exceptional people in the world have invested a lifetime of effort into becoming the best of the best. Excellence comes from repeatedly spending time honing a set of skills. Since time is a fixed and finite variable, you need to start as early as possible to maximize your “volume” or amount of effort you put into skill development. There are significant benefits to specialize and focus on a single thing and spend less time on other things.
Starting as early as you can:
How to divide time is a question parents often face when their children show promise in a particular activity. Should they encourage their children to specialize in that specific activity at an early age, or should they expose their children to many different activities to help them become “well-rounded.”
Most parents take the latter path. They enroll their children in piano lessons and sign them up for baseball, golf, soccer, plus have them join chess club and math club and coding camp. All designed to expose their kids to a wide array of activities. But while this approach may help them become the jack of all trades, it also leads to becoming the master of none.
Early exposure to a range of activities is a good thing. How else will you know what you are “gifted” at and where your interests and your natural talents and abilities lie. Finding your “gift” is essential because your best chance of reaching the most elite level in any field is by building upon your natural talent. Talent is the one thing that cannot be taught, skills to nurture it can.
However, once you have picked the activity where you can build upon your natural talent, and you have a desire to become exceptional at it, you have reached the point where you need to specialize.
Specialization means a deliberate, dedicated, and structured focus on a single activity, at the exclusion of other activities. It means a focus on being very good at one thing, and not being marginally good at several things. Specialization refers to the selection of a single area of focus. It does not mean you give up doing other things altogether; it merely means you have picked the activity where you want to excel, and you are committed to putting in the effort required to become as proficient as possible at it.
The reason for specialization is simple. You can never replace volume, or amount of time dedicated to an activity. You need time to acquire and develop skills. The earlier you learn basic skills, the sooner you progress to more advanced skills. The sooner you develop advanced skills, the quicker you will develop best-in-class skills. And the earlier you gain best-in-class skills, the more likely you are to attain a rare and elite level of proficiency in your field that makes you among the best in the world.
Andre Agassi started playing tennis when he was four years old. By the time he was seventeen, he was competing against the best players in the world. His opponents, often in their late twenties, were at the prime of their careers. Agassi could keep up with them despite his youth because he specialized in tennis at an early age. By the time he was seventeen, he had built the same “volume” on the courts as players a decade older than him and could be competitive against anyone. Through early specialization, Andre Agassi gained the ability to go toe-to-toe against the best in the world. Playing against the best further refined his skills, until eventually, he became the top-ranked player in the world.
The age at which you specialize depends on the activity you pick. Early specialization works particularly well for domains where the outcome depends primarily on specific skills honed through repetition, such as tennis, golf, chess, piano, writing computer code, running, cycling, figure skating, gymnastics, spelling, and so many others. These activities require you to build specific muscles, techniques, and skills.
Magnus Carlsen started playing chess when he was five years old and started showing real interest in the game a few years later. At this point he committed to chess. It was this specialization that helped him become a grandmaster at thirteen and a world champion at twenty-three. Specializing in chess, an activity for which he had a natural talent and interest, and switching himself off from other activities allowed him to become one of the most exceptional individuals in the world.
Early specialization in an activity is not something that is reserved only for future world champions. It is increasingly necessary even if you want your children to get a good education from a top university. The most elite universities are moving away from admitting “well-rounded” students who show moderate proficiency in many different things. They are increasingly looking for students who have demonstrated outstanding ability in one or maybe two areas. They are looking for students that are superstars, not generalists. They no longer want to create classrooms filled with well-rounded students; they want to develop well-rounded classes, assembled with students who are exceptional in different fields.
How specialization impacts your profession
We intuitively understand that for a select set of activities, such as tennis or chess or gymnastics, we need to start early. But what about the vast majority of other professions?
In general, for domains where skills are transferrable or those that require a core foundational knowledge base, early specialization takes on a different form. You don’t become an exceptional architect or surgeon, or a patent attorney or a CFO by specializing in these professions as a youth. But just because no one becomes a patent attorney when they are twelve years old, it doesn’t mean they weren’t specializing. As youths, they were likely building the essential ability to read and absorb vast amounts of information, one of the qualities that distinguish good patent attorneys apart from great ones. These professions need not just domain-specific knowledge, but foundational skills and knowledge that comes from years and often decades of intense practice. Once you have the foundation, it is the specialization and development of task-specific skills that ultimately make you elite in your field.
Specializing in something does not mean you shut yourself to knowledge from other domains. The most successful people in every field are avid readers and consumers of information. They know how to take data from a cross-section of disciplines and apply it to hone their skills more effectively.
Also, specialization alone will not make you exceptional. It is one of several attributes required for attaining excellence. It is necessary, but not sufficient, which means that merely specializing in something will not make you an expert. You also need to have natural talent or aptitude and the ability to put in the required effort. Plus, you need to be fully committed to your goals and have the self-belief and confidence to reach the very top of your field.
As a general rule of thumb, to become exceptional, you need to specialize as early as possible and practice, practice, practice. The most exceptional people have the clarity and vision to know what they want to achieve; they specialize in it and focus on becoming the best at it and are undaunted by the effort and work required.