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The origin story of Tiger Woods, seen here, highlights him showing off his swing on national TV at age 2 and logging eight-hour days on the links at age 4. This makes him a perfect exemplar of the now-dominant narrative of early specialization and relentless practice.JS/Getty Images

Tiger Woods’s triumph at the Masters Tournament last month capped a surprising return from a decade in the golf wilderness. But as far as his impact on our societal sense of what it takes to be an elite performer, it’s as if he was never gone.

Woods’s origin story, showing off his swing on national TV at age 2 and logging eight-hour days on the links at age 4, makes him a perfect exemplar of the now-dominant narrative of early specialization and relentless practice – what author David Epstein calls “the cult of the head start.” Countless bestselling books have extolled the virtues of a Tiger-esque 10,000 hours of practice, not just in sports but in music, business, and life.

But why, Epstein wonders, don’t we devote as much scrutiny to the early life of the equally dominant Roger Federer, who played just about every sport available to him until he was a teenager and whose parents were, in the memorable phrase of a Sports Illustrated profile, more “pully” than pushy?

In his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, which will be published on May 28, Epstein argues that Federer’s development is actually far more relevant for mastering complex sports, making good career decisions and spurring innovation and creativity. He argues that breadth of experience, rather than narrow specialization, is the true performance enhancer. It’s a claim that’s sure to generate sparks in the peak performance world – and sighs of relief from stressed-out parents and perennially curious career-switchers.

The difference between golf and tennis is that the former is a “kind” learning environment, while the latter is a more “wicked” one, in the terminology of psychologist Robin Hogarth. In kind learning environments, the same challenges recur over and over, and you get quick and accurate feedback on how well you’ve done. You swing your club, and it’s clear whether the ball goes where you intend.

In tennis, in contrast, the link between a given shot and the eventual outcome of a point is less clear, and much of the challenge involves learning to anticipate your opponent’s actions. It’s a slightly more wicked environment, meaning that patterns are more obscure and feedback is delayed or even inaccurate. Much of real life, Hogarth adds, is even less amenable to rote practice: it’s “Martian tennis,” where the rules are hidden from you and keep changing without notice.

Epstein (who is, full disclosure, a fellow science journalist whom I consider a friend) marshals an impressive body of research suggesting that breadth of experience is one of the keys to mastering Martian tennis. Athletes who reach the highest levels of a sport actually spend less time as kids practising that sport than those who plateau at a near-elite level. Instead, like Federer, they sample a variety of sports until their mid-teens.

In academia, the most productive scientists are also the most likely to have serious outside hobbies. Nobel laureates, according to one analysis, are 22 times more likely to be amateur actors, dancers, magicians or other performers than other scientists.

Breadth also gives you more opportunity to find your true strengths and interests, an advantage known as “match quality.” Students in Scotland, who spend their first two years of university sampling different fields, are more likely to stick with their eventual career choice than students in England and Wales, who specialize from the start. Despite starting out with less specialized knowledge, the Scottish students rapidly catch up in income.

All of this is pretty awesome, because it gives you a licence to do ... well, pretty much anything. It all counts as lateral experience that may help you achieve your ultimate goals in unexpected ways.

There’s a catch, though. In a chapter on innovation, Epstein notes the difference between “T-shaped” people, who have breadth and depth, and “I-shaped” people, who have only depth. But he doesn’t advocate becoming a “hyphen,” who has only breadth. At a certain point, you have to acquire some depth of expertise.

In that sense, Range is an important corrective to the parade of deep-expertise books of the past decade, but not a complete repudiation. Epstein “manages to make me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong,” writes Malcolm Gladwell – whose 2008 book, Outliers, popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of practice would allow you to master just about anything – in a back-cover blurb. But Gladwell’s picture wasn’t wrong – it was just incomplete.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.

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