We're tied up with Foolapalooza this week, so for this episode of Motley Fool Money, we're re-airing an interview with bestselling author David Epstein about his most recent book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Learn why generalists make for better, happier workers; the problem with the 10,000 hour rule, and what Malcom Gladwell had to say about it; the critical nuance in the concept of grit that too many conversations gloss over; the glaring issues with modern-day science funding; why we're doing youth sports all wrong in the U.S., why we're able to get away with that, and how we could do better; and much more. 

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This video was recorded on Nov. 15, 2019.

Chris Hill: David Epstein has master's degrees in environmental science and journalism. He's been a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, and he's the author of The New York Times best-seller The Sports Gene. His new book is Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. During our time on stage, we discussed a wide range of topics, including Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, true learning, and the case for inefficiency. But my first question for David was where he got the idea for his new book.


David Epstein: The idea sort of still did grow out of the first book. The first book was about the balance of nature and nurture in athleticism. I was invited to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, co-founded by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, to debate Malcolm Gladwell. It's 10,000 hours vs. the sports gene. It's up on YouTube. I'd never met him before. He's very clever, and I didn't want to be embarrassed, so I tried to anticipate some of his arguments. This was specifically about the development of athletes. I knew he'd have to argue for early specialization in sports and highly technical, delivered practice. So I said, "OK, I'm the science writer at Sports Illustrated, let's go look at what science has to say." And it actually found in almost all sports, in most places in the world, athletes who go on to become elite actually have these so-called sampling periods where they play a variety of sports, they gain these broad general skills that scaffold later learning, they learn about their interests and abilities, and they systematically delay specializing until later than their peers. 

We all know the Tiger Woods story of early specialization. That's like the most famous developmental model, but it's actually completely the exception, and golf is an unusual sports skill compared to other ones. Whereas with this, we all know, when Mark Zuckerberg at 22 says, "Young people are just smarter," we all hear that story, meanwhile the research shows that the typical age -- on the day of founding, not when it becomes a blockbuster -- on the founding is 45 and a half. But we don't hear the stories the science was telling me. We hear the Tiger Woods, Mark Zuckerberg stuff. It's very like Daniel Kahneman's availability heuristic. It's the dramatic stories that we base our models of the world on, not what the actual science finds.

Hill: And you open the book with a great sports example. As you said, everybody -- I'm not even a big golf fan, and I know the Tiger Woods story of, basically from the time he could walk, his father was drilling him on all these different things, and he's Tiger Woods. He's the dominant golfer of his time, and maybe of all time. But the comparison you draw with Roger Federer, who is also the dominant tennis player of his age, and probably on the shortlist of the greatest of all time, it's a completely different path.

Epstein: Yeah, yeah. Roger was exposed to tennis early, but he was also doing swimming, skiing, wrestling, handball, basketball, badminton, rugby. Tennis, of course, table tennis. I'm probably forgetting -- oh, soccer, that was the other biggest one, soccer. His mother actually was a tennis coach, but she refused to coach him because he wouldn't return balls normally. She couldn't get him to do the normal drills. So, she declined. When he got good enough to be pushed up a level with older players, he declined because he just liked talking pro wrestling with his friends after practice. And when he finally got good enough to warrant an interview from a local paper, the reporter asked him, if he ever became a pro, what would he buy with his hypothetical first paycheck? And he says a Mercedes. His mother's totally appalled and asks the reporter if she can hear the interview tape. And the reporter obliges, and it turns out, Roger actually said "more CDs" in Swiss German. He just wanted more CDs. Not a Mercedes. 

[audience laughs]

Epstein: So then his mother was fine. One of my colleagues, who was the senior tennis writer at Sports Illustrated, described Rogers parents as pulley, not pushy. So, eventually, he did specialize, but it was after what we now know as the very typical developmental trajectory for most elite athletes. 

The people who study skill acquisition in sports view golf as different, this non-dynamic domain where you don't need anticipatory skills, like to judge things that are happening quickly. So, early specialization, may well work in golf. I don't know. There's a dearth of science. I can believe that it does. But the problem is that we've extrapolated from that to all these other skills. 

Hill: We'll get into some of the business stuff from the book in a second, but I want to stick with sports. I suppose this ties into business as well, because if you think about youth sports in America, the business of it has almost gotten too big. It's pretty amazing that Roger Federer's parents were not only actively pulling him away from specialization, but also, his mother was a tennis coach herself. In the United States, the flip of that is, she's the tennis coach, and as soon as he can walk, she's got him out there, drilling -- and not to pick on soccer, but it really does seem like soccer more than any sport in the United States, the youth sports business machine of that is almost too big to overcome.

Epstein: No, do pick on soccer. 

Hill: Oh, OK!

Epstein: I don't live in Brooklyn anymore, but when I did, there was a youth seven travel soccer team that met near where I live. I don't think anybody thinks that six year olds have to travel to find good enough competition in a city of nine million people. 

[audience laughs]

Epstein: No, really. So, I don't think that has anything to do with optimal development for those kids. We know the way to make the best 10 year old soccer player is not the same as the way to develop the best 20 year old soccer player. But those kids are customers, right? And someone else has an interest in keeping them away from those other sports. When you talk to elite athletes, they're the ones who know, and they're the most against specialization, because they know what they did. But that's a whole other sort of industry. 

But some places, like France -- which just won the World Cup -- started decades ago reforming its pipeline, where they get kids exposed early, and they get them in the pipeline early, but then -- I think multiple sports is really just a proxy for diversity of movement and training. There's this classic research finding, breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. It means the broader your training scenarios, the more likely you'll be able to apply your skills to situations you've never seen before. So, they get the kids exposed early, but then they put them in these games where they're playing on sand one day, cobblestones another day, this game called "futsal", weather in small spaces. The coaches aren't even allowed to talk most of the time. There's a saying, there's no remote control, meaning the coaches shouldn't try to micromanage the players. So, they get them exposed early, but they put them in this very freeform development that we know is the best. So, I think there's hope because there are models for making this better.

Hill: Business is one of the through lines of this book. We just talked about youth sports. One of the things that comes up is the business implications on scientific research. I was saying before we started, one of the more jarring things to me in the book is how scientific funding has increased over the last, say, 30 years or so, but discovery has actually dropped. It seems like the pressure for economic outcomes immediately or in the short-term are taking precedence over just discovery.

Epstein: Yeah. And I think everyone knows we want those outcomes, that the end goal is applications. The question is how best to get there. To that point, I was reading a lot of Nobel acceptance speeches when I was doing the research. It's a funny thing, in the more recent years, you start to notice, almost every year, someone giving their speech says, "Well, I wouldn't be able to do my work today because I didn't really know what I was going to find. I just had this interesting question. And now, in your grant applications, you have to say, 'here will be my application.'" And that's OK, but we have a VC community for that, that can be more focused on that. So, why squash the diversity of the research endeavor? So many of the biggest breakthroughs have come from questions that someone was interested in, that we didn't know where it was leading. Vannevar Bush, who led the scientific research efforts during World War Two, wrote a report for the President about a successful research culture. You see these phrases that are like, "the free play of free intellects working on questions of their own design." And that led to like 30 years of wildly successful progress. That led to microwaves and MRIs and the internet and all these other things. So, we have to keep in mind that we know the process is inefficient when we don't exactly know what we're looking for. It's a problem that we're having a purifying selection, where we're forcing people to say the applications before they really know what they're going to find.

Hill: One of the things I like about your book is, we meet all these people -- put aside Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, in your research, all of these people. You just touched on something from one of my favorite people in the book, Arturo Casadevall, who speaks to that, talks about the very nature of pushing boundaries is that you're out there, you're probing, you're not sure what you're going to find. And by definition, it's an inefficient process. 

Epstein: Yeah, Arturo is one of the most prominent immunologists in the world. He wins no matter what happens, basically. He has no problem getting funding. But, he decided to leave a cushy post in New York to go to Johns Hopkins School of Public Health because they were allowing him to start a new education program, where he's essentially trying to de-specialize the training of future scientists. He arrived and showed this graph where he said, "The rate of retractions of science, the acceleration is now outpacing the rate of new publications. If we continue this trend, we will have retracted all of science in a couple of years."

[audience laughs]

Epstein: Sort of science gallows humor. But, there is this retraction problem now, we're recognizing there's been a lot of bad work. By the way, I contributed to that bad work. I have a master's degree in science, and only as an investigative reporter writing about how science works did I realize that I, too, committed statistical malpractice of the variety he's talking about because I was rushed into -- not purposely -- very didactic, specialized material about Arctic plant physiology before I knew how my statistical tools worked. And you can get these big databases, hit a button to run these incredibly complicated statistics, and say, "Statistically significant! Master's degree." And this research is still published. It's crazy that only later did I learn how scientific thinking is supposed to work. We're having this problem. So, he's trying to despecialize the research and get people to think more broadly. He described science as becoming a system of parallel trenches, where everyone's in their own trench and not standing up to look over at the next trench, even though that's often where their solution is. There's all these perverse effects. Women are much more likely to write grants for interdisciplinary proposals, but interdisciplinary proposals are systematically marked down because they always go to one discipline or the other, so they're a lot less likely to get funded. But the world is interdisciplinary. Disciplines are a necessary evil for breaking down how we study. So, we're docking people who are asking questions about how the world really is.

Hill: One of the things you get at is -- and Arturo does it with science -- we've seen it in the military, where basically, leaders are trying to figure out, what's the best way to mentor people? What's the best way to educate people? And along the way, they find out, "Oh, we've been doing it wrong. Not only have we achieved short-term success in education, we've deluded ourselves into thinking, pat ourselves on the back, everything's fine, and in fact, we've set those people back."

Epstein: Yeah. That gets to some themes in the book. We can jump into that one in a couple of places. But one of the themes to me was that there are things you can do that cause the most rapid, immediate progress that systematically undermine long-term development. I'm going to use that cue to get into one of the studies that was the most surprising to me in the book, which was done at the U.S. Air Force Academy, that you could never set up. You had this amazing scenario. They bring in their freshman class, a thousand students or whatever it is. And they have to all take a sequence of three math courses. Calculus one, calculus two, and then a follow-on course. And they are randomized to professors for calculus one, then they're randomized to the next course, and then rerandomized again to the next course. So, you can really see the impact of teaching. And that's what these researchers wanted to see. And what they found was that the teachers who were the best at promoting contemporaneous overachievement compared to the characteristics that the students came in with in calculus one, those students then systematically underperformed in the follow-on courses. The teacher whose students performed sixth best out of 100 in his calculus one got the seventh-best ratings -- if the kids feel like they're learning, they rate them higher -- was dead last in how his students then did in the follow-on courses. And it turned out that professors whose students did the best contemporaneously were teaching a very narrow curriculum. Their students were learning so-called using procedures knowledge. They could execute when the test came, but when you get into a different class, and you're facing different stuff -- breadth of training beats breath of transfer -- you don't have those broader conceptual models, so you don't have what's called making connections knowledge, which is the broader frames, where you learn how to match a strategy to a type of problem instead of just executing procedures. It's really deceptive, right? The learners rate their learning is faster, they rate the professors as better, they do better. And then, in the long run, they're undermined, which is deeply counterintuitive to me.

Hill: So, in terms of business, and leadership, and one of the things I think you touched on in the book had to do with maybe using LinkedIn to figure out, how do people get promoted. It really does seem like the people who have the widest breadth of experience, they're the ones most likely to move on.

Epstein: Yeah. And I should say, we absolutely need specialists. I don't want to denigrate specialists. I like Freeman Dyson, the mathematician and physicist and writer framing of it, where he said, "We need frogs and birds. The frogs are down in the mud, looking at all the little details. The birds are up above, they don't see those details, but they can integrate the work of the frogs." He said, "We need both for a healthy ecosystem. The problem is, we're telling everyone to be frogs, and we're not telling anyone to be birds."

The LinkedIn research you're referring to, they looked at about a half a million members, because they have this amazing database, what are the best predictors of someone who goes on to become an executive? And one of the best predictors was the number of different job functions that an individual has worked across in their industry. Their chief economist thinks that's because they get this much more holistic view of the industry. Each additional job function saved him about three years of experience in moving toward the C suite. That resonated with me, because I saw that as I was visiting different companies.

Hill: I know it's only been out for a week or so, but I'm curious, what's been the reaction that you've gotten, not necessarily from readers, who I'm sure are enjoying the book, but to the extent that you've heard from communities or leaders, whether it's an industry or youth sports or something else?

Epstein: More positive than I expected. Maybe that's because the blowback part takes a little longer. 

[audience laughs]

Epstein: But, this book got out of the gate faster than my last one did. The last one, there was a lot of pushback about the 10,000 hour rule stuff. Malcolm Gladwell and I were recently at a conference in March, the same one where he first did the debate. This is on YouTube. And in a minute 54, he says, "I now believe I conflated two ideas, the idea that it takes a lot of practice to get good at something with the idea that in order to become good at X, you should do X and only X starting as early as possible." I thought that was a very astute thing for him to say. I think that might have softened some of the blow a little bit for me. 

But it really has been interesting to hear people identify with it, and some of the executives. I started getting invited to some business things, and the executives would tell me, "This resonates." I just met a woman who was the head of executive search for a really big company. And this resonated with her. She was telling me, "I think, in the age of LinkedIn, for all its good things, we are getting too narrow in describing our job functions." If you look at research on serial innovators, for example, this woman, Abbie Griffin, whose research is in Range, she says to HR people, "You have to keep it broad, because the serial innovators, they often zigzag, they've had other domain experience, they have a wide range of interests, they tend to have hobbies, they read a lot, they need to communicate with people outside their domain. When you define the job too narrowly, you accidentally screen them out." So, some of the people who do executive search, apparently, that's resonated with because they reached out to me and said, "We are increasingly making this square hole, and we have this square peg we want it to fit, but those aren't necessarily actually the people who are set up to make the biggest contributions."

Hill: I've actually experienced that on LinkedIn. I host a radio show and a podcast. That's what I list on LinkedIn. And once a month, I get an email from LinkedIn. And it's, "Here are some jobs you might be interested in." And all of them are host jobs, but it's, like, at a restaurant. 

[audience laughs]

Hill: And I'm like, maybe I need to do a better job of getting across what I actually do.

Epstein: Well, that would be a transfer of skill.

Hill: It would be. You know what? I'm too specialized. I should branch out and do that sort of thing. Let me stick with the reaction for a second. We've certainly seen this in the world of business and investing, where essentially, some group of people is pounding the table looking for data. They get the data, and they don't like what they see, and they reject it. I think the blowback that's probably coming your way is from soccer parents, because there's no way to read this book and think, if you're a well-meaning parent -- and soccer's huge, as you know, in the D.C. area -- and your kid's interested in soccer, and they're pretty good, they're 10 or 12 or whatever, there's no way to read this book, and come away thinking, "Oh, yeah, this is great! This is perfect for my kid."

Epstein: Yeah. A couple of things you mentioned, I want to touch on. One, with soccer parents, yes, there's some pushback. At first, I thought the sampling period of delayed specialization in sports would just be town selection issue. When you can delay your selection, you're more likely to get fit with the right thing and prove your match quality. Whereas, I was just looking at the European Junior Soccer championships, and 47% of the participants were born in January, February, March, because when they're selected young, it's just for who was born earlier in the selection year. And then they won't make it all the way. So, that happens. 

Germany did a study of some of their top youth players, and they match them for skill at certain ages, and then track them over the next couple of years. Turns out, the ones who do more unstructured play and diversify do better by time, too. Eventually, you have to focus, but not during that developmental period. So, there is some pushback about that. One of the problems with the U.S. and sport development is -- everyone should go watch the Norwegian HBO Real Sports on Norway.

Hill: I watched that last week, it was amazing!

Epstein: They exploded the Winter Olympics. They've basically taken out competition in youth leagues from their youth sports. Whereas we have the largest number of athletes in basically every sport that people have heard of in the world, so we can be really inefficient. We have more athletes in most sports than the rest of the world combined because of our college system, who are young adults, so we can afford to have bad development and still get people coming through the pipeline. So we'll probably do OK if we still have a lot of people playing. I think there are actually good forces at work in youth soccer in the U.S. it'll just be slow.

Hill: Just to add a little bit of context on the HBO Real Sports about Norway, this is in the wake of Norway winning more medals at the Winter Olympics last year than any country has ever won. I love the fact that the way that the government is funding youth sports is through sports gambling. The two quotes that stuck out to me were someone saying, "Yeah, the conversation that America is having right now about sports gambling, Norway had that years ago and decided what to do." And the other quote is someone saying, "Yeah, our approach in Norway is essentially to look at how the United States approaches youth sports, and we do the complete opposite."

Epstein: Yeah, because they have to be efficient. They can't afford to burn a ton of people like we can. That's interesting, about sports gambling. Not that I'm an expert in that, but it reminds me of a guy like to follow Josh Wolfe at Lux Capital, who always talks about, he looks for when a directional arrow is going in one direction. Privacy's basically not coming back fully. Sports gambling seems like that to me. There are all these obstacles, but it seems to me like it's only going in one direction, so why not make it productive and help it go in that direction productively? That's just my opinion. 

Hill: We talked a little bit about what we should look for in leadership. For people who are either in the position of mentoring someone at work, managing people at work, or hiring, what we glean from being a generalist, so that we can both be better at hiring, but also be better at mentoring and managing the people on our team?

Epstein: I think a lot of the people I talk about in the book, it wasn't like the Renaissance was like, "I'm going to be a Renaissance man." They became generalists because they zigzagged in search of that match quality, that term that economists use to describe the degree of fit between an individual's abilities and interest in the work they do. So, they arrived where they were with this diversity of skills and interests. The model I like to keep in mind for mentoring is something I mentioned only briefly, but the Army's program they started called talent-based branching. They realized, with the growth of the knowledge economy, they were hemorrhaging their most talented officers. The more likely they were to give an officer a scholarship to West Point or four years ROTC, three years, two years, etc., the more likely that officer was to leave on the day that they could get out, basically. To the point where a general suggested defunding West Point, because it's an institution that taught its cadets to get out of the Army. Which, of course it didn't, but with the rise of the knowledge economy, they could move laterally, they could take these skills and move laterally as opposed to what they call in this army Strategic Studies Institute study that I mentioned, the company man era, where you face more repetitive challenges and went up or out. 

So, first, they tried to throw money at those high potential people to keep them. The ones who were going to stay took it, and the ones who were going to leave left anyway, and that was a half a billion dollars. Then they started something called talent-based branching, where instead of saying, "Here's your career path, go up or out," they assigned someone a coach, and they say, "Here's a bunch of possible career paths. Try a couple. Your coach will then help you reflect on whether these fit your interests well, and your abilities. And we'll keep zigzagging in search of that better match quality." And that's had much better retention value, and optimizing performance, because match quality is really important for your motivation and your performance. Some research I quote says, when get fit, it will look like grit, because it turns out, when people get a good fit, they work a lot harder. 

So, I think that conceptually, that role of the coach who helps reflection as you get this sampling period is a really important and powerful thing that I would frankly love to have in my own life.

Hill: You mentioned grit. That's another thing in the book, rethinking the idea of grit as being this inherently great quality that we should embrace at all times.

Epstein: Yeah, and I want to say, some of the critique I took of grit came right out of the papers from Angela Duckworth and her colleagues. I think they were quite fair in a lot of their papers, about the limitations of what they were doing, but lost in translation, as is often the case. Grit, you've probably heard of it, it's a psychological construct. You take a survey, half the points are awarded for resilience, and half the points for consistency of interests. The most famous study was on, actually, West Point cadets who were going through the six-week orientation called Beast Barracks, and grit turned out to be a better predictor of who would make it through than the more traditional measures. Most of them made it through anyway, not very many quit. But that's great. 

But then you fast forward to, West Point funds those people because they want them to stay 20 years, and yet half of them are leaving basically the day they're allowed. Is that because they lost their grit? No, it's because the fastest time of personality change in your whole life is 18 to your late 20s, and sometimes you develop new interests, and they gain these skills, and they see they can do other stuff in the rest of the world. That's not a problem of grit, that's a problem of match quality, which is why they started the talent-based branching. And the way that people optimize their match quality is by trying a bunch of things, getting as much signal as possible, and quitting until they get to a better spot. 

I think the deification of not quitting for the sake of not quitting should not be extrapolated from a study that pre-selected people with a six-week goal that they already had. You don't want to extrapolate that to the rest of the world. And they say that in their studies. In fact, two days before my book came out, Angela Duckworth's newsletter was called Summer is for Sampling. And she said, "Take the summer to try a bunch of new stuff. Of course you shouldn't stick with something before you know what you're doing. That's not what I did in my career. I sampled before getting gritty." So, to the extent that grit means work hard when it makes sense, I'm totally on board with that.

Hill: I'm curious about how you go about your research, and in particular how we as investors cannot accept something at face value. Everybody loves a great story. But in a lot of ways, we're using the wrong stories. To the extent that we come across a business leader, or a company, that has a great story attached to it, where should we be looking to poke holes in the infallibility of what we see.

Epstein: I think stories are important, especially in the communication area we're in now. You can see it's essential for a leader to weave an important story that draws people onto their team and motivates them. One of the inventors I talk about in the book, a woman named Jayshree Seth, who keeps going away from her actual academic training, and that leaves her in a position where she has to interview other experts, which she calls her mosaic building process. And if she builds a good question, those people are drawn onto her team. She became one of the most prominent inventors at 3M for doing that. So, it's important to build those stories. 

That said, I think we should be cognizant of something people here might be familiar with, which Kahneman called the inside view, which means you're focusing on the details of a particular scenario, the internal details of a situation. And when you do that, whether you're looking at an investment you're going to make or a type of leader, whatever scenario you investigate more deeply, you will become more convinced of. So, if you're saying, "This or that will happen with this investment," as you investigate one scenario, you'll increasingly find it to be likely, whether that's which racehorse will win, which leader will succeed, or which politician will win. To the point where, in studies, when people have to investigate multiple scenarios deeply, they'll end up adding up the probabilities in one situation to over 100%, because they get more and more convinced of things that they're investigating. So, I think you need to realize that you should start with a scientific mindset of actually trying to falsify your ideas, and make sure you're investigating whatever the opposite is. Especially with Google, you shouldn't be typing in, searching for the answer you think is right. As simple as it is, when I want to spell check a name or something in my manuscript, I don't type it in how I think it's right. I type it in purposely wrong, and look to see the corrections, basically. We need to be cognizant of that inside view, where you get sucked into the internal details. You should actually zoom out, look for other analogous scenarios to what usually happens, and start by trying to falsify your own beliefs. 

Both of my books have turned out very differently than my book proposals. That's in large part because I end up falsifying some of my own beliefs. The only way to do that start out with that in mind. If you don't start out with that in mind, it's definitely not going to happen.

Hill: One more thing about your work process. I was reminded when I was reading your book of the great quote from Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, where he was asked one time about, how do you know when the show is ready? He replied, "Well, we don't go on because the show is ready. We go on because it's 11:30 on Saturday night." It's clear that you love to research stuff. I'm curious, if you handed in the manuscript because you felt it was ready, or did you hand it in because it was 11:30 on Saturday night?

Epstein: That's a good question. The three questions I get the most about book writing are: are you going on tour; do you get royalties; how long did it take to write. None of which have anything to do with the content of the book, of course. But after my first book, it was a blur, so I asked my wife, "What did I do?" And she said, "You went upstairs and came back two years later." But, the process for my books, both in the first year, my goal is to try to read 10 studies a day, every day, for the first year, if I can.

Hill: Since you mentioned your wife, I should mention that when I first knew that I was going to be sitting down with you, I remember thinking, "Oh, that's the guy who Malcolm Gladwell probably wants to punch in the mouth because he poked holes in the 10,000 hours thing." I was delighted to see that one of the quotes on the back of the book, Malcolm Gladwell, "For reasons I cannot explain, David Epstein manages to make me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong. I love Range." And I think he might have tweeted that out. I saw on Twitter that your wife responded, "Oh, I felt the same way on our first date."

Epstein: Yeah, that was the last time that happened. But, yeah, he's a super open minded guy. I had interactions with other 10,000 hours authors who were not that open minded. If you're going to write about science, something you're writing about is wrong. You just don't know what it is yet. I'm sure I will, at some point. But if you are too attached to those ideas, that goes against everything that the foxes, the best thinkers, the people with the best judgment in chapter 10, what makes them good at judging the trends in the world. I think I would not at all be living by the things I write if I were dogmatically stuck to everything I write. And I think he's been a great model for me in that sense, to be honest. Instead of viewing our back and forth as zero sum, I think he viewed it as something where we can both learn. And to me, that's a model that could be used in more situations today.

Hill: Before we get to audience questions, congratulations -- I understand you and your wife are recently new parents. 

Epstein: Thank you!

Hill: That's fantastic! How's the sleep deprivation, by the way?

Epstein: I'll be honest, given my work process -- there's a moms group that my wife's in, and then we had dad's day, where you come. And the guys are like, "Horrible." And I'm like, "You know what? My life has been easier with a newborn but not trying to finish a book than it was trying to finish a book without a newborn." I think those are the people who really wanted to punch me in the face.

Hill: [laughs] So, now you have this new role, this new title. I'm assuming that you are now seeing the world through the eyes of a new parent. You were an athlete in college. How are you going to manage and navigate the world of youth sports? Among other things. We'll get to education in a second. 

Epstein: One of my friends, who was a Winter Olympic gold medalist, he keeps saying, "I know this is just your plan to reduce the competition while you make your kid the Tiger Woods of blockchain." And I'm like, "Hmm, not a bad idea." But, no. So, my approach. I started college as a walk-on and left as a university record-holder in track and field. But I played football, basketball, baseball, all this other stuff first. And the fact is, I started to realize that there was a commonality in the part I was good at, which was the running for a long time part. That was very much talent-based branching for me, where I got to try all this different stuff, and big surprise, I didn't make it to the NBA. But, I started to get signals about my talents, what they were. That was an important thing for me. So, I think my role as a parent will be to be that coach in the talent-based branching system, where you make a lot of opportunities available, and expose him to a lot of things. I don't want to prescribe diversification any more than I want to prescribe specialization. But, to make sure that when he tries these things, I help them reflect on it and get the maximum possible signal. That's one of the characteristics of so-called self-regulatory learners, the people who learn about their own skills and weaknesses. They evaluate themselves more objectively compared to how their bosses would evaluate them than most people do. They spend a lot of time reflecting after they do stuff. I think my job will be to facilitate that reflection for him. 

Also, I'm utterly unworried about missing the next Tiger Woods or Mozart or whatever, not only because those are incredibly rare, but in both cases, I think we tell those stories a little wrong. Tiger said in 2000, "My father never asked me to play golf. I always was bugging him to play golf. It's the child's interest that matters." And then his father facilitated all these opportunities. Same with Mozart. There are some letters I was going through where it becomes clear that the first time he wants to play with musicians who come over, he wants to play violin, his father's like, "You haven't had any lessons. Go away." And he starts crying. So, one of the other musicians goes in another room with him and says, "I'll play with him to get him to stop crying." And he'd been saying, "I can play second violin." And they hear him playing it. And the musician says, "Little Wolfgang was emboldened by our applause to insist he could also play the first violin."

And doing it with all his made-up fingering. So, I'm not worried about missing those opportunities. I'll try to expose him to those things. If something catches on like that, then you react to the interest. But I'm not concerned that I'll miss that opportunity.

Hill: That seems like a good segue into final question, which is, of course, this time of year, it's graduation season. In the 45 to 60 seconds we have left, what is your message to the graduating class of 2019?

["Pomp and Circumstance" plays]

Epstein: My message to the graduating class of 2019, congratulations, thank your families, start paying off your debt. 

["Pomp and Circumstance" gets louder]

Epstein: Oh, wow!

[audience laughs]

Epstein: No, I think my advice would be to ignore all the other commencement speeches that you had in your other commencements, or that your friends are getting, which amounts to, "Picture of who you want to be in 10 or 20 years, and constantly march toward that stay the course." As the investor Paul Graham has noted, that there's a word for that, in computer science, it's called premature optimization. You don't know who you're going to be. There's something called the end-of-history illusion. We all recognize we changed a lot in the past. We systematically underestimate how much we will change in the future. You are a changing human, and the only way to learn about yourself is to keep sampling and zigzagging in search of match quality. Look at the opportunities in front of you today. Take what's interesting now. And maybe a year from now, you'll change because you have learned something about yourself and found something better.

[audience applauds]

Hill: David Epstein!


David's book is Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. It is available everywhere you find books. 

As always, people on the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about. The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. That's going to do it for this edition of Motley Fool Money! Our engineer is Steve Broido. Our producer is Mac Greer. I'm Chris Hill. We'll see you next week!