Urban Meyer, coach of Ohio State football, likes three-sport athletes more than singularly focused athletes. Yet sites like Active for Life jump on the three-sport thing to tell parents that early specialization is bad for kids.
I don’t believe specialization is bad. But I do believe it’s scary. You could get hurt, you could miss your big chance, you could be disappointed, you could fail publicly. But if you don’t learn to take risks by specializing early then you won’t be able to be great at anything later in life.
But what does it mean to be great at something?
Being great is relative. Relative to what you’ve been exposed to.
Before Eddie George played football for Ohio State, he left home for a private high school that specializes in keeping kids for a fifth year so they’re better recruits for college football. There’s tons of Ohio State football players who played multiple sports, but to go pro like Eddie George, you have to build your life around it. Because specializing is how you go from great to the best.
Corporate life has the same rules. You can be a parent and work full-time, but you can’t get to the top while making your kids a higher priority than work. Really. People at the top hand over parenting to someone else.
I say this a lot. And then people tell me, “I don’t need to be CEO. I just want an interesting job.”
And then I say, “How can things be interesting if you’re not trying to be the best?” You can’t be great at three sports or three instruments or three careers. I don’t want to do the work equivalent of three sports. It’s so insanely uninteresting to me to just be OK at something.
But when I start pounding my fists and shouting about the difference – commitment, focus, determination, grit, risk – people say, “Oh. I don’t want to do all that. I just want to [insert some mediocre version of what they are doing here].” Those people sound so rational, but I’ve spent my life trying to be great.
I am so enthralled with the relativism of being great – that’s the arena I’m always trying to be in, even though I think it’s killing me. Also, I look at that picture of my son being little and playing football not very well, and I am happy thinking about him being happy playing.
I can’t tell if I’m exhausted or changing or both.
So few people understand the gulf between the top and the very top. Most people know they don’t want to work hard enough to be the very best, but they still want to be learning and growing. But that level of constant engagement is really intense. Very few people want to live that intensely. Because it’s exhausting.
Science says you’re always going to want 20% more than what you have – whether it be money or skills or recognition. We get used to where we are and then it’s not exciting anymore so we want more. We always want more. It’s human nature.
You actually have to approach your entire life differently. You have to want the crazy life of singular focus.
Which is why talking about how to be the best is sort of boring. Because being the best disrupts all calibration in your life.
People who are trying to do something huge are on the fringe. They are doing stuff no one else is trying to do. They are taking risks no one else relates to. Most of the time you can’t even talk to people trying to do something huge. Because those people don’t ever leave their office unless the hugeness requires leaving. They’re overly invested to the point of being irrelevant in any social gathering or reasonable conversation.
Until they are big and great, that is.
Which may be never.