Last week I wrote about how my own interaction with Serena Williams — as well as King Richard, the new film about her father — added nuance to the straightforward tennis-prodigy story I had absorbed.
And while the research is unequivocal that delaying hyperspecialization is the typical path for elite athletes, there is still a tremendous amount of individual variability. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise with something as complex and multifaceted as human development.
In other words, even though they are the exception — not the norm — there are true “Tiger stories” of success, as I’ve come to call the tales of singular focus from a very early age. The literal Tiger story, after all, is the opening of my book, Range. But even that story, I think, deserves a tad bit of nuance.
In 2000, a Golf Digest writer ended an interview with Tiger with this question:
Earl Woods didn’t lord over every hour of Tiger’s practice. In fact, when Tiger was four, he would drop him off at a course, and pick him up later in the day — sometimes with the money he’d won from those foolish enough to doubt.
When Earl first gave Tiger a club he was no longer using, it was as a toy, not in an attempt to force him into becoming a golfer.
There is no doubt that Tiger had a very unusual, and very 10,000-hoursy childhood — he was on national television swinging a club at age two, after all. (Once when we chatted about this, Malcolm Gladwell called it a “human cat video,” which I still find hilarious.) Still, according to Tiger, he also played baseball and ran cross-country and track. But it’s Tiger’s response to that Golf Digest question that I want to focus on, because it brings up an important point — one that is also missed in the one story of prodigy that may be as world-famous as Tiger’s own.
Tiger Before Tiger
In a letter to Mozart’s sister in 1792 — the year after Mozart died at age 35 — family friend and musician Andre Schachtner recounted an experience with the young Wolfgang Mozart.
Schachtner and another musician visited the Mozart home to play with Wolfgang’s father, Leopold. Schachtner was supposed to play the second violin part in a trio, but little Wolfgang spoke up and said he wanted to play that part. Schachtner recalled:
Leopold was not yet pushing his son. In fact, he had focused his musical instruction on Wolfgang’s talented older sister, Maria Anna. So Leopold scoffed at the little boy who wanted to join without having been trained. How did little Wolfgang respond? Schachtner:
Cheeky! Nonetheless, Leopold refused his son. And then:
To make the boy feel better, Schachtner asked Leopold if he could play with the boy a little.
And so they began to play together. Schachtner again:
Little Wolfgang proceeded to play all six pieces that the adults were set to practice. And then — and I love this line:
So they let him try — again assuming he couldn’t possibly.
Without formal lessons, young Mozart had made up his technique, but was still able to play the part. His father was astonished.
So here’s the important point I was getting at: In both cases — Tiger and Mozart — the child demonstrated extremely unusual interest and prowess at a very young age in a highly structured activity; only after that did the father facilitate huge amounts of focused practice.
There is no evidence that parents can simply manufacture what psychologist and prodigy-expert Ellen Winner calls the “rage to master” that was evident in Tiger and Mozart. And even long after Leopold Mozart dedicated himself to cultivating Wolfgang’s passion, he still found his son — at certain times — to be lazy. In a letter when Mozart was in his 20s, Leopold wrote: “I should feel quite easy in my mind were it not that I have detected in my son an outstanding fault, which is, that he is far too patient or rather easy-going, too indolent…”
As I discuss at length in Range, playing golf and classical music are not really good models for most other things people want to learn, so we should be careful about extrapolating from them in the first place. That said, even if our goal as a society were to create as many Tigers and Mozarts as humanly possible, I think the research suggests that our best approach wouldn’t be to specialize everyone out of the womb, but rather to provide a sampling period and see if anything lights a kid’s fire the way golf did for Tiger and music did for Mozart.
Here’s how I think about it as a parent: my role is to expose my kid to a variety of interesting options (and of course, these will always be limited by what’s available to me). Then I help him reflect on the experiences and learn as much as he can from each opportunity, including about his own interests, abilities, and options.
My hope, ultimately, would be that he learns something valuable from each thing he tries, and also starts the lifelong journey toward high match quality — i.e. the degree of fit between who a person is and what they do. (Systematic reflection during learning, or metacognition, by the way, is a hallmark of “self-regulatory learning.” An important topic that I’m sure I’ll write about before long!)
I want to pick up on that note next week, because I just recently visited the Pentagon to learn more about a new program meant to help Army officers improve their match quality. I don't intend to liken my parenting style to the military in general, but it gave me a useful analogy for thinking about childrearing;)
P.S. The translation of Schachtner’s letter is from Mozart: A Documentary Biography, by Otto Erich Deutsch.