I recently finished David Epstein’s new book “Range, Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”. It’s a great book, well reported as would be expected, but also advancing an idea that has been overlooked and under-appreciated. As Epstein tells it, those who have the broadest range of experiences are those who find the best career fit for their skills and personality and are best able to come up with practical solutions to novel problems. Having “range” gets you the best career for you and helps make you really good at that career.
Besides the fact that this is an interesting idea of itself, I couldn’t help but be struck with how well this idea described a lot of what we do at Maine Teen Camp. We are quite proudly a general interest summer camp, catering to an age group that is pressured to become increasingly specialized. Many current and former camper parents have probably heard me say that specialization is great for insects, but not so healthy for human adolescents. We’ve always believed that a generalized summer experience is beneficial for ALL teenagers, and now Epstein has explained a big chunk of the why.
First, we have what could be called “diversity of training”. A lot of our campers are competitive athletes, gifted performers or artists, or any combination thereof. They could certainly attend high level tennis, music, soccer, running, theater or whatever specialized program purely on merit. But they realize that there is a tremendous value in taking a break from the pursuit of a single skill in order to engage in a wide variety of different skills. For athletics, it is easy to see how playing tennis could improve a soccer players footwork, but we also know that performing in the camp show can help a tennis player learn how to deal with the stress of performing in high level competition. Whether on stage or on court, dealing with everyone watching is a skill to be learned and practiced.
Another benefit that comes from exploring a variety of activities during the summer flows from what Epstein and researchers would call match quality, what you might think of as fit. Do you fit the activity; does it maximize your strengths? Epstein points out that despite the rise of a massive industry of testing and analytics that claims to be able to tell what your best fit is simply by taking a personality test, the only proven way to find the right fit is doing stuff. You must try all sorts of different things to find the ones you make a match with. Unfortunately, trying a wide variety of different activities in the real world can be extremely costly, in time, money, and opportunity. The beauty of a general purpose, elective camp like MTC is that the costs to try, and to fail, are minimized. Buying an electric guitar and amp to learn on, only to find you hate it, is expensive at home. Taking a guitar lesson at camp then deciding you’d rather be in the pottery studio? No big deal. And when we lower these costs, when we reduce these barriers, we broaden the range that teenagers will consider, leading to wider experimentation and a better chance of finding real match quality.
This idea of match quality is also closely linked to the common fear of failure and the pervasive, corrosive, perfectionism that has exploded in recent years. Failure is an essential part of education, a defining part of learning anything. Perfection is famously invoked when risk of failure is involved, a way for an individual to avoid trying and failing, they don't want to do something unless they can do it perfectly. At camp we recognize perfection - there are perfect sunsets, perfect moonlit nights, perfectly gorgeous loon calls. Nature gets a pass, for the rest of us, perfection can be a goal, but it is never a measure. Effort is what counts, have we applied our best effort? Do we learn from that effort? There is a saying among craftsmen that we all do well to keep in mind in all our endeavors - "If you never made a mistake, you never made anything". Camp is an ideal place to learn to take the risks that lead to learning and growth. We don't keep track of a GPA
Epstein points out an additional, very important aspect of generalization that we fully embrace at camp. The idea that you need to get good at something early (he calls it the obsession with precocity). We see evidence every summer that this idea simply can’t stand up in the real world - that individuals who take up new skills during adolescence or adulthood are just as likely to excel as those who took up a skill during childhood. Take a simple example that we see every summer at camp, learning to cook. Frustratingly to many parents, little kids notoriously love bland foods. It is very hard to learn to be a decent cook if you don’t like flavorful food. However, as kids become adolescents, their palates expand, at the same time their motor skills develop to the point they can use knives and heat safely, and now learning to cook is a much more realistic and enjoyable experience. Adjust the example for any number of new skills and activities that a changing body shape, changing cognitive and emotional abilities, and you quickly see how absurd the notion is that if a young person isn’t good at something by their early teenage years, they’ve already “lost the race”. We challenge that belief on the strongest terms, instead arguing that all age groups should be constantly trying new and varied activities and revisiting those they may have failed at a younger age.
We sometimes feel some frustration at the camp office, when a parent of a prospective camper tells us that instead of camp, their teenager is going to attend a test prep program, or a specialized sporting or computer camp. We then let the frustration go, knowing that our campers are gaining the range of experiences that will not only allow them to succeed in college, but also find meaning and success well beyond. Helping teenagers find the things that they excel at, enjoy and find meaning in is but one aspect of the experience, but it is one we need to talk about more.