Grown-Up Reads

The Cult of the Head Start:
An Argument for Letting Kids Dabble

by David Epstein

Photo credit: miodrag ignjatovic, E+ Collection/Getty Images

An instant New York Times bestseller, Range by David Epstein is a powerful argument for how to succeed in any field: develop broad interests and skills. In this excerpt David shares how parents who encourage their children to try a myriad of different interests are more likely to succeed, versus the “Tiger parent” method of specializing early.

In the genre of modern self-help narratives, music training has stood beside golf atop the podium, exemplars of the power of a narrowly focused head start in highly technical training. Whether it is the story of Tiger Woods or the Yale law professor known as the Tiger Mother, the message is the same: choose early, focus narrowly, never waver.

The Tiger Mother’s real name is Amy Chua, and she coined the term in her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Like Tiger, the Tiger Mother permeated popular culture. Chua advertised the secrets to “how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids.” On the very first page of the very first chapter is the litany of things Sophia and Lulu must never do, including: “play any instrument other than the piano or the violin.” (Sophia gets piano, Lulu is assigned violin.) Chua supervised three, four, and sometimes five hours of music practice a day.

Parents in online forums agonize over what instrument to pick for their child, because the child is too young to pick for herself and will fall irredeemably behind if she waits. “I am slowly trying to convince him how nice playing music is,” a parent of a two-and‑a‑half­year­old posted. “I am just not too sure which instrument would be best.” Another post advised nixing violin if a child has not started by seven, as she will be too far behind. In response to such concerns, the director of a private music school wrote a “how to choose” advice column with tips for picking an instrument for a child who can’t yet stick with the same favorite color from one week to the next.

There are, of course, many routes to expertise. Some outstanding musicians have focused very young. The supreme cellist Yo‑Yo Ma is a well-known example. Less well known, though, is that Ma started on violin, moved to piano, and then to the cello because he didn’t really like the first two instruments. He just went through the sampling period a lot faster than the typical student.

Tiger parents are trying to skip that phase entirely. It reminds me of a conversation I had with Ian Yates, a British sports scientist and coach who helped develop future professional athletes in a range of sports. Parents, Yates told me, increasingly come to him and “want their kids doing what the Olympians are doing right now, not what the Olympians were doing when they were twelve or thirteen,” which included a wider variety of activities that developed their general athleticism and allowed them to probe their talents and interests before they focused narrowly on technical skills. The sampling period is not incidental to the development of great performers—something to be excised in the interest of a head start—it is integral.

John Sloboda is undoubtedly one of the most influential researchers in the psychology of music. His 1985 book, The Musical Mind, ranged from the origins of music to the acquisition of playing skill, and set a research agenda that the field is still carrying out today. Through the 1990s, Sloboda and his colleagues studied strategies for musical growth. Practice, unsurprisingly, was a lynchpin in the development of musicians. But the details were less intuitive.

A study of music students aged 8 to 18 and ranging in skill from rote novices to students in a highly selective music school, found that when they began training there was no difference in the amount of practice undertaken between any of the groups of players, from the least to the most accomplished. The students who would go on to be most successful only started practicing more once they identified an instrument they wanted to focus on, whether because they were better at it or just liked it more. The instrument, it appeared, was driving the practitioner, rather than the reverse.

In a separate study of 1,200 young musicians, those who quit reported “a mismatch between the instruments [they] wanted to learn to play and the instruments they actually played.” Amy Chua described her daughter Lulu as a “natural musician.” Chua’s singer friend called Lulu “extraordinary,” with a gift “no one can teach.” Lulu made rapid progress on the violin, but pretty soon told her mother, ominously, “You picked it, not me.” At 13, Lulu quit most of her violin activities. Chua, candid and introspective, wondered in the coda of her book if Lulu would still be playing if she had been allowed to choose her own instrument.

When Sloboda and a colleague conducted a study with students at a British boarding school that recruited from around the country—admission rested entirely on an audition—they were surprised to find that the students classified as exceptional by the school came from less musically active families compared to less accomplished students, did not start playing at a younger age, were less likely to have had an instrument in the home at a young age, had taken fewer lessons prior to entering the school, and had simply practiced less overall before arriving—a lot less. “It seems very clear,” the psychologists wrote, “that sheer amount of lesson or practice time is not a good indicator of exceptionality.” As to structured lessons, every single one of the students who had received a large amount of structured lesson time early in development fell into the “average” skill category, and not one was in the exceptional group. “The strong implication,” the researchers wrote, “are that too many lessons at a young age may not be helpful.”

“However,” they continued, “the distribution of effort across different instruments seems important. Those children identified as exceptional…turn out to be those children who distributed their effort more evenly across three instruments.” The less skilled students tended to spend their time on the first instrument they picked up, as if they could not give up a perceived head start. “The modest investment in a third instrument paid off handsomely for the exceptional children,” the scientists concluded.

Sloboda highlighted the variety of paths to excellence, but the most common was a sampling period, often lightly structured with some lessons and a breadth of instruments and activities, followed only later by a narrowing of focus, increased structure, and an explosion of practice volume. A study that followed up on Sloboda’s work two decades later compared young musicians admitted to a competitive conservatory to similarly committed but less skilled music students. Nearly all of the more accomplished students had played at least three instruments, proportionally much more than the lower level students, and more than half played four or five. Learning to play classical music is a narrative lynchpin for the cult of the head start. It comes with a blueprint; errors are immediately apparent; it requires repetitive practice of the exact same task until execution becomes automatic and deviation is minimal. How could picking an instrument as early as possible and starting in technical training not be the standard path to success? And yet, even classical music defies a simple Tiger story.



Excerpted from Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. © 2019 by David Epstein. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.