Don’t Be an Insect

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

– Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love (via Tim Ferriss)

High school isn’t the time to specialize. There’s so much out there to learn, both in the classroom and on the field. The more different situations you can experience, the more prepared you will be for the wildly different scenarios that life will throw your way.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t fully invest yourself into the things you do, because I strongly believe that you should. You just shouldn’t get stuck doing just one thing. If you approach it the right way, you can learn from experiences in different areas in your life, and actually apply lessons across these different activities.

Let’s look at sports as an example. Some people recommend that you only play one sport if you want to be good. That you should choose your sport early, and put everything behind it.

I completely disagree.

If you want to be a good athlete, and a more well-rounded individual, I recommend that you try several different things. Think about the lessons you can learn in different situations.

Team sports teach you to work with others. You learn to read your teammates, communicate in stressful situations, rely on others, and be someone who others can count. There’s no substitute for the bond that a team can build throughout the course of a season. You learn what’s it like to be part of something bigger than yourself.

These are all great lessons that will directly apply later in life. But at the same time, you’re missing out if you don’t experience individual sports as well. Individual sports take courage and discipline to a whole new level. When you’re competing, you’re on your own. Your success is completely dependent on your performance as an individual. That’s pressure.

There’s something terrifying about walking up to a starting line, and looking at your opponent, knowing that the winner of the race will likely be whomever is willing to do the most suffering over the duration of the event. The preparation and the physical training has been completed well before the day of the meet. When the race finally comes, it’s all mental. It’s about who is going to be tougher in that moment.

I never played other individual sports, but I imagine that they’re very similar. Whether it’s wrestling, tennis, golf, or whatever you might play; there’s no substitute for the accountability that you face in an individual sport.

There’s no blaming your teammate if you fail. Everything about the outcome on that day comes down to you.

This pressure teaches you something about yourself. Are you the type of person who can rise above this pressure and give your best performance when you need it most?

Beyond the benefits that you get by being exposed to different types of sports, the actual skills learned in the different sports often transfer as well. The toughness and aggression I picked up from football was incredibly helpful in basketball. It made me a better rebounder and helped me be a better defender in the post. On the other hand, the footwork and shiftiness I learned playing basketball transferred to the football field. The misdirection from dribbling practice came in handy when I was trying to shed a block or juke a defender.

 

Taking it even further, you shouldn’t just be an athlete, or a great student, or a musician. You can do it all.

Becoming a well-rounded individual is the way to go. It lets you lead a more interesting life, and it opens doors for you in the future.

As this article points out, the best learners are the people who are able to apply concepts from different areas. Elon Musk, Ben Franklin, and Arianna Huffington aren’t people who did one thing for their whole life. They applied themselves in several areas, and then were mindful enough to find the opportunities to apply principles and techniques from one activity to another. That’s where the breakthroughs happen.

Many of the biggest innovations have come form people bringing expertise form one field to another. The aerospace industry is looking to the automotive world to figure out how to cut costs and automate their manufacturing processes. Some of the best business leaders utilize the lessons they learned from their sports careers.

The discipline of sitting down to learn a new song on piano has helped me be a better student. The deep focus I learned when at the free throw line allows me to get into an incredibly productive state at work when I have a deadline approach.

This wouldn’t be possible if everyone had just focused on one thing,

You’re not an insect.

Don’t specialize.

Exercise

Think about how a principle from one area in your life can apply to another area. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

-Brandon