A polymath, commonly referred to as a Renaissance Man or Woman, is an individual that has an interest in a variety of fields and a level of expertise or professionalism in each of them. A few of the most well-known polymaths are Galileo, Benjamin Franklin, and Leonardo de Vinci. These individuals are often highly praised and revered because of their successes in a variety of fields. But what if their wide-ranging interests are the very reason for their accomplishments?

David Epstein had this same question as it related to sports. Do the best athletes become the best because they specialize at an early age? Or do they become the best because they choose not to specialize? As his book suggests, is there a Sports Gene?

Many of the top sports performers are highly competitive in several sports. Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson, Serena Williams, Steve Nash and many more have showed levels of brilliance in multiple sports and likely could have topped the podiums in other sports had they chosen a different path. 

So, what does that mean for you and me? How should we approach the things we do? How should we raise our children to be? In a specialized world, should we be concerned over spreading ourselves too thin in a variety of interests? How effective is cross-training? Answers to these questions and more can be found on today’s Running for Real Episode. Join in!

Sunk Cost Fallacy

One of the surest ways to be great, is to do something that you can stand to do day in and day out. Many people call this “finding your passion” or “finding your life calling.” If you do what you love, it would make sense that you want to do it well and do it consistently.

While it may not be necessary to discover your life calling in order to be happy and successful, it certainly doesn’t hurt. The single most deterring factor in doing those things you love is called the “Sunk Cost Fallacy.”

When you begin down a certain career path and invest a lot of time or money into developing your talents in that field, it is difficult to justify changing directions. Those that practice medicine or law can come out of school with enough debt to last a lifetime and can’t even fathom changing careers because of that burden.

This fallacy haunts us in a variety of ways in life. It stops some people from being able to choose a major in college at all. It tells us that we are too old to switch sports. It forces us to continue using our iPhone or Android even when we think we would like the other better. 

The truth is, you have a choice. You can change careers, music subscriptions, shoe brands, or sports. In fact, many of the studies show that as you choose to have variety, your chances of success skyrocket.

Experiment with Yourself (Skill Stacking)

David has become an expert at being a beginner. He was a walk-on college athlete that went on to set an 800m record, a student of astronomy and environmental science where he did research in the Arctic Circle, a two-time bestselling author, and a journalist for Sport’s Illustrated and ProPublica.

Finding things that interest you is David’s passion. He is an advocate for Gap Years, career changes, and personal experiments. Finding things that interest you is important to your well-being, but just as important is the process of finding.

Most people in today’s work force will switch jobs and careers several times, even if you stay within the same company. David suggest that each of us should practice skill stacking—the process of cognitively getting out of ruts of competence. 

The world is changing, and to keep up, we should perform many mini experiments with ourselves to find the things that interest us and bring us pleasure. This will teach us how to move on to a new job or solve a new problem, and we are sure to find golden eggs of interest along the way.

Practice, not Theory

David’s final advice is that “we learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” It isn’t enough to take a personality test and then follow the results. We need to get out there and just try things.

Read a new type of book, try another sport, accept a new project at work, travel to a new city, eat a new type of food. As you experience more of life you will learn to enjoy the experience and are sure to find more things you love.


David on Twitter

David’s Website

Maria Konnikova on Twitter

(Book)The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

(Book) Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

(Book) Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia

(Book) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Listen to the Running for Real Podcast here:

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Thank you to Bodyhealth, Athletic Greens, and UCAN for being the wonderful sponsors of this episode of
The Running For Real Podcast.

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Thanks for Listening! I hope you enjoyed today’s episode.

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Thank you to David, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.

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