Time and time again, I hear this aspiration of “well-roundedness” being perpetuated. Being good at everything surely must get you what you want—those good schools, great internships, and even better jobs that will inevitably propel you into a successful career and thereby successful life.
It’s a myth.
As a high school student applying to college, you need to be strong academically and take the hardest classes. You need to ace your standardized tests. You need to show leadership and sustained involvement in extracurriculars. And you probably need to volunteer a bit on the side to give back to the community, to show that you’re not just a happy robot.
As a college student applying to jobs? Well, those great jobs at high-flying banks or consulting firms can be yours, too—provided you have a good GPA, a few summers at big brand companies where you’ve made noteworthy impact, a few gigs on committees of campus clubs, and a healthy social life to make all the contacts you need to even be considered for interviews in the first place. And on and on. Sound about right?
Turns out, the all-around superstar is not a superstar at all—nobody remembers the guy who was pretty good at everything. Yet the myth lives on.
The danger of well-roundedness is that well-roundedness of the individual gets confused with well-roundedness of the group. And while the latter is to be desired because we are community-oriented beings operating in a social context, the former is futile to aspire to. It’s great if your college has an Olympic pole vaulter, a New York Times columnist, and an aspiring particle physics PhD. But they most certainly will not and should not be the same person.
The implications are all too real.
Can you imagine starting a company and writing job descriptions for people who are pretty good at all of the above: programming, sales, finance, marketing, and design? Maybe you want your heart surgeon to have had a former life as an optometrist and podiatrist…I sure don’t. Stanley Kubrick never professed to be an academic all-star, and the world of cinematography thanks him for it.
The truth is, as much as well-roundedness seems like it would be good, we’re dazzled and intrigued and impressed by spikes in ability so much more. Once you’ve truly maxed out in any one area, all you really need to do is to check the “sufficient” box for the rest.
There’s a clear mismatch between what schools, recruiters, and companies say they’re looking for and what is actually valued. It’s foolish to delude ourselves into thinking well-roundedness reigns supreme, when in reality, as the rubber hits the road, it’s specialization and disproportionate ability in something that make you interesting.
As we leave the old, one-path-fits-all system, the metric that replaces well-roundedness is a convincing narrative—the story and brand you create for yourself based off of your collective experiences and coveted skills.
Being specialized doesn’t have to mean being a one-trick pony. But at the end of the day, even a one-trick pony will get more eyes and love than a jack of all trades.