Trekking in Nepal near Kagbeni. Photo by John Pavelka via Flickr/Creative Commons

Find the Frontier

If you want to become a world-class violinist, there’s only one way to do it: practice like a demon. Don’t even think that 5,000 hours of high-intensity, “deliberate practice” by age 18 will get you there. The true virtuoso puts in far more effort, as this landmark study attests. There’s similar evidence from the worlds of sports, chess, ballet and so on. Such examples inspired author Malcolm Gladwell to assert that 10,000 hours of practice may be the universal gateway to greatness.

But I’m here today to talk about shortcuts.

Go into a brand new new field, there’s no need for such a long apprenticeship, because all the pioneers are making things up as they go along. Target a field in flux, and you can be rapidly rewarded for bringing insights from unexpected other areas. Accept the upheavals involved with moving to a new city, and you can accelerate your career to an amazing degree by relocating to the locale that defines your field’s future.

Put simply, if you can get to the frontier fast enough, you can enjoy a big impact — long before your counterparts in classical music have mastered Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

That message hit home earlier this month, when I listened to a fascinating group of achievers describe their career paths, during a one-day symposium on “The Liberal Arts in Action.” (The Washington, D.C. event was sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges.) We heard from software pioneers, philanthropists, a brain scientist, university presidents and a newspaper editor. I’ve grouped their insights into three categories, as follows.

Head to the unknown: Either by accident or design, millions of people end up working in fields that didn’t exist yet when they finished their formal education. That’s a good thing, says James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Adaptability — and a knack for spotting new opportunities — can translate into new careers that are both unpredictable and rewarding.

In her book “Mindset,” Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck argues that some people avoid unproven territory because they fear that failure might lie ahead. Others welcome the new, because that’s where learning happens. As life plays out, it’s the second path that often offers the best opportunities.

2. Learn outside your discipline: At St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota, David Rose double-majored in physics and fine arts. Eccentric combination? Not the way Rose’s career has played out. He has brought an artist’s sensibility to all sorts of areas of technology, including weather-sensitive umbrellas, smarter ways of analyzing Twitter streams, and Internet-connected medication packaging.

Another case in point, leading neuroscientist William Newsome, who punctuated his early scientific training at Stetson University with electives on philosophy and religion. Irrelevant distraction? Not at all. At the CIC conference, Newsome credited those early intellectual explorations with giving him a richer perspective, many years later, on what we really mean when we talk about cognition.

I jumped into this fray myself a few months ago, responding to a Quora question from an incoming Stanford student who wanted advice on how best to prepare for a career as a hedge-fund analyst. “For heaven’s sake,” I wrote, “try to get more out of the university than just a narrowly defined trade school.” Among my recommendations: classes in world history, machine learning, philosophy and screenwriting — all with the goal of becoming a better-rounded person who could think about investments with greater imagination and insight.

3. Move to where the action is. At the CIC conference, we heard from journalist and author James B. Stewart, who grew up in Quincy, Ill. (pop. 40,633) and studied at DePauw University, a small liberal-arts school in Greencastle, Ind. Most DePauw graduates stay close to campus after graduation. But Stewart’s professors encouraged him to try for a spot at Harvard Law School, which he won. A few years later, he moved to New York, first to practice law and then later to write for leading national publications. In his line of work, being in New York opens opportunities that just don’t exist elsewhere.

Berkeley economics professor Enrico Moretti, in his book “The New Geography of Jobs,” documents the ways that certain cities become magnets for talent. Incomes and opportunities rise, not just in the city’s best-known field, but for a wide range of other careers, too. His map of the U.S. includes not just the traditional hot spots of Washington, New York and Silicon Valley, but a fascinating collection of other ones as well. If you want to pursue fame and fortune as chef, for example, your best bet is Las Vegas, with its abundant convention traffic.

Each of these shortcuts requires a willingness to jump into the unknown. Yet some people turn out to be well-suited to the never-ending adjustments and remixing that such a life ensues. In fact, liberal arts colleges ought to be uniquely good at creating such “varsity-level adapters,” contends Jenifer Ward, provost of Centenary College of Louisiana.

Accept the zigzags that come from not knowing what you’ll be doing in five years’ time — and you can keep moving forward without the burdens of competing in areas where the 10,000-hour rule has taken hold.

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