Why You Shouldn’t Try to Be Well-Rounded

I made a mistake in high school. I made many, but one in particular sticks out in my mind.

I made it a goal to be the valedictorian of my school. I took as many AP classes as I could find to take to grab that weighted A (the one that would give you 5 points on the GPA vs the standard 4). I took 5th year German (directed study with a teacher who is just excited some guy cares enough to take a 5th year in German).

My goal was to win a little prize. And the trophy (somewhere in a plastic bin at my house) is small.  The way to get that prize was to chase a well-rounded curriculum that allowed for optimal GPA results.

Not one time did I do a deep dive into these questions:

  • What are you really good at?
  • What do you love to do?

At 16 or 17, I didn’t have to ask the question, “What is a marketable skill?”  I could have explored the things I loved to do and the things I was good at, perhaps discovering connections between what I loved and where I had skill.

The upshot of chasing after a trophy was that I became well-rounded.

Sure, being well-rounded can simply show varied interests, the classic Renaissance man or woman. It can also mean that we don’t have focus or we punt our interests and skills for fulfilling others’ expectations.

In my humble but accurate opinion, being well-rounded is not a worthy goal.

don't be well-rounded
Photo Credit: Percita via Compfight cc

Ball or Spear?

A ball bounces from thing to thing. It can be fun for a bit and then you put it up. It can provide a source of joy and give you a little exercise, but if you ever need a tool to accomplish something, you grab something with a sharp point… not a ball.

A screwdriver, a knife, scissors, a spear. When you want to be effective, you sharpen something and go to work.

When you focus on becoming well-rounded, you become the equivalent of a human ball. You might be able to touch on a bunch of topics, but you also might struggle to find the one area where you know you can make a massive difference.

When you learn to hone your strengths and the things you love, you develop a sharpness and a focus, that impacts the world around you.

Most high achievers that we respect forsook ridiculous amounts of opportunity in order to focus on a single goal.  Nearly every inspirational documentary or biography shows a person who did only a couple things really well (although after a life of focusing on consistent improvement in that one area, other opportunities came at the right time later).

These individuals were spears, sharp spears that made deep impact.  The fact is, we can all be spears, we just need to sharpen ourselves a bit.

Focus on Your Gifts

I was reminded of this myth of well-roundedness again recently when I listened to the Lewis Howes Podcast on focusing on your gifts.

We too often try to strengthen our weaknesses instead of learning to leverage our strengths.

Think about what you do throughout the day. Do you feel the whole day is a battle to do well at something that you either (a) can’t stand doing or (b) don’t feel particularly gifted to do?

Yes… all work will require us to venture out of our strengths into areas of weakness. We must grow, but at the same time, we must scan the horizon for opportunities to use the gifts we have.

For instance, I love to write, and I sense I have some bit of aptitude for it, crude though it might be. In every job I’ve ever had (minus the stint as a Cracker Barrel server), I’ve looked for opportunities to write, whether to benefit the job or on the side.

Also, my eight year old daughter would readily admit that math ain’t her thing. My goal has been to make sure she learns the subject well enough, but I don’t have any hopes she finds herself in AP Calculus in high school. I’d rather she spend her energy diving deep into her love of singing and writing. That’s where she derives joy, and that’s where she brings joy to others.

If I forced her to be a well-rounded student, to get all A’s in math and always be in the advanced classes, then I’d be missing it (again, in my humble but accurate opinion).

What’s My Point?

There are a few takeaways. I’ll bullet point them and leave you alone:

  • Don’t beat yourself up over your weaknesses: I hereby release you from the need to prove yourself in an area that is no longer relevant. Let’s call that a skill appendix – unnecessary to hold onto after you passed the class.Feel free to give yourself a weakness appendectomy.
  • Give yourself white space to play in your strengths: Take a class, read a book, practice.
  • Identify the strengths in your kids, friends, spouse, siblings: Many people simply don’t realize what their strengths are. They spend all their time doing what’s expected. Help them to see the awesome that they bring to the table. Notice others and encourage them.
  • Find opportunities to use your skills, gifts, and passions in your work: Most of us have a little bit of leeway at work to shade things toward what we’re good at. Find those opportunities and leverage. You might discover it benefits your career.
  • Enjoy your life: I’m not saying to eat chocolate for breakfast or do snow angels in your grass. I’m saying give yourself permission to do stuff you love.
  • Don’t worry about missing out: One of my fears about not having skill in everything from cooking to fishing to carpentry to sales to accounting is that I’ll miss out on an opportunity. In truth, the opportunities come when the joy comes through in what you’re doing. And joy comes through when you skillfully do the things you love.

For a much more succinct and experienced perspective on focusing one or two things, check out this short piece from Elon Musk‘s (of Tesla fame – the car, not the band) first wife.


I’d love to hear your thoughts… drop them in the comments: How do you dive deep into doing the things you love, that bring you joy, and wherein you’re gifted?


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