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McGowans just don’t do sports that way.
Connor McGowan

My kids are sportier than ever I was — which is to say they play sports, period, at all. But I’d never thought much about the way they do it until last week when I overheard Connor (16), Erin (14), and Becca talking about it.

Connor’s done T-ball, soccer, football, basketball, and wrestling…each for 1-2 years. Erin was on swim team and played soccer and basketball, then dabbled in track before finding and adoring volleyball. Delaney (10) has done two years swimming and six years of rec-level soccer. Regardless of length, they’ve all been low key, and each sport has competed for time and focus with a lot of other dabblings — acting, photography, science, guitar, piano, paintball, graphic design, and the art of sitting around.

Erin’s on the cusp of her freshman year and planning to try out for the high school volleyball team, so she’s attending a volleyball training program two mornings a week, run by the high school coach. Erin has terrific skills and has come a long way in recent years. Still, this program is really pushing her both physically and in terms of skill development, in part because she’s encountering The Ones Who Live to Volley— girls whose exit from the womb was preceded by a wicked spike. Erin loves volleyball, but these girls ARE volleyball. She brings four years of YMCA ball with her, while they’ve got eight years of bloodcurdling competitive league play. Some of them train with a private coach instead of Dad in the driveway. It shows…and it’s kind of freaking her out.

Boy, do I get it.

Erin was describing these Übervolleymädchen when Connor offered his observation that McGowans just don’t do sports that way. He really could have said we don’t do anything that way. We’re not monomaniacal focusers, he explained. We’re dabblers. We’re generalists. “That’s good,” he said. “You don’t want to let one thing take over your life.”

The voice in my head had come out to play.

I’d never thought of this as a family trait, but it certainly sums me up…for better and worse. My life could be described as the continuous inability to walk into the Baskin-Robbins of life and pick a damn flavor, from hobbies to college majors to actual careers. As a result, I’ve been pretty good at a dozen things but master of nothing. Before I get a chance to dig in and own something, really own it, the squirrel in my periphery — a different instrument to play, a different major, a different course to teach or book to read or career to try — that pretty, fluffy squirrel gets itself good and chased. Until I see a chipmunk, ooh!!

Even within a given rodent, I never stand still long enough to acquire genuine depth or experience. When somebody once introduced me before a speech as a “Renaissance man,” I winced. That’s just an insult to the 16th century. Da Vinci somehow dipped his whole damn self into each of the many things he did, while I’m like a wine taster with a gnat’s attention span. By the end of the day, I’ve tasted a hundred vintages and am not even slightly drunk because most of the wine is on the front of my shirt. Oh sure, I’m “better rounded” than I would otherwise be, which is great, but SQUIRREL!!!

Though I can’t join them, I’ve always been grateful for people with the focus to get insanely good at one thing. We owe the modern world to them. But I’m a generalist, skating over the lovely surface of their achievements, and my kids are too. We each know a little about a whole lot. I really love that approach to life, but once in a while it bites me on the ass — like every time Dabbling Dale is tinkering with a new shiny thing, only to be tapped on the shoulder by The One Who Has Mastered The Shiny Thing You Are Now Holding Upside Down.

They don’t mean to tap the shoulder. Well pfft actually yes, they sometimes do. My greatest humiliations were intentional shoulder taps by one Thing-Masterer or another. Right now Erin is encountering a less intentional but still difficult consequence of being a dancing, sampling generalist instead of a specialist.

There’s another downside, one that is catching up with me in a big way lately. I blogged recently about flow, and my love of the idea, and the fact that I just don’t experience it that often. Maybe if I had stopped to develop one area more intensely instead of hopscotching full time, I could achieve those deeper flow experiences that elude me.

When I heard Connor trying to make Erin feel better by identifying generalism as a family trait, and a good one at that, I was really mixed. In addition to the flow question, the specialized paths are much better lit. It was never the thing for me, at all, but in addition to the undeniable thrill of seeing the world in a complexly synthesized way, there’s been some real hell to pay for being a generalist.

Yes I know, it’s not either-or. Except it is. If you try to be a specialist with some added breadth, you will, eventually and repeatedly, run into The Specialist Without Breadth who (with a permission slip from Darwin) will happily crush you underfoot on the way to the medal podium.

I’m trying to be aware of this “family trait” of generalism, and most days, I still feel it’s the better way. But that’s partly because of who I am, of course. I need to let my kids know there’s another valid way, and that specializing has massive payoffs of its own. If they do keep following me into the general, they need to know they are in for a fascinating trip, the occasional humiliation, and a shirtful of really great wine.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.