Wanted: Pointy People

The other day I was working at a coffee shop and overhead a conversation between a Navy officer and a high school kid who was interviewing for some sort of scholarship program. At one point the interviewer gave the student a few pieces of general advice, including a strong admonition to be more well-rounded. It struck me that I didn’t understand the value of being well rounded and the more I thought about it, the less sense it made. When I interview students for my group or faculty for my department I’m not remotely interested in their well-roundedness. In contrast, I’m looking for pointy people who are absolutely excellent in a few areas. If this means they gave Sister Carrie a miss in English class, dropped out of boy/girl scouts early, and never touched a tennis racket then great — I prefer people who manage their own priorities instead of meeting the bizarre collection of external expectations that seems to constitute well-roundedness. Does this mean I like boring people who only care about their area of focus? Of course not. The idea that I hate is well-roundedness for its own sake, or for the sake of pleasing others. I have friends who are good musicians or artists, who are highly athletic, who are deeply religious, who party pretty hard, and who are socially conscious. I love and value these qualities in them.

So what are people really saying when they say they want someone to be well-rounded? This question needs to be asked because well-roundedness is not inherently valuable — it’s clearly a proxy for one or more other qualities. My guesses are that:

  • Well-rounded people are probably well socialized, and are likely to interface well with others because there are shared interests.
  • Well-rounded people have a history of meeting external expectations and are likely to continue doing so.
  • Well-rounded people are those who could afford the money and time that it took to become well-rounded.
  • Well-rounded people probably meet a minimum level of intelligence because they were able to master, at least to a basic level, a diverse collection of skills.

Taken together, these qualities seem to identify people who will make wonderful cogs in the machine.

11 thoughts on “Wanted: Pointy People”

  1. Well, you said it was a Navy officer interviewing a kid. In case you haven’t noticed, the Navy *is* a huge machine, and they need cogs.

    I definitely agree that being well-rounded isn’t inherently valuable. But neither is being outstanding in one particular discipline. Take the guy on the African plains who can run 20MPH for 400 meters – on a track that might win him a gold medal, but in the bush, it’s useless (any predator can outrun that). So it’s situational.

    You say you hate well-roundedness for its own sake. I’d agree, and I’m sure we’d both say that’s our opinion/perspective. But it’s not clear from what you wrote that the Navy officer was saying “be well-rounded for the sake of being well-rounded.” Maybe there was more that you observed, and it’s just not in this post. But who knows? Maybe the kid spent all his time playing computer games & reading Sci Fi, and the officer was encouraging him to get some exercise, do some writing and socialize more. Those things are beneficial, PERIOD, whether you’re an academic, a postman or a CEO.

    Don’t forget your perspective might be a little skewed (I said might), coming from academia. In academia, you need to excel at one (or a small handful) of things, perhaps at the exclusion of almost everything else. In industry, the better fit for a “typical” position is the “jack of many trades, master of none”.

  2. Maybe what should be asked for is someone who can do all the parts of the job at hand, plus bring something else/new to the group.

  3. Hi David- My perspective is certainly skewed, I had part of the post about that but then deleted it as irrelevant.

    Anyway I certainly wasn’t trying to pick on the interviewer here, just using him as a convenient motivation for something that annoyed me all the way back to when people were telling me to be more well-rounded :).

  4. One of the challenges I have in helping undergraduate students write grad school applications is that they try too hard to show that they are well-rounded. They were, of course, heavily programmed to do so when applying to colleges, and are applying that programming to grad school. I have to emphasize to them that grad schools could really care less about that stuff, for the reasons you outlined.

  5. I wonder though, do you consider yourself as well rounded? Would you be just a little bit upset if someone said you weren’t?

    Could you be a professor managing undergraduates and researchers without being well rounded?

  6. Hi Paul- I would not be upset if someone said I wasn’t well-rounded and resent the implication that I am :).

    The operating definition of well-roundedness seems to be “gets good grades and has consistent high participation in extra-curricular activities.” In 1990 when I graduated from high school I met neither of these criteria (my grades were not terrible, but I fell outside of the top third of my class).

  7. I will disagree with your position. I think that being “well-rounded” can be a great asset for anyone.

    I have seen great students that fail in the job market because they are simply not skilled in having a conversation in a basic social setting. I guess you know that there are many faculty applicants that get rejected not because of problems with their research but because they are not a “good fit” for the department.

    Everything else being equal, the more “well-rounded” candidate often has the advantage. People do not want to be around cuckoo cases, no matter how brilliant they are. Yes, there are the exceptions, but I think that we over-emphasize their prevalence. Most faculty members are “well-rounded”, in addition to having a deep expertise in their own field.

  8. There’s another reason to be not too pointy in grad school. Life is tough and full of frustrations. If your work is all you have, you ride the roller coaster rather tightly, and the ups and downs of your work can affect you to the point of being debilitating. Having outside interests provides outlets/relief valves, and helps you gain some perspective on work-life balance.

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