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.