How do you foster match quality?

Quiz #1: Who typically becomes a more skilled musician?

A. Someone who engages in a lot of structured practiced with one instrument.

B. Someone who practices a moderate amount of lightly structured practice with different instruments.

Before the answer, a brief story from David Epstein’s Range:

“The Tiger Mother’s real name is Amy Chua, and she coined the term in her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. […] Chua advertised the secrets to ‘how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids.’ On the very first page of the very first chapter is a litany of things [that Chua’s daughters] Sophia and Lulu must never do, including: ‘play any instrument other than then piano or the violin.’ (Sophia gets piano, Lulu is assigned violin.) Chua supervised three, four, sometimes five hours of music practice a day. […]

“Amy Chua described her daughter Lulu as a ‘natural musician.’ Chua’s singer friend called Lulu ‘extraordinary,’ with a gift ‘no one can teach.’ […]”

And now, the answer:

B. [1]

But what about Lulu Chua, the “extraordinary” violinist with “a gift no one could teach,” who practiced as many as five hours a day?

“Lulu made rapid progress on the violin, but pretty soon told her mother ominously, ‘You picked it, not me.’ At thirteen she quit most of her violin activities.”

Which leads us to the concept of “match quality” and our second quiz. According to Epstein,

“ ‘Match quality’ is a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are—their abilities and proclivities.”

With that in mind…

Quiz #2: Which students experience greater “match quality”? [2]

A. Students who specialize academically in high school and complete specific, narrow college programs.

B. Students obligated to study different fields during their first two years of college and who can continue to sample beyond that period.

Would it shock you to learn that “late specializers” (B.) experience greater match quality? Epstein concludes that “Learning stuff was less important than learning about oneself. Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.”


  • “Learning about oneself.”

  • “Match quality.”

  • “Exploration” as a “central benefit” of an education.

These constitute the DNA of exceptional learning.

And yet so many parents and students believe that it is vital to specialize as early as possible in academics, athletics, and co-curriculars. Maybe they think they will have time later on to figure out who they are, what matters to them, and what they may want to do about it.

But if students continually defer engagement with the DNA of exceptional learning, they may wake up one day to discover that they missed their chance to thrive.

How do you nurture “match quality” at your school?


[1] Multiple studies on music skill (helpfully cited in Range) have shown that “sheer amount of lesson or practice time is not a good indicator of exceptionality.” In one landmark study, “every student who had received a large amount of structured lesson time early in development fell into the ‘average’ skill category, and not one was in the exceptional group.”

Just as important, “those children identified as exceptional […] turn out to be those children who distributed their efforts more evenly across three instruments.” In the end, the researchers found that “the most common [path to excellence] was a sampling period, often lightly structured with some lessons and a breadth of instruments and activities, followed only later by a narrowing of focus, increased structure, and an explosion of practice volume.”

[2] Epstein cites the research of Northwestern University’s Ofer Malamud:

“If the benefit of hgiher education was simply that it provided skills for work, then early specializing students would be less likely to career switch after college to a field unrelated to their studies: they have amassed more career-specific skills, so they have more to lose by switching. But if a critical benefit of college was that it provided information about match quality, then early specializers should end up switching to unrelated career fields more often, because they did not have time to sample different matches before choosing one that fit their skills and interests.

“Malamud analyzed data for thousands of former students, and found that college graduates in Englad and Wales were consistently more likely to leap entirely out of their career fields than their later-specializing Scottish peers. And despite starting out behind in income because they had fewer specific skills, the Scots quickly caught up. Their counterparts in England and Wales were more often switching fields after college and after beginning a career even though they have more disincentive to switch, having focused on that field. With less sampling opportunity, more students headed down a narrow path before figuring out if it was a good one. The English and Welsh students were specializing so early that they were making more mistakes. Malamud’s conclusion: ‘The benefits to increased match quality… outweigh the greater loss to skills.’ Learning stuff was less important than learning about oneself. Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.”


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Christian Talbot