The Highlands Company Blog

Burnout: When Specializing Becomes Too Diverse

I was sitting in my office after a client session the other day wondering why so many of my recent high school clients were experiencing such high levels of burnout and stress. Many of them are involved with developing a wide variety of talents and interests, and have supportive parents. But there they sat, telling me how tired, bored, and uninterested they were in continuing the development of the many talents and interests they were honing to advanced levels.

As I scanned their faces in my thoughts, I realized that they had one thing in common. We hear a lot these days about kids specializing in a talent, sport or art too early and for too long. My clients were not singular specialists, however. They were multiple specialists, which was part of their problem.

While exploration and experimentation are very important for broad learning, my clients and their parents took exploration to a higher level of specialization in every area. This resulted in students’ addressing every part of their lives–sports, interests, clubs, subjects, volunteer activities– with the same significant focus and specialization. Instead of harnessing their energy to specialize in one or two talents and multi-task at a surface level in other parts of their lives, they were encouraged to specialize and be as perfect as possible in everything.

My clients were driving themselves to be THE expert, the best, the most well-liked, and the master in all activities. In short, their natural drive was to become specialists in everything they did. Their expectations were encouraged by their teachers, coaches, parents, and college counselors.

To reclaim a healthier, less stressful life, students like these need to prioritize how they spend their energy and overcome the urge to be specialists in everything. They need to say “No” more often, or say they will get involved in some activities on a part-time or at a cursory level. By reducing the stress, anxiety and burnout of having to be specialists in all parts of their lives, they will be more relaxed, have more integrated thinking, and learn how to set boundaries.