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Opinion The myth of the well-rounded student? It’s better to be ‘T-shaped’.

In this file photo from 2011, students attend graduation ceremonies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. While students historically have been encouraged to be well-rounded, that might not be the best way to prepare for a career. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
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It’s graduation season at high schools and colleges around the country, the time of year when students are honored for their accomplishments from the classrooms to the athletic fields.

Teachers and counselors have long encouraged students to be “well-rounded.” But the problem with well-rounded students is that they usually don’t focus on any one thing for a prolonged period of time. Too often they seem to participate in activities just to check off a series of boxes, instead of showing the deep and sustained involvement, passion, and dedication that employers seek. Their résumés are filled with what some recruiters refer to as “sign-up clubs.”

Well-rounded students typically turn into generalists on the job. While jack-of-all-trades were useful in previous generations, these days students need to be what is known as “T-shaped.”

The idea of the T-shaped individual first emerged in the early 1990s as a kind of “Renaissance Man.” The vertical bar of the T represents a person’s deep understanding of one subject matter — history, for example — as well as one industry, perhaps energy or health care. The horizontal stroke of T-shaped people is the ability to work across a variety of complex subject areas with ease and confidence.

“The people we like to work with are T-shaped,” said Jim Spohrer, who heads up university partnerships for IBM. Take a task, such as detecting credit-card fraud. It requires skills in math, law, finance, technology, psychology, and political science. “We want people who can wrap their head around the whole thing and be part of teams,” Spohrer said.

Spohrer told me, however, that he’s not finding enough T-shaped college graduates who had both depth in a specific field and breadth across academic disciplines. “Truth be told, we would rather hire people from a start-up, acquire a start-up, or hire them from a failed start-up than hire people out of a university,” he said.

People with start-up experience, he said, have the know-how to work in small teams, find customers, and solve their problems. They have initiative and persistence to keep going in the face of adversity. And they recognize the need to spring back from failure quickly and learn from what went wrong.

“In school, it’s all about individual performance,” Spohrer said. “You better get it right the first time, because we’re going to test you. If you work in teams and something goes wrong, you blame another team member. I’m less interested in the big successes. People don’t learn a lot from their successes, and they usually learn the wrong things.”

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But there’s more to being T-shaped than just having breadth and depth. It’s also about having balance and the agility to pick and choose from a set of knowledge and skills as they are needed.

Here’s the problem: Colleges don’t offer classes, majors, or activities designed specifically for building the T-shaped individual, so undergraduates need to direct themselves — to act independently, be resourceful, and cobble together experiences inside and outside the classroom to better prepare for the evolving workplace they will face. They need to recognize that in high school, their learning was directed for them by parents, teachers, and counselors, and they need to change into students who explore and discover what’s next for them.

They need to have what Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, calls a “growth mind-set.” Dweck has found that praising children for their intelligence, rather than for their effort, often leads them to give up when they encounter the unknown. It’s much better, in her opinion, to compliment children for their persistence. People perform better when they can focus on things they can control rather than things they cannot.

“Hard working is what gets the job done,” Dweck said. “The students who thrive are not necessarily the ones who come in with the perfect scores. It’s the ones who love what they’re doing and go at it vigorously.”

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Dweck has conducted several studies that found people would do better if they thought of their intelligence as flexible and not something fixed at birth. People who have a “growth mind-set” see challenges as opportunities to broaden their skills. But people who have been constantly praised for their intelligence freeze in ambiguous situations when they don’t know the answer and often tie themselves in knots trying to reach perfection.

Instead of encouraging students to be “well-rounded,” we should be encouraging them to have both breadth and depth, and to have a flexible mindset to learn where their curiosity takes them. This will ensure that students have the ability to navigate the ambiguity of an economy where entire industries and occupations are expanding and contracting at alarming speed.