Why it’s good to be a Jack of all Trades

There’s a saying, “Jack of all Trades – Master of None”. That typically gets thrown around by specialists in a condescending or critical way. A specialist might assume that because a “generalist” (or polymath) dabbles and experiments in so many things, they can’t likely be good at any of them.

I’d never really heard any good rebuttals to that idea – until now. Life Hacker Tim Ferriss comes to the rescue on his blog with “The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades”.

He writes:

“Jack of all trades, master of none” is an artificial pairing.

It is entirely possible to be a jack of all trades, master of many. How? Specialists overestimate the time needed to “master” a skill and confuse “master” with “perfect”…

Generalists recognize that the 80/20 principle applies to skills: 20% of a language’s vocabulary will enable you to communicate and understand at least 80%, 20% of a dance like tango (lead and footwork) separates the novice from the pro, 20% of the moves in a sport account for 80% of the scoring, etc. Is this settling for mediocre?

Not at all. Generalists take the condensed study up to, but not beyond, the point of rapidly diminishing returns. There is perhaps a 5% comprehension difference between the focused generalist who studies Japanese systematically for 2 years vs. the specialist who studies Japanese for 10 with the lack of urgency typical of those who claim that something “takes a lifetime to learn.” Hogwash. Based on my experience and research, it is possible to become world-class in almost any skill within one year. [emphasis added]

That last claim is pretty extraordinary (that you can become world class in anything within one year), but having read 2 of his books, and heard him talk about all the things he has tried, done and accomplished, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt there.

In a world of dogmatic specialists, it’s the generalist who ends up running the show.

Was Steve Jobs a better programmer than top coders at Apple? No, but he had a broad range of skills and saw the unseen interconnectedness. As technology becomes a commodity with the democratization of information, it’s the big-picture generalists who will predict, innovate, and rise to power fastest. There is a reason military “generals” are called such.

If being a generalist was so bad, I don’t think that it would be such a common thing in the military. Again, there is a difference between focused sampling/learning and just bouncing around different things randomly without really trying to understand or absorb them.

Boredom is failure.

In a first-world economy where we have the physical necessities covered with even low-class income, Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs drives us to need more for any measure of comparative “success.” Lack of intellectual stimulation, not superlative material wealth, is what drives us to depression and emotional bankruptcy. Generalizing and experimenting prevents this, while over-specialization guarantees it. [emphasis added]

I just had a discussion with a PhD student last night and they were telling me something like this, that your studies basically take over your life, leaving you little time to even attempt to “find yourself”. I have found lack of intellectual stimulation to be the number one thing that has made me hate most of the jobs I have had, and is obviously part of what drove me to start this blog, and my podcast, and the other projects I am currently working on.

Diversity of intellectual playgrounds breeds confidence instead of fear of the unknown.

It also breeds empathy with the broadest range of human conditions and appreciation of the broadest range of human accomplishments. The alternative is the defensive xenophobia and smugness uniquely common to those whose identities are defined by their job title or single skill, which they pursue out of obligation and not enjoyment.

This has definitely been my experience.

It’s more fun, in the most serious existential sense.

The jack of all trades maximizes his number of peak experiences in life and learns to enjoy the pursuit of excellence unrelated to material gain, all while finding the few things he is truly uniquely suited to dominate.

The specialist who imprisons himself in self-inflicted one-dimensionality — pursuing and impossible perfection — spends decades stagnant or making imperceptible incremental improvements while the curious generalist consistently measures improvement in quantum leaps. It is only the latter who enjoys the process of pursuing excellence.

Since I “took on curiosity” as a full-time endeavour, I have met a lot of really awesome, interesting people, learned a ton, been very inspired and felt like my life really meant something and I look forward to each new day. 5 or even 10 years ago, I was in the “just get through the next shift at work and then back to killing time in front of the TV or computer” camp.

As much as possible, I want to promote the idea of being a “jack of all trades”, generalist, polymath, autodidact, scanner, multipotentialite, whatever you want to call it. I’m learning how to be smarter and more efficient about that process and am trying to share it here as I can.

Try, do, learn, explore, create, ponder, live 🙂

Or in the words of Ben Sharp/Cloudkicker, “Let yourself be huge”:

Care to share your thoughts?