Tag Archives: generalist

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”:

Are you a scanner? You might be a scanner.

I guess I should have done this post a while ago, seeing as it’s a large part of why this blog exists at all.

What is a scanner? Well, that’s just one name for it. The name “scanner” was coined by Barbara Sher in her book “Refuse to Choose”. Others include Renaissance Soul (by Margaret Lobenstine), Multipotentialite (from Emilie Wapnick) and the classical term Polymath, which originated during the Renaissance. I prefer scanner because it’s the shortest, easiest to say, and invokes the least amount of confusion in people not familiar with the concept.

[Update 1 – June 21, 2014 – I’ve come across data that refutes the validity of the MBTI system, so the reference to INFJ in this post isn’t as relevant anymore]

[Update 2 – Aug 15, 2016 – I have started a new project that if you enjoy this blog post you’ll likely be interested to check out – The Most Interesting Thing Project. Weekly blog post with new interesting facts, and a bi-weekly video talk show episode with interesting guests]

A scanner is a personality type, basically you are interested in many things that may or may not be related, and you have a strong desire to just keep learning (and trying) everything you can. Whether that’s learning new skills, new concepts, or even just learning more about yourself.

The best description/breakdown I have seen of this comes from Joanne Munro’s Career Pioneers blog:

Simply put, Scanner Personalities are people who either have so many interests they find it impossible to decide on just one career – so they don’t make any decision at all for fear of making the wrong choice, or they have lots of projects on the go but seldom finish any of them before they lose interest and move on to the next project.

Scanners are interested in multiple things, they love learning, their brains work very fast, and they are constantly scanning the horizon for new things.

Scanner Personality Traits (from Scanner Central)

  • You have creative ideas all the time, whether it’s for a book, a TV show, an art project, a website, a business, starting a movement, creating a brand, or writing a bestseller
  • You love to learn about new subjects and ideas and then quickly move on to something else
  • You have loads of seemingly unrelated interests
  • Trying to choose between all your ideas, interests and projects stresses you out
  • The thought of concentrating on one job or business for the rest of your life horrifies you
  • You start lots of projects but don’t always finish them before you get into something else

Common problems for Scanners are a reluctance to commit to just one thing for fear of making the wrong choice, and not finishing projects. An analogy I love is comparing Scanners to honey bees. Their purpose it to move from flower to flower getting pollen. They stay at each flower just long enough to get what they came for and nobody can tell them when they should be finished because only the bee knows when it is done.

I only discovered the concept last August (2013), a friend of mine was reading Barbara Sher’s book and told me about it. She was correct in thinking that since her and I are very alike, that I was probably a scanner too. I have since bought and read both books as well as Emilie Wapnick’s “Renaissance Business” – the ultimate impetus for this blog’s birth. Though I don’t currently plan to make this a business, it’s more of a community service.

Discovering this Scanner thing however, was a huge epiphany for me. I’d struggled my whole life professionally because I could never find anything that I enjoyed doing consistently for more than 2 or 3 years maximum in a stretch, and this helped explain why. I mean, I’ve been a musician for nearly 13 years now and have always enjoyed that, but I figured out when I went to school for music business, that it wasn’t going to work for me as a career. Basically, nothing that I find truly fun or interesting, is viable as a career for me, because once someone is telling me what and how to do it, it stops being fun. So I have LOTS of hobbies.

The list of “Careers” I’ve attempted to pursue is long and varied. I’ve only settled on something now out of pure necessity, but I still have several side projects on the go regularly. I did however come up with a brief list for reference:

As a child/kid I wanted to be:
-Astronaut
-—Fireman
-—Police Officer
-Hockey Goaltender (but I sucked)

As a teen/young adult (16-24):
—-Web/Graphic Designer
-—Video Game Programmer
-Music Producer/Audio Engineer

In the last few years:
—-Engineer/Scientist
—-Public Speaker
-Author/Journalist
-Actor/Stand-Up Comedian
—-Board Game Designer
-Psychologist/Neurologist

I’ve been to college 3 different times, for multimedia design, for entertainment administration and for business/finance.

I figured out before I learned of the scanner thing, that I had become a fast learner and a good self-study (or “autodidact”). I figured this out largely due to my rapid success with learning a second language a year ago. And then I taught myself how to use WordPress to make a fancy blog. And this site is clearly an example of the breadth and depth of information I absorb on a weekly basis. I’ve even been complimented that my blog is not boring because of the range of things I post about. Unsurprisingly, I spend a lot of time on wikipedia and google.

So, if you identify as a scanner (or whatever term you prefer), and have been struggling, what should you do? Well, I’m not sure how good of advice I can give, since I’m not necessarily a “Scanner success story”, but i’m figuring it out and doing alright for myself. I’ve done my best to find a way to make my scanner powers work for me (it’s tricky but doable), but I will say that Emilie Wapnick is the only one I think I’ve seen so far who has actually worked to build a supportive community. She created The Puttytribe, which is an offshoot of her blog Puttylike, and wrote “Renaissance Business” which is geared towards trying to help you make a business out of your passions, however eclectic they might be.

The Puttytribe is a gathering place for Multipotentialite with a variety of forums, and they do regular google hangouts and every few months they do a “Puttython”, which is basically a 2 day extravaganza for all “puttypeeps” to tackle some projects that have been on hold. I started this blog as part of the last Puttython. The tribe is really enthusiastic and helpful, of course many of them do run a renaissance business to satisfy their scanner needs. Pro tip – Puttytribe lets new members in for free for one day once every month. Watch puttylike.com for heads up on when that is. I believe you would have to pay starting month #2, but it’s certainly not uber expensive. You can also find a link to buy her book “Renaissance Business” on the site.

I don’t know that I want to try and make this into a business. I just like writing, curating interesting stuff, and my hope is that as more people find this blog, they comment on what is interesting to them, and share resources that they have found that relate. After all, I’ve got quite a bit of stuff on the resources page already, and I keep adding to it.

So, think of this site as kind of a journal, for scanners, by a scanner. Admittedly there are some things I am not (and may never be) interested in that you are, but if you enjoy learning and reading about all kinds of different things, I’m sure you’ll still enjoy this blog.

I am starting to look at ideas for more original posts, “helper” posts as it were (like my help learning a language or help learning wordpress or what’s the deal with polyamory ones), because I do enjoy researching a bunch of options, or research an issue or topic, and then do kind of a report on it to help you know what you need to know and where to start. I guess that is one strength of mine, absorbing a lot of info and then curating the most relevant and important bits and spitting them back out. But again, if someone tells me what to research and how to write it, I don’t want to. Fortunately I have a day job that pays the bills and isn’t completely awful! 🙂

Between “Refuse to Choose” and “Renaissance Soul”, I’d be more inclined to recommend the latter. Renaissance Soul features several exercises (kind of like the Renaissance Business book) to help you figure out what your top interests/values/passions are and tries to help steer you towards those to try and get you focused on a handful of hobbies that you can hopefully parlay into a job or career. Both books serve to try and calm the anxious scanner and provide examples that “it’s not too late” and to talk you off the ledge if you feel overwhelmed by everything. Refuse to Choose’s second half is just about different types of scanners (yes, Barbara breaks it down into multiple types!). So between the two books you get plenty of life coach type advice, you can figure out your “type” (if so you desire) and you get exercises and examples to help you direct yourself better towards a more unified goal. “Renaissance Business” is recommended if you want to go the modern, sophisticated DIY route and start your own web business. Or, like with me, it might just help you figure out a new passion project that you will really love doing and can pool more of your interests into, perhaps bringing together energy that was previously going to several other outlets, into one single one.

Refuse to Choose:
-life coach advice for scanners
-scanner sub-types (like subgenres of music)
-examples of possible scanner careers

Renaissance Soul:
-life coach advice for renaissance souls
-exercises to help unify your thinking (very helpful)
-examples of possible renaissance soul careers

Renaissance Business:
-exercises and advice for starting a web-based business around your multipotentialite passions

PuttyTribe:
-a community for Scanner/Renaissance Soul/Multipotentialites, either just to talk, to share resources, to ask for tips or advice, to network, and to help with goal accountability.

Another Blog post I’ve written more recently: “The Never-Ending Career/Major Dilemma” aka INFJ problems, aka Scanner problems

I also recommend a few other books such as “The E Myth” about starting your own business, Tim Ferriss’ book “Four Hour Workweek” on productivity and lifestyle design/career hacking, and have been recommended some other books. There is also one called “The $100 start up” that I’ve been meaning to pick up.

UPDATE: Here is my presentation from Nerd Nite Toronto, on the subject of being a Scanner/Polymath:

 

Here is my latest project:

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