The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades

327 Comments

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Specialization isn’t always a good thing.

Are the days of Da Vinci dead? Is it possible to, at once, be a world-class painter, engineer, scientist, and more?

“No way. Those times are long gone. Nothing was discovered then. Now the best you can do is pick your field and master it.”

The devout specialist is fond of labeling the impetuous learner–Da Vinci and Ben Franklin being just two forgotten examples–“jack of all trades, master of none.” The chorus unites: In the modern world, it is he who specializes who survives and thrives. There is no place for Renaissance men or women. Starry-eyed amateurs.

Is it true? I don’t think so. Here are the top five reasons why being a “jack of all trades,” what I prefer to call a “generalist,” is making a comeback:

5) “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.

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

Is the CEO a better accountant than the CFO or CPA? 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.

3) 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.

2) 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.

1) 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.

Don’t put on experiential blinders in the name of specializing. It’s both unnecessary and crippling. Those who label you a “jack of all trades, master of none” are seldom satisfied with themselves.

Why take their advice?

Here is a description of the incredible Alfred Lee Loomis, a generalist of the highest order who changed the course of World War II with his private science experiments, here taken from the incredible portrait of his life, Tuxedo Park:

Loomis did not conform to the conventional measure of a great scientist. He was too complex to categorize — financier, philanthropist, society figure, physicist, inventor, amateur, dilettante — a contradiction in terms.

Be too complex to categorize.

Look far and wide.  There are worlds to conquer.

###


Posted on: September 14, 2007.

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327 comments on “The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades

    • Great link stiff thanks.

      And an awesome post Tim. I consider myself a jack of all trades. I have an eBay business, I blog, I sell info products, I do SEO and even a little bit of web dev and coding…

      It’s great fun because it means I understand how everything works together. Having lots of little income streams adds up and its far more fun than spending all of my time focussing on one thing.

      And you’re absolutely right, the person at the top of the company is rarely the best at the little tasks, they’re just the one who can put it all together!

      Like

  1. Allegedly the Jack of all trades saying is always taken out of context. The full saying is apparently:

    Jack of all trades, master of none, though oft times better than master of one!

    Like

  2. Broad ranging interests and knowledge are the keys to innovation. There was an article in the New York Times a while back that talked about the home libraries of some of the world’s biggest CEOs. Steve Jobs was one of the profiles. What were they reading? Try classics. Steve Jobs doesn’t read all of the management and programming stuff you think he does. He reads stuff about life and effective principles for living. Learning “fundamental truths” and applying them to your business will help you succeed. The broader the range of skills and knowledge, the more interconnectedness of ideas, the more innovation, the more success!

    Like

  3. Excellent post.

    After hearing the “…master of none” retort from unctous specialists far too often it is refreshing to hear you champion the cause of jacks of all trades.

    Here is one retention tip, a variant of the 80/20 principle, that works well when having to consume large pieces of information:

    Take any string of information; a set of numbers; a lecture; a book; a skill; and invariably one finds that the average person retains the first and last pieces of information most.

    Try it on 3 friends:

    Read off the following string of numbers quickly and ask the listener to repeat back as many numbers as he or she remembers hearing: 79683841762438173 (obviously, any long string will do).

    The vast majority of people are most likely to remember the first three digits and the last three digits, forgetting most of the ones in between.

    Simple solution: Break any string of new information into many smaller bits to maximize “beginnings” and “endings.”

    Like

  4. Tim, great post! Yet ANOTHER reason not to go to college. If you ask me, college gets in the way of education. With the amout of information available at the click of a button, we don’t need to pay $60,000 or more to go to a university. I’ve learned more on my own since I fired my teachers than I had in all the years prior!

    Like

  5. Tim

    I enjoy your blog and as an”old guy” it’s never too late to learn. Great post and the quote:

    “Be too complex to categorize”

    resonates.

    PS While it’s difficult for a senior Naval officer to work only 4 hours a week, I sure have been able to incorporate many of your techniques and recommendations into my life. Thanks.

    Like

  6. I don’t think you can learn a skill that requires muscle memory and be world class within one year. Specifically I am thinking of playing a musical instrument.

    Like

    • As an experienced jack of all trades i can tell you that if you were to take up guitar for example, and devoted at least 1 hour per day for 365 days, you’d be surprised how good you will actually become.

      Like

      • I like this post because I struggle with focus, not in that I get off track of goals for bad things, it’s because I want to do so many other things and I’m able to. I’m a jack of all trades, fast learner, easily bored and also a perfectionist. I’m good at a lot of things, but I only love 1 thing and like 1 thing a lot. Those things are basketball and drawing. I have a terrible dilemma that I’m trying to embrace here haha!

        Like

  7. Being a jack of all trades has always scared me. I have so many varying ideas and so many unrelated hobbies that I often think something is wrong with me. But at the same time, the thought of doing one thing for the rest of my life is terrifying. It’s relieving to know that it can be a strength.

    You’re absolutely right that it’s the generalists who run the show. A memorable quote from the “Millionaire Mind” says that the reason incredibly smart and highly talented people often stay relatively unsuccessful is that they “know more and more about less and less.” It’s one of those things I’m trying to come to terms with: getting amazingly good at one thing won’t guarantee me outstanding success or fulfillment.

    Like

    • reading this comment reminds me of myself…made me laugh because my mind life yours struggles to focus on one topic. I have so many random creative ideas, infact the older I get the worse it gets.

      Like

  8. Hello, I would like to introduce myself. I’m a professional organizer. My name is Jacki of All Trades.
    I can hang a shelf, write a set of standard operating procedures, re-arrange your childrens’ toys, build a peg board from scratch, manage your household hazardous waste and recycling and translate it all from English to French and back again.
    I don’t think ONE DARN THING I learned about this business came from sitting on my behind in a lecture theatre. The only thing that my M.Sc. taught me was that I was perfectly capable of learning what I wanted to learn and from whom to learn it. Which I am sure that I could have figured out without spending $$$$ and many, many months.

    Like

  9. What do you do when you know a lot of things well enough to work in them, but have no certifications, and not enough experience (the 2-5 yrs required) so that an employer will look at you? Do you have to rely on sweettalk and boundless self-promotion? Not trolling, I really want to know (I’ve read the book).

    Like

    • That’s me, as well, except I do have the required time experience in fashion blogging and related things (web design, as well, but I’m far from as mastery as most working professionally in it), but I am having trouble getting a response even when that specific blogging job in the fashion niche comes up, for which I FEEL I am overly impressive, if not over-qualified (is that still a bad thing these days?).

      This was back in 2007, when I was doing fantastically. I write now from the recession in 2011. Clearly, it should be worse for most on this comment thread. Le sigh!

      Like

  10. Actually, I rather enjoyed my post-high school education, mostly because I took a less common approach of switching majors several times and ultimately going “trackless” during grad school. I experienced both broad and deep exposure to business, design, music, psychology, biology, religion, math — a true “univers”ity education. Learning from a wide range of brilliant specialists is an effective path to becoming a well-rounded generalist.

    This is of course separate from the individual choice each person should make with regards to financial return on investment, and I realize many people have college experiences drastically different than mine. :)

    Like

  11. I couldn’t agree more. I consider myself very well-rounded, and I find it frustrating to talk to people who have only studied, lived and experienced a one-track profession. The law, finance and engineering students I went to school with were extremely frustrating to talk to, simply because they only saw the world in one way, and it was better than yours. I was lucky enough to go to a university that offered “interdisciplinary studies,” and allowed me to study through multiple schools toward one goal.

    To the commenters who have come before me, though… I completely disagree with the notion that higher learning is a waste of time. Not everyone needs a PhD., or even a degree, but well-rounded learning that actually makes you think, exposes you to ideas you wouldn’t be exposed to, and ways of looking at the world are never a waste of time. The list of things that I actually learned in university is fairly short (but includes the social history of the dildo) but it was that experience that broadened my horizons and ability to learn so that I could master things on my own.

    I’d love to hear Tim’s thoughts on the role of higher education.

    Like

    • As a person who has gone from the hospitality industry (college dropout – my parents were so disappointed) to working as CPA advising multinationals on taxes to valuing & appraising businesses to coaching & consulting with business owners & now at 50 teaching both undergraduate & graduate level courses in accounting, project management and quantitative methods of analysis I am a “Renaissance man” and not a jack of all trades but an experienced professional who has a very different background and education. I love helping my clients succeed and make more more while having a better quality of life. I tell my students Higher education is to teach them to learn how to THINK. The exercises only teach a subject matter.. in which one can become expert, nothing to do with thinking to solve problems or envisioning something ne.

      Like

  12. There was a recent article from an economic institute that overlapped with this great post from Tim. It mentioned Micah Stanley – 19 years old, college graduate and lawyer (http://micahstanley.com/). I think the conclusion was that there would be a lot more genius if gov’t schooling never existed. Gov’t bureaucrats don’t seem to have the same incentives as caring parents when it comes to education and success.

    “A teenage lawyer/budding author, however, wouldn’t surprise John Taylor Gatto, an outspoken critic of compulsory education laws and a former New York State Teacher of the Year. Writing in Harper’s Magazine, Gatto forthrightly argued that ‘genius is as common as dirt.'”

    http://www.mises.org/story/2682

    Like

  13. but well-rounded learning that actually makes you think, exposes you to ideas you wouldn’t be exposed to, and ways of looking at the world are never a waste of time

    Ryan – I agree that it is not a waste of time, but I do believe that it is a waste of money becuase it such learning can happen without spending thousands of dollars.

    Like

  14. “Be too complex to categorize.” Gotta love it. I’d much rather be a Thomas Jefferson or an Isaac Newton than a [insert any job title here]. Here’s my favorite quote on this topic:

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    -Robert A. Heinlein

    Like

  15. Thank you for the validation!

    No matter how much I’ve wanted to become an ‘expert’ in any number of fields, I still find myself jumping into different projects and coming away with knowing a little something about a lot of things.

    This certainly makes for a rich life . . . .

    Like

  16. I agree that post-secondary education is NOT a waste of time. It is only a waste if that person believes that post-secondary education is the ONLY education worth getting.

    I was exposed to SO much while at university that I would not have been exposed to otherwise (and for that, I will always be grateful). However, I certainly learned as much from staying sober on the weekends as I did from advanced calculus and I definitely REMEMBER my weekends which is more than I can say of advanced calculus :)

    Like

  17. Tim,

    I really enjoyed your book, and I applaud your enthusiasm for living life. But what’s up with:

    “Based on my experience and research, it is possible to become world-class in almost any skill within one year.[?]”

    Is there a special definition of “world-class” I’m missing out on?

    Although I agree with your premise that generalists get a bad rap these days, making a statement like that is just as bad, because it is an insult to people who truly are at a world-class level in their discipline. Take any pro athlete for example: Not one of them got to their level of play in just one year–not only that–but not all *pro* athletes are even considered “world-class.”

    By the way, I do agree with you that a world-class talent can still be a generalist. However, it’s exceedingly rare to find someone at the very *top* of more than one discipline. More commonly you find a top-performer in one field who happens to be “pretty darn good” in another field–competent–but not “world-class.”

    Not trying to start a flame war, but some clarification would be appreciated. Thanks, and keep up the interesting posts.

    Like

    • I agree with this. If Tim Farris cab for example fight in the UFC as an MMA fighter and beat top guys on consistent basis I will fully support that statement, but I find it actually quote pretentious and misleading. I have no doubt there a disciplines you can achieve world class performance in one year but I doubt it’s in pro level sports or many of as competitive disciplines. And the second thing that I believe Tim overlooks is that getting to top is relatively easy compared to staying at the top and being hungry to keep innovating and competing.

      So one year is often simply not enough time for such a statement to be true. For example to be a champion in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts and to stay on top for number of years is what separates the top guys from the rest. You can’t accomplish that in one year simply not enough time even if you could somehow get to that level. That is why that statement I think its misleading and I would imagine that its highly context sensitive.

      Also “jack of all trades, master of none” is not the same thing as a polymath or a Renaissance man. There is a different implication so the title and the text in the article don’t really match. I hope the author can double check on that and correct it.

      Like

      • I would have to concur with the above two comments. I would like to see someone learn chess and become world class within one year.

        Like

  18. Ryan … good thoughts. I agree 100%

    And Tim – you hit the nail on the head and have caused a lot of my stagnant brain juice to stir around up in that unused area.

    I get discouraged when people classify me because of my degree or ‘job’ … if I am an engineer I can’t be creative – if I am a great salesman I can’t be good at technology – if I am a good inventor then I can’t be very good with ‘people skills – … and the list goes on.

    What is this? … “the law of conservation of talent”?
    I don’t believe in it!

    This type of thinking is deeply rooted in almost everyone you meet – that you automatically are ‘watered down’ in every other area if you have more than one talent.
    b-sh*#T

    Tim – Thanks for reinforing a new way of thinking that goes against the grain.

    Like

  19. Pingback: Moments of Clarity
  20. I believe that it is entirely possible to be both a specialist and a jack of all trades. I am a software engineer and have developed software in many different platforms and environments. In this sense I could be considered a jack of all trades… whatever the situation I can adapt and get the job done. However, I also have a few areas that I feel I am somewhat specialized in. In those areas I will always be more comfortable and productive and I always strive to push the boundaries of that knowledge and skillset.

    Like

  21. Tim,

    This is your best post so far, and really would make an excellent addition to The 4-Hour Workweek (even though you obviously go over these points in the book)

    This was really a moving post, to be honest, and makes me want to strive for so much more out of life.

    Thank you.

    Like

  22. Just as I began learning several subjects at a time in grade school, I continued to study many subjects in the University. Changing my major (5 times) seemed to excite me every time, and make most everyone else start with “what if…(doom)”

    Now out of school, I have had about 13 paid gigs in 4 years. Still enjoying new experiences and “broadening my horizons”. Just left the best paid job yet- salary, benefits, own office, and a window. It wasn’t stressful, it just bored the hell out of me. I’m done with my cell (aka-office).

    “The more bridges you build, the more options you have when the weather changes.”

    -Jake Peters

    Like

  23. WIKTIONARY:
    higher education (uncountable)
    1. University education or higher.
    2. Continued education after the point at which attendance of an educational institution is no longer compulsory.

    Isn’t the exploring we do online, or a marketing program from a guru like Mark Joyner, Rich Schefren, Eben Pagan, or Dan Kennedy even higher than that?

    This post is really empowering for me and for my students/clients. I always hated that “jack of all trades” expression!

    DOWN WITH THE “FORMAL HIGHER EDUCATION SYSTEM”!
    Let the University of Phoenix burn!
    ~V.

    Like

  24. I agree. Although some colleges merely relay narrow occupational knowledge, my college “education” in particular developed me to my best potential in a very broad sense. By “education” I mean not only the courses I took but the work experiences I had on breaks and the relationships I formed and learned from while a student.

    For example, I began college as an economics major yet also studied math, journalism, Latin, constitutional law, literature, pop culture, film, and classical history. My first job out of college was as a webmaster although I have never taken an information systems course in my life.

    If you choose a college that not only lets you but encourages you to explore other disciplines (or perhaps even design your own program with faculty help), the rewards are immeasurable. This article affirms rather than condemns the merits of a well-rounded multidiscplinary education.

    Like

  25. Preach it, brothah! I have always remembered an incident that happened to me in grade school; a teacher asked the class if we’d rather do one thing perfectly or many things really well. I was the only kid who raised their hand for the latter, because being stuck doing only ONE THING seemed inconceivably boring to me.

    I will have to disagree with the people eschewing going to school–in the past 7 years I’ve taken all manner of courses in various forms of art, dance, organic gardening, alternative building methods, aromatherapy, etc. in addition to all of the English, Philosopy, Anthropology, Biology and the like I’ve been accumulating toward an eventual degree.

    Honestly I’ve found something from each core requirement class that manages to apply to and enrich my life experiences, as well as increasing my flexibilty and ever expanding “comfort zone”, so perhaps I’m in the minority here.

    Don’t get me wrong–I too believe that there is no substitute for experience, but the vast majority of worthwhile experiences involve some degree of learning beforehand in preparation. I like to say I collect skills like other people collect stamps, and I have been accused of being a professional student. Consider me that as well as an artist/sculptor, realtor/bellydance instructor, wannabe permaculturist and alternative builder, among all of my other “weird” Jane-of-all-trades skills. Sign me up for the next class, as well as the next adventure!

    Like

  26. In addition to Generals in the army there are also Specialists who are the highest ranking lower enlisted soldiers. There’s a huge difference in rank between those.

    This post also adds to the question on whether an entrepreneur should pursue a niche or a market. Perhaps all the marketers sell people on going after niches so they won’t have to compete with them. Do as they say… not as they do kind of thing.

    Learning lots of different things makes you a more interesting person too. In turn you can relate to more people and accomplish more through those relationships.

    Like

  27. Tim,

    I would have to agree. This subject can be seen in so many lights, but I would argue that it is more exciting and memorable to do different things. I own my concrete co., trade stocks online, just started a t-shirt company, and am leaving Texas to move to NYC. Doing a variety of things allows me to expand my mental capacity while at the same time spreading risk over several different ventures. Kind of like mutual funds in a 401K. In any and all industries you have ups and downs. Some of the most diverse and exciting companies do this. Virgin, Google, and even Hulk Hogan have done this.
    It is like you said finding your muse, rather finding your MUSES.
    Moreover, I have noticed that you see this more with individuals whom have traveled. There is a direct correlation with travel and diversity in one’s life. The action of seeing and experiencing multiple events keeps one’s mind moving.
    Have an Outstanding Day,

    Jose

    Like

  28. Tim,

    “Be too complex to categorize” – that is now my new motto! Actually I think it has always been my motto – I just never knew it.

    I cannot wait to find out what your idea is to revolutionize education. I have always been fascinated by education and learning, but have always felt that the school systems in this country are inadequate in terms of providing truly practical and useful information for living in this world. In fact, it has always been a dream of mine to start a new type of school or educational system that allows students to learn about real life and living – on a global level.

    I will be emailing Amy the details of my contribution to Amy – I hope you will find it as useful of a contribution as I believe it is!

    Like

  29. Hey Tim,

    Thanks for another great post!

    “Be too complex to categorize.” I love it!

    There is another great quote from Dan Kennedy I love…
    He talked about how many Entrepreneurs are guilty of committing “Industry Incest” (I can’t remember the exact term) But…

    It’s basically how too many people get so narrow minded and focused that they ONLY associate with people, read books and publications etc. from their own industry.

    It would serve us all to broaden our range and open our minds to new possibilties, ways of doing things and other points of view.

    I’m all about freedom and limitless options. When we focus soley on one area of life we cut off other oportunites and experience for growth.

    At the same time however it is Very important to “stick to our guns” when it comes to making money. spend the most time on what we know we do best and outsource the rest.

    While many commentators are talking about higher education I’ll throw in my 2 cents…

    Education is KEY for any level of success in anything. Period. How you go about that education just depends on what you really want. (I’d never go to a Dr. who didn’t finish school) Yet most Entrepreneurs I know don’t attribute their success to what they learned in school. Although I’d have to agree to the benefits like Ryan Anderson mentioned in his comment…

    “but well-rounded learning that actually makes you think, exposes you to ideas you wouldn’t be exposed to, and ways of looking at the world are never a waste of time… but it was that experience that broadened my horizons and ability to learn so that I could master things on my own.”

    May we all continually grow in all aspects of life…

    -Travis Tolman

    P.S. Tim- I’d be interested in learning any more tips on getting great deals on flights. (I don’t know If I’d dare book an important flight 24 hrs before when I’ve got a set appointment I’ve gotta make.)

    Thanks for everything ;)

    Like

  30. You’re not being fully honest, Tim — either that, or you haven’t thought this thing out completely. You’ve given us the advantages of generalization, but what are the disadvantages? Every path in life has both, and we need to recognize both to make wise decisions and aim for proper balance.

    I’m a generalist myself, in the way you describe, but I’ve lived with it long enough to know some of the prices I pay.

    Aaron

    Like

  31. Tim, you said:

    “Based on my experience and research, it is possible to become world-class in almost any skill within one year.”

    I’m 47 and am interested in learning how to play tennis. Based on your experience, I should reach the Wimbledon finals next year, right?

    ###

    LOL… precisely. Federer’s days are numbered! I’ll be posting a comment to explain “world-class” in a few hours :)

    Tim

    Like

  32. It’s so refreshing to see a post about this. I’ve considered myself a jack-of-all-trades for a long time. I try to embrace each challenge as a learning experience.

    I do agree with a previous commentator. What ARE some of the disadvantages? When you look at highly paid SAP consultants or neurosurgeons, it’s hard to argue against be specialists. They may have a narrow world view, but I wouldn’t mind having their paycheck. Basically, what I am trying to say is that for the majority of society, it doesn’t pay to be a generalist but it does pay to be a specialist. Having said that, I personally don’t agree with that philosophy which is why I am what I am.

    I do have a belief that people who are specialists are ill suited to be entrepreneurs. They are too limited in their world view and cannot function with the aid of others because they cannot or will not embrace all the other necessary roles that are required when having your own company.

    Like

  33. Thank you for this. I’ve always felt that I didn’t have the ‘hacker’ expertise to be involved in programming. This feeling of inadequacy has kept me back for several years.

    Eventually I just decided to go with it regardless, and it turns out that, though I might be slower, I’m not terribly bad and I have some good ideas.

    These are the first reasons I’ve seen for wanting to know some in a lot of different areas instead of all in one area.

    Like

  34. I’ve always considered myself a Jill of all trades. ;) I want to learn everything there is to learn (or die trying).

    My philosophy is that the more you learn about, the more you can appreciate. Career-wise, there are disadvantages of not specializing in something, but there are no disadvantages to learning new things. Period.

    Like

  35. I love the blog and the book just out of curiosity how much was outsourced? I have started to go down you path and its a freedom I have been missing for to many years. Thanks for all the great information!

    ###

    Hi Jeff!

    I do all of the writing because I enjoy it. I sketched the design/architecture of the blog and then had a WordPress expert code it for me. My VAs do some of the moderation, and I pop in once in a while to moderate. I like to interact with my readers but can’t always answer every personal question, which is why I’m so happy to have readers who participate and help each other!

    Hope that helps,

    Tim

    Like

  36. Speaking as a contract-sysadmin/photographer/martial artist/blogger/furniture restorer/husband/chef/consultant/entrepreneur, I couldn’t agree more.

    Life’s too short to be bored why what you do.

    For years, I’ve let myself be guided by this Heinlein quote:

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    Like

  37. Tim, I’m directing this at you but would love to have everyone else weigh-in as well (..though it might make for an interesting post on it’s own):

    In adopting a completely liberated lifestyle that allows me to simply follow my passions and explore new opportunities, I’ve had one challenge emerge: I quit my job and no longer have the “luxury” of defining myself by my job title. I realize I’m not alone on this. In the US especially, “So what do you do?” is asked far too often, and it’s always been easy to just spew off a flashy “I’m a (job title) at (killer company)..” followed by an inflated one-liner about what that actually means.

    I am decidedly undefined right now and love having no canned answer to that unavoidable conversational question. I’m a traveler, an investor (of time, thought & capital), a serial entrepreneur, designer, etc. The list goes on — and I can truly say I excel in each area. Jack of all trades, master of many. A generalist, as you say.

    At the end of the day, though we all want to be somewhat fluid in our definition of who we are – there is always that moment, in a loud crowded lounge or a 30-second chat with mere acquaintance — where the fully enlightened response just isn’t appropriate.

    In that setting, for those that are truly living the 4HWW — “what do you do?”

    ###

    Hi David,

    Here are four popular choices of the time-liberated:

    -“I’m retired.” Then just let them think on that.
    -“I’m a (travel) writer.” If you write, you’re a writer. Legit answer.
    -“I’m an entrepreneur.” Entrepreneur is further reaching than just income and business creation. It’s just someone who makes things happen.
    -“I’m a consultant/investor.” Both are true of most people on some level.

    Hope that helps!

    Tim

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    • When asked “What do you do?” I almost always reply “Lots of things,” smile, and change the topic to something more interesting than job titles.

      Like

  38. Hi All!

    Thanks for the great comments and contributions to the discussion. I love the Robert Heinlein quote.

    A few clarifications:

    1) “World-class” to me is being the top 1-5% most proficient of all people who practice a certain skill.

    2) I stated you could become world-class in almost any skill, not all. There are some limits on sports (powerlifting, etc.) that require massive physical adaptation of connective tissue, but motor skills can be learned quickly. I had never done ballroom or partner dancing of any type before training 5 months to set the world record in tango and also get to the semi-finals of the world championships, for example.

    3. It IS possible to be both a generalist and a specialist. When I did tango, I did it for 6-8 hours a day. Did I specialize? Yes, but I only did so for a total of about 8 months. Thus, I’m a macro-generalist and a micro-specialist.

    4. There are pros and cons to both being a specialist and being a generalist. This post was just a few reasons on the “pro” side of generalists. I’ll let you guys battle out the rest ;)

    5. I believe education, including formal education, can be extremely valuable. I wouldn’t trade my liberal arts education for the world. There are crappy teachers and good teachers both inside and outside of institutions. The prizes go to those who seek out the best teachers.

    Hope that helps, and keep up the comments!

    Tim

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  39. There is a wonderful book that explores this topic in both depth AND breadth – check out “Refuse to Choose!: A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love”
    by Barbara Sher (Author). She gives great encouragement and practical strategies to us DaVinci types, allowing us to be released from the “dilettante” label forever!

    Like

  40. Tim-

    This is obviously this post is powerful noted by the nearly 50 comments in just a few hours.

    I agree that we put too much attention on a single focus in our careers. Having many interests and many skills allows one to adapt to changing circumstances.

    I have worked in many industries, and some people frown on this….trying to discredit the amazing amount of experience a person can get if they work in many fields. I think the more experiences you have (in a career and in life’s journey) the more colorful the tapestry you weave along the way.

    thom

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  41. Tim,

    You ask about effective education.

    I am a 37 year old father of two who grew up attending about a dozen educational institutions in 9 countries: public schools with the middle class; boarding schools with wealthy expatriates; 1 on 1 tutoring with a blind man; classes of 3 students in the rainforest and sessions of 40 students in suburbia; and later a state school and Harvard.

    Based on my experiences, what did I decide to do for my own children?

    I decided to combine the hard knocks of public schools with the rigors of boarding school. Combine the attention of 1 on 1 tutoring with the social enrichment of large groups. And combine the breadth of state school course offerings with the depth of an Ivy League education.

    I decided to homeschool.

    There are so many reasons not to send your child through conventional schooling that I will not even attempt to list them here (read “The Well-Trained Mind” for the most authoritative book I’ve found on the subject; and the works of John Taylor Gatto). But I will mention two:

    1) Learning is only possible when the motivation comes from the student, not from the teacher; and

    2) Homeschooled children repeatedly outperform their conventionally-trained peers in conventional, standardized tests. Consider Switzerland, a country with the world’s highest per capita income and yet only 23% of the student population attends high school.

    “But what about socialization?” detractors protest.

    One does not merely sit at home. Like the “Four Hour Workweek,” the objective is not simply to work four hours, but rather to free time to variegate one’s range of experience into other areas.

    So my recommendation for the perfect education is the following 4 step program:

    1) KILL YOUR TV: Yes, remove it from the house. Shakespeare will never compete with Bart.

    2) BUY LOTS OF BOOKS: They’ll take care of the rest. We formally “teach” our kids no more than a couple of hours a day and now they’re already a few years ahead of their peers. The wealthy class of centuries past simply bought books and hired home tutors. Does it take a lot of brains to parrot a teacher’s workbook? Nope.

    3) TRAVEL: Not unfamiliar to the great thinkers of ages past, the refinement that comes with international travel is simply not possible sitting in your hometown. There is something magical about experiencing new cultures, exotic languages, breathtaking sights, and intoxicating smells that is simply not possible sitting in your home country. And by travel I don’t mean getting a 3 week Eurail pass. I mean relocating to a new, preferably poor, country. Why poor? Because the poor usually have more to teach.

    4) VENTURE CAPITAL: Starting from an age when your kids can act responsibly with money, usually 5 or 6, give them a hundred bucks and ask them to double it. Then ask them to give it away (intelligently). Sit back and watch them learn more in a couple of weeks than their peers would have learned in a semester.

    These 4 steps don’t require a lot of money and certainly the 4HWW makes it completely possible. Besides, all the money that you previously wasted on school is now spent traveling with the kids.

    Is it replicable? Easily. Is it cost effective? How many billions of dollars are we going to save by converting decrepit school buildings run by the government into community centers run by families?

    By the way, on a completely different note: is it coincidence that your first name stands for “Time, Income, Mobility” and that your family name resembles one “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” who used brains, wit, and technology, to defy convention and authority?

    Like

  42. Thanks for the affirmation. I often describe myself as Jack of All Trades, Master of Some. So, last week, when I was introduced as a Renaissance Man I felt honored.

    Like

  43. I think one of the great things about higher education is the exposure to other people who are in the midst of academic pursuits. There are people who know so much about so many different things at a university, and they are all very accessible. Its an environment where people are striving to learn and grow as opposed to the typical work environment which is generally stagnant, and repetitive, and specialized.
    Im so excited to see some positive reinforcement for the jack of all trades :) That definitely describes me. Its always viewed so negatively, but I really wouldnt be happy if I decided to specialize in one area and continue to do that one thing for the rest of my working life. I can’t choose any one degree program, or decide on the type of business I would like to run, etc. Really I want to be doing at least 5 different things at once.

    You are also much more likely to discover things that you have a natural talent for, if you are always learning and trying new things.

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  44. Tim,

    I think your article is great and couldn’t agree with you more about the benefits of being a generalist. I am curious, though, about your statement that “what I prefer to call a ‘generalist,'; is making a comeback.” Being a generalist is arguably better, but I believe that it’s far from making a comeback. In the last two years, for example, I’ve seen job postings become increasingly specific about candidates’ past experience and expertise, most probably to help recruiters deal with the effects of the increasingly ubiquitous technology that surrounds a previously manual process (resume databases, people mass-blasting applications, etc.). Also, as companies become larger and larger, experience and skillsets are becoming much more one-dimensional with little room to dabble and showcase a range of skills. In what areas have you seen a growth in either appreciation or practice of generalist mentality?

    One other thing (and this is for the peanut gallery, too), what professions have you found to be particularly well suited to generalists?

    Thanks!

    -i

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  45. David,

    I just say I`m a writer and leave it at that. If asked again I say I write and sell my work online.

    The last thing I want to do is impress strangers with my work or lifestyle because when you retire “too young” it really annoys a lot of people or gets the the other reaction – I want to be you best friend because you are successful. Neither of those responses does anything for me.

    Over time, you end up hanging around with other people in the same boat – my best friend works very little, takes the summer off etc. You can go nuts if you don`t find some like minded people to hang around with.

    Like

  46. Tim,

    This hasn’t generated the “sh*t storm” I expected, as you might say.

    Mmm. Yes, varied experiences are good. But are you saying it is better to be “average at many things” rather than excellent in one thing.

    Arguably, one could possibly live a more fulfilling life but, in the traditional sense, would one likely achieve greater success…ie. better jobs, promotions, better pay?

    Tim, to be successful in corporate America and to climb the corporate ladder, doesn’t one have to be GREAT at something. A “micro-specialist” as you like to call it, in at least one very narrow field?

    Although you might consider yourself a “jack of all trades” you are VERY, VERY good at many things …among them, creating sh*t storms!! O.K., we can call it marketing.

    Ernst

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  47. Ernst,

    The message in Tim’ s blog is success in life. Not just making a lot of money because you can do one thing well at corporate america. Many of today’s society is brainwashed like this and which is why they live unfulfilled lives. There must be a clear purpose at to why, reasons come first. Greater success in what sense? More hours, because usually a promotion in corporate america means more hours with maybe a 10% increase.
    And not to mention 90% more stress of which wears on your body and mind, this tears down your body.
    Its not about the corporate ladder of a company, its about the ladder of life. The experiences are what count. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Chill out on the language and realize this is all self expression and ideas that can be applied. Try it first and then leave a comment

    BEst

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

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  48. Tim,
    You eloquently state what I’ve been trying to explain to others about myself for many years. It is my broad knowledge of topics from sociology to electrical engineering, from theatre to mathematics, that has enabled me to hold conversations with PhD’s in Physics as well as PhD’s in Comparative Religion. I enjoy that about my life and have always found repetitive activity of a specialization to be a prison.

    I must disagree with some, above, who have argued that college is a waste. A liberal arts college gives a person opportunities to be exposed to new ideas and sample dozens of subjects in one place. With that base of knowledge, then is the time to go out into the world and expand and experience the world first hand.

    Thanks Tim.

    Like

  49. … gotta love this guy. Well said Tim.

    Agree on all points; especially “the lack of urgency typical of those who claim that something ‘takes a lifetime to learn.'”

    The term “renaissance man” needs to become an honor again.

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  50. Well said, and glad you said it! This has been my philosophy and chosen path for many years, but it’s easy to start second-guessing yourself when your belief goes against the current of popular thought (even though that’s usually the surest sign of being on the right track).

    I’m reminded of a some favorite quotes from my favorite book series, Dune:

    “Any path that narrows future possibilities may become a lethal trap. Humans are not threading their way through a maze; they scan a vast horizon filled with unique opportunities. The narrowing viewpoint of the maze should appeal only to creatures with their noses buried in the sand.”

    and especially:

    “Above all else, the mentat must be a generalist, not a specialist. It is wise to have decisions of great moment monitored by generalists. Experts and specialists lead you quickly into chaos. They are a source of useless nit-picking, the ferocious quibble over a comma. The mentat-generalist, on the other hand, should bring to decision-making a healthy common sense. He must not cut himself off from the broad sweep of what is happening in his universe. He must remain capable of saying: ‘There’s no real mystery about this at the moment. This is what we want now. It may prove wrong later, but we’ll correct that when we come to it.’ The mentat-generalist must understand that anything which we can identify as our universe is merely part of a larger phenomena. But the expert looks backward; he looks into the narrow standards of his own specialty. The generalist looks outward; he looks for living principles, knowing full well that such principles change, that they develop. It is to the characteristics of change itself that the mentat-generalist must look. There can be no permanent catalogue of such change, no handbook of manual. you must look at it with as few preconceptions as possible, asking yourself: ‘Now what is this thing doing?'”
    – The Mentat Handbook

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  51. To Anne Brown…thanks for the tip! I will check out Barbara Sher’s book as I remain skeptical about being able to earn “good money” while not being very good at anything. Does she recommend not mastering anything?

    Although I own a small business and consider myself a “jack of all trades”, I am scared stiff I might one day have to get a real job from corporate America. I wear many hats which makes the work interesting, but I am not particular good, honestly, at anything. Where need be, I hire experts (ie. accountants) to help me from going bankrupt.

    Frankly, I don’t think I have the specific, proven skills/resume required to get a decent job in a field I would like (ie. marketing) that pays $70,000-80,000 a year (ie. flipping fries at McDonalds is always an option but won’t pay for college for my 2 kids).

    How about a jack of all trades and a master of (at least) ONE? And the ONE should, ideally, be something you enjoy.

    Ernst

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  52. Tim – You are an inspiration! I just finished your book and I am very excited about the whole concept. Thank you so much for the work you have done, and the courage you have show us.

    Cal Banyan
    Author, Trainer, Blogger, Podcaster

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  53. Awesome. Just awesome. I have been saying this for the past 10 years of my life. For a while it seemed unattainable, and certainly not very conducive to the rat race… Not for one moment though would I give up the path of the renaissance man, no matter how broke I am. It’s all relative.

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  54. Tim,
    You are one of the best arguments for a liberal arts education that I’ve come across in some time. 4HWW seems like a pragmatic tutorial on not doing what you’re told but thinking about how you think and coming up with better solutions. Long live the generalist. Thanks Tim.
    -Dane Sanders

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  55. Ernst, if you haven’t yet, i suggest you read the 4 hour work week. being an expert in an area only means that you know more than some one else. We then apply the 80/20 rule, in this case, 80% of the mastery of a skill comes from 20% of the work, then you start hitting diminishing returns and the next 80% of work slowly fills in the last 20% of the skill. most people get cought up in the last 20% of the skill, when that time could arguably be used to get to 80% in 4 other areas. hes not advocating to be average at every thing, simply not to spend all your time trying to perfect at one thing, but poor at most else. this philosophy is why Tim excels in several areas of life, and not necessarily the master of just one.

    As an example, I’m training for IT, I could spend all my life becoming the master IT guru and getting a CCIE (an expert level certification that is limited to about 100,000 people world wide). In return i would never have the time to realize my dreams such as traveling the world, learning martial arts such as Judo, speaking other languages, becoming a better cook, play the guitar like a rock star, and so on.

    To Tim, great article, I’ve always been more of the jack of all trades type. constantly trying new things out, reading about a range of how things work and so on. I’m a huge fan of the “how it works” shows common on History channel and discovery channel.

    I’ve finished your book, and have been trying to brainstorm ideas for the start up business, but i cant seem to come up with a niche idea that meets the requirements yet. I’ve come to the conclusion I’m not looking at the bigger picture enough yet. Any other suggestions for resources to help with the muses?

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  56. Pingback: » Blog Archive
  57. One of my teenage role models was Buckminster Fuller.
    He said Two things I well remember today and have guided me well.
    1) There are two ways to get a good general education: Naval Officer training, and Architecture School. Naval Officers before radio had to represent their country and its interests all over the world by dint of their own abilities and knowledge. Similarly architects in history had to carry out the diverse wishes of the King from war machines to tombs (more recently Albert Speer for Hitler).
    Given we now have radio – I went for Architecture, a diverse mix of social, artistic and mechanical knowledge and abilities.
    2) You don’t have to work for a living (or more accurately – for someone else). Bucky threw in his job writing for a science magazine, and with a family to feed, went out inventing on his own. Never patented anything and knew money would follow if he did his ‘job’ well. Wrote a bit of poetry on the side too!
    Consequently I have never had a job, but always managed to make a living, and have a wide range of abilities and interests. The best of those you learn through learning – the ability to self-educate.
    There are a lot of ways to learn quickly including some excellent accelerated learning skills, but the best way is through mentoring – apprenticeships.
    I have heard the approximation that to master a skill or technique takes 10 000 hours. So if its your job/goal and you do 100 hours a week, two years might cut it out!
    Then there is the TV show where people get a couple of weeks to learn a skill and fool the ‘experts’.
    Regarding the Competition, I think most schooling is ‘baby sitting’ and treading water until most teenagers get maturity. In that way it serves a social role rather than an intellectual one.
    The other thing we have got going for us is that most of those old generalists were dead before 50 – we get a bigger bite of the cherry if we can keep learning alive.

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  58. Absolutely! I just realized this in the last two years moving from computer geek (20 years) to self-employed consultant in a totally unrelated field. It’s also better for our brains: From Change or Die (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/94/open_change-or-die.html):

    Dr. Michael Merzenich, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, say that the brain’s ability to change — its “plasticity” — is lifelong…

    the key is keeping up the brain’s machinery for learning… Unless you work on it, brain fitness often begins declining at around age 30 for men, a bit later for women. “People mistake being active for continuous learning,” Merzenich says. “The machinery is only activated by learning. People think they’re leading an interesting life when they haven’t learned anything in 20 or 30 years. My suggestion is learn Spanish or the oboe.”

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  59. Being a Jack Of All Trades, or a Renaissance soul, as I like to call it is a concept I have been working on for the past few years. Inspired by a book called Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstein (http://www.renaissancesouls.com/)

    I could not agree more, I to want to do so many things and people have actually been generally mean to me about how many things I do, talking behind my back “I do not by she can do all those things.”. But hey what do people know? Unfortunately, the specialty mentality is abundant. I have never claimed to be the best at anything but I want to experience as many things that appeal to be as possible, writing, photography, philanthropy, and the list goes on. How do you explain a girl that has worked in a funeral home, a teacher as a photographer, as head of the under cover agents, a poet, and for the Associated Press. Yes this is me and proud of it.

    One of the hard parts though is managing and deciding everything you want to do. The possibilities are endless. The HOW of it and organization of it is what Tim’s book and Margaret Lobenstein’s book have helped me get to.

    I think I may be writing a new entry of this very subject on my own blog. http:www.rosaleelaws.com.

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  60. I am so glad that I cam upon this book and blog. I have always thought it was a problem that I know about so many different things but I am never the expert in anything. I have always known that it was going to pay off. Now how do I apply it to becoming better, and becoming a location independent person?

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  61. Jose & Mike, thanks for the comments and suggestions! It sounds like you are both living the 4HWW lifestyle already. Thanks also to Rosalee for providing the links. Although it might not be obvious from my posts, I have read the book 4HWW and loved it! It is taking me awhile to break down forty plus years of living & working in my, shall I say, somewhat boring, unadventurous cocoon. I’m making changes (as fast as I can) to lead a more exciting and fulfilling lifestyle. This will be fun…

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  62. Ernst, While I’m flattered, I’m not quite living the 4HWW just yet, but I defiantly have the mind set for it. I’ve always been one to question why things are the way there are. I’m still young, so its easier for me to accept these views. As I’ve gone through college the last 3 years, and learned what i can expect in my chosen field, and it keeps sounding less and less appealing. I was thinking there had to be a better way to get through life, and thats when i came across Tim’s blog, and decided to pick up his book. As i stated in my last post, I’m currently playing with ideas for my first start up. I’m a tech guy, not a buissness one, so its a change of pace, but i don’t mind.

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  63. Great posts !

    I must admit that at times I envy my friends who specialize, but the jack of all trades has a far greater ability to adapt. I would have been the 5th generation of lawyer in my family. I just could not bring myself to live in a daily adversarial enviornment.

    Thanks again for a great book!

    PS.

    Tim, I emailed our company’s donation to your contest.

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  64. People have asked what the downside is to being a Jack of All Trades. The downside is that you are responsible for your own success / advancement in life, the “system” is not designed to reward people like you.

    A specialist can (and usually does) rely on an employer or society (in the form of government opportunities) to keep him/her working and content.

    The upside is limited – specialists are rarely (if ever) CEOs or heads of anything beyond a “department” – but then their downside is also limited. There’s always a generalist out there looking for a specialist to do work for him ;)

    It is quite possible for a generalist to find himself with no employment opportunities and no “handouts” waiting for him. In those times the Jacks of All Trades either make their own opportunities or perish.

    The upward potential for a generalist is unlimited, but there’s one hell of a downward spiral if you aren’t up to the taking responsibility at all times.

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  65. Certainly this is the case in therapy, where having a generalist, a doc who has experience in all disorders, specializes in none (too boring) is a plus.

    But the real geniuses, the family practitioners who diagnose everything for an HMO penny and have to refer (often) to the SPECIALIST at the patient’s insistence, really get the shaft.

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  66. In the academic world this used to be called interdisciplinary studies. Those were the days when someone was really allowed to think and get a degree for it.

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  67. Yeah that was me, my degree was a huge mixture. Counselors nowadays try to talk everyone out of an interdisciplinary education because they say you will never get a job, which I feel is not true, unless you know you want to do something so specialized doctor, lawyer, etc.

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  68. Last month I penned a little post on my women-focussed blog that examined being a “Jill of All Trades”.
    The reality is that employers these days are looking for people who are practical, flexible, responsive and in possession of enterprise or “soft” skills (ANTA study 2001).
    In the scheme of things, the capable generalist who can meet a business’ various needs in a timely manner is often more valuable than the one-eyed specialist with his truck-load of degrees…

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  69. I totally agree. Specialists usually ending up working for generalists.

    Richard Branson is one of the most amazing generalists I know of – and he loves learning about new businesses and launching them. It’s far more interesting than doing the same old thing day in day out.

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  70. Really relevant post. I agree with Jeremiah Reid who posted a comment on the 14th of September. I am such a generalist that until actually reading this post I thought their was something wrong with me.

    I’ve got to go now but will continue this comment later.

    Thanks!

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  71. Good article. I think becoming a master has it’s merits, but generalizing gives you a higher probability of being successful. EX. How many tennis masters can make enough money for a living…the top world 1000? Say the same to whatever sport you can think of. Generalizing allows you to try many different things, and go to the one you can do best.

    I would not call it master of none, but jack of all trades, master of a few. The master of none probably would not be doing too good if everything he knows is half baked(jack of all trade). You’d still want to master something, just don’t be clueless in other subjects.

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  72. Author/speaker Barbara Sher uses the term “scanner” for the Jack of all trades type. She wrote an excellent book, Refuse to Choose!: A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love, that describes Scanners and how to gain the maximum benefit from this lifestyle. Great book!

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