The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades

339 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.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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339 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

      • I started learning about alcohol a year ago. I don’t even drink much. But I work in a liquor store now, and I know more about general spirits than most of my supervisors and all of my coworkers. I’ve written a book, I have the material for more books, and I’m starting a website on the topic. It doesn’t take long, with focus, to learn an insane amount about a given topic.

        Being a jack of all trades doesn’t mean you have to learn them simultaneously!

        Liked by 1 person

  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!

    Liked by 2 people

  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!

    Liked by 1 person

  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

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  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