The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades

303 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 CPA? Is Steve Jobs a better programmer than the iTunes VP of Engineering? No, but he has a broad range of skills and sees 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.

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

  1. I’m 18 and I’m not in college like my family and friends tell me I should be. Taking a year off I’ve discovered many more interests and capacities than I thought I possessed. I’ve always had the hunch that the “jack of all trades, master of none” mentality wasn’t quite true, so I’m very grateful for this article, for the identification of the reasons I was looking for.
    I only stand to learn how to orchestrate my band of interests: music, acting, writing, and business.

    What would you say is the best way to learn this, Tim?

  2. I appreciate positive thoughts on being a Jack of All Trades.

    Steve Jobs did innovation and leadership. Innovation is often putting together existing technologies in a new way. I do not see this kind of innovation done by a devout specialist.

    Specialist are highly needed as well. I have met a lot of people who thrive at this and never seem to get bored with this. Steve Jobs would need those people to carry out his ideas. It’s about finding ones strenghts and weaknesses and getting the most of it.

  3. I’ve thought a lot about this subject because is has some definite practical applications about the way to live your life and I think you make some strong arguments.

    I do think, however, that there is a lot to be gained from pursuing ‘mastery’ with at least one skill over years and years. Not perhaps, it terms of improvement in that skill, but the philosophical lessons that walking that ‘path of mastery’ for so long teaches.

    An example, when you stick with something that long, you eventually plateau in your improvement. You’ve done the 20% that’s really effective and now your ROI for your time is a a lot lower. You CAN move on to the next thing, but there’s something to be gained from continuing to practice your craft goallessly, not seeking improvement per se, but practicing for the enjoyment of practicing.

    If you jump around all the time, you never get that.

    So a happy medium, for me at least, has been to find one or two things I really enjoy and want to practice ‘all my life’ (e.g. cooking) and continue to hop around pick up other skills in a more ‘jack of all trades’ way.

    Another lesson though was that you can also pursue mastery with the sort of ‘meta-skill’ of learning new skills. If you consciously practice the…practice…of learning new skills all your life you get the benefits of mastery there and all the benefits of being a jack of all trades that you mentioned above.

  4. I was feeling kind of down thinking I’ll never be better than mediocre and reading this made me feel a little better. ty.

  5. I totally vibe with this, I could never see myself pigeoned holed into one thing, even as a dj I am into many different forms of music which keep me excited. I would be so bored with one style of music. A great example is being a film director, a good director has to know a lil of editing, acting, camera operations, lighting, bookings, catering, fashion, make-up, etc to create a masterpiece of a film. A specialist would fail in such an endeavor. Same holds true of a conducter of an orchestra. As in life you will have those that are generalists and some that are specialists, I think finding which one excites you the most is the path one must be aware of. Great book BTW just started reading it!

  6. Joe Lewis (RIP Joe!), an American pioneer in Karate (1974 heavyweight champion), won more titles in his 17 year fighting career than any other Karate fighter. He was chosen in 1983 by his peers as the “Greatest Karate Fighter of All Time”.

    All that started after he received his black belt in seven months. His sidekick was the best in the business and in many tournaments won every single point with only one technique…the side kick.

    Kicking the asses of “specialists” with the times the experience …my kinda guy.

  7. Hi, everyone. On an impulse, I just looked up Jack of all Trades today and it took me to Tim’s blog and consequently all of you. I also am a devout generalist with good work history and credentials. I have proven myself by being a mere Bachelor level educated curiosity –leaving many one-eyed and degreed engineer coworkers in the proverbial dust. Which brings me to a lament about something that was a constant source of annoyance and which I can imagine some of you know and understand. The business jealousy and disrespect from engneers and PhDs (and other certificated “experts’) toward the minimally degreed generalist is so widespread, unproductive, and quite often ad hominem.
    I’m an example of one mid level in a continuum of what we all can reach and surpass if given the opportunity. And, I belielve that all of the generalists commenting here are heroes in their own right. Unfortunately, Our society largely doesn’t integrate folks like us very well. People say, “if they made people lots of money, they would hire them.” Unfortunately, we don’t do what’s best for us as a people more often than not –because of lots of things, but it ends up being about ego and insecurity, usually. So we often suffer from the same thing from others we as individuals have often worked to overcome, fear of risk or the unknown.
    I lucked out and was close to someone who started a company. She hired me almost immediately to lead her Design R and D, which I did for 12 years as one of 3 Directors. I made 6 figures for 9 of those 12 years before the company was bought out. The founder is long gone now and the new company had trouble deciding what to do with me. They seemed to think laying me off was OK, though. I am currently building my 4th private business but now having trouble narrowing down my offerings… because it feels unnatural to me.

    I am so glad to have found this site and read what some of you have written about your experiences. Thanks for making my day.

  8. Great comments on here, I am in good company!

    I’ve always thought the idea of Jack of All Trade’s was the right life path and guess I’ve been a”generalist” my whole life. I love the best that life has to offer and want it all, basically all the time. It seems I am not alone.

    My experience has been that society thinks of the Jack Of All Trades as a poor vagabond. But it’s also been my experience that it is often best to be on the other side of the fence than everyone else.

    Thanks for the encouragement, Tim and everyone.

    -Nick L.

  9. Certainly an interesting perspective on the Specialist – Generalist question and probably one of the few ones that makes some great points for being a generalist.
    Great post over all and makes great points, however I still think it is best to have a wide spread general knowledge and specialise in a few aras that is of most interest to the individual or company.

  10. Needed to hear this. I’ve been facing a lot of judgement of people saying that I should only focus on one thing.

    Would it be possible if I share this post on my blog?

    • Hello all, despite the generalist dissatisfaction with rampant misunderstanding and lack of serious consideration on many fronts, (for the most part), anyone else out there having problems with the green background of the text? I realize I’m now in a even smaller much maligned subset of generalists– the renaissance colorblind. I was thinking about the likelihood of this being a problem with one of the few web conversation that I really have enjoyed!… I laughed!

      Thanks for never failing to help me feel less hopeless about my chances for getting another job.
      Regards to all.
      (But seriously, any other colorblind folk having a problem here?)

  11. Makes a lot of sense. I completely agree.

    I arrived to the same point of view, and applies to every field. Take for instance Mixed Martial Arts, you have to excel in every field, and that doesn’t mean that because you know everything, you do not master the different parts.

    A boxer could be better than a mixed martial artist in fencing, but I doubt it would be better in MMA fight, but the MMA fighter, could go for both fights with better chances of success.

    The same applies for business, and even more, because the generalist can outsource the specialists, but the specialists would have no idea of what to outsource, since they do not see the whole picture.

    That’s the reason why I left finance department after 4 years. I prefer to enjoy working, learning and having different experiences, than a normal, predictable, specialized, linear life.

    Cheers Tim

  12. I agree wholeheartedly that in running a business, breadth of knowledge rather than depth of expertise is most helpful.

    I’m curious though who the Renaissance men and women are in the business world today? I was really impressed by Bryan Goldberg’s piece on this subject in Pando Daily titled, “You don’t want experts. You want jacks-of-all-trades”: http://pandodaily.com/2013/03/22/you-dont-want-experts-you-want-jacks-of-all-trades/

    Worth a read. Other than this guy, who else fits the bill? Steve Case? Jay-Z?

  13. Hey all. Thanks for the link, Ryan.

    something came to mind the other day, and I wondered what the context was for Heinlin’s comments as so appropriately stated by an earlier post….
    stands repeating I think: “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. ” Strong and meaningful words it would be nice to know what he was reacting toward or against at the time. Does anyone know the context for this?

  14. Great article.

    I have swung my pendulum both ways in the thought process on this issue. I think being able to understand where another is coming from is one of the most powerful tools someone can have. If you live in your own little universe you can never relate to others thus never bridge the gap between tech and art, sports and culture, product and marketing, sales and development. When you are exposed to the fears and dreams in others areas you can envision so much more, create and blend things that to a balanced well versed person intrinsically blend.

    My favorite book ever was Ben Franklins autobiography but I have also read Malcom Gladwells Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers. I found these fascinating. Ben Franklin tried to learn Latin at a young age but failed. He later learned French, Spanish and Italian. He came back to Latin after learning these languages and found it a breeze. The nuances, derivations and other insights he learned from the other languages helped him to come back and master Latin. It was the generalist quests for knowledge of all that led him to become a master of this skill and many.

    I can’t completely buy into the 10,000 hours to mastery theory given by Gladwell and have myself been a huge believer in the 80/20 principal. I played baseball from age 3 until 15 but could start on the JV team. I took up football at 15 and was all county within two years in high school and then started four years in college. I went from never doing shot put to being 2nd in the state in one year at 17. 10,000 hours would not have made a small person better. (I’m 6’3 245) Using slow motion video of my own throws in practice was my first look into the 80/20 effect in my own life. Learing Olympic Lifts, Deadlifts, and Squats were some of the others.

    The mind is the most powerful tool we have. I become obsessed with subjects, sport, bio’s, careers, etc for periods but just like anything else my enthusiasm wanes. You can push yourself to keep doing the same thing for the rest of your life but why. As far as we know for sure we only go around once. People who buck the trend seem to be much happier Richard Branson starts different companies all the time, Arnold went from lifting, to acting, to politics, to author.

    Tim F understands that it’s the ability to reinvent the quench for knowledge that is the secret. When you can reset the quench the passion will follow, with passion comes drive, drive creates intensity and focus, intensity and focus with proper knowledge produce results at an accelerated pace. Results combined with productive choices will lead to a fulfilled existence.

    I love to vary my own sports from skiing to mountain biking to surfing. Even if a routine might not be the best a new and different routine in the gym leads to quick gains because it is a refresher for the mind a welcome change to the body. You had previously flattened your bell curve and need to reset it.

    The people who reach mastery without being well rounded often are lost without a guide and never learn how to transition or refocus. Look at Bobby Fischer, sports hall of famers, workaholics, former olympic athletes. The ending of one sided perfection is not often pretty. The mind recoils in horror due to never pushing in other directions. I think the mind has many pathways. Exploring each one to it’s fullest will lead to balance, invention and the next modern day renaissance man.

    Great article as always
    Walt

  15. I have listened to your book the 4HWW! Great stuff, but you already know that! I’m in the mist of applying the principles learned in your book. Going on a Radio show hosted by Neil Strauss The Inner Circle. E-mailing Magazine editors, opened a blog (that sadly needs help and web traffic). The struggle is I have been doing all this in secret and it makes it so much more challenging. If you can give me any tips on moving foot traffic online or be as kind as to post a comment on my page I would greatly appreciate it!
    Warm Regards,
    Kiki Bee.

  16. Awesome stuff in this article. Thank you so much! Everyone else just writes about the downsides of being a jack-of-all-trades, but this is what people really need. I myself do everything from auto repair, to web development, and everything in between. Keep up the good work!

  17. This was really funny and logical , I loved it . Having said that , it dint require to ridicule the idea of mastering just one thing . Some who have read this are mistaken in thinking that it is ok to not be focused . It is ok to know just enough to master one thing and one thing only , even a generalist cant claim to know everything. also nothing is mastered without touching upon various skill sets. To survive itself you have developed social skills, immunity , communication etc.. So while mastering one thing you are not any less by choosing not to master everything . I totally agree with the capacity of the human mind to master many things.Mastering at least one thing I feel should be a worthwhile endeavor for the limitless human mind . Once that is achieved , sometimes people are rewarded with enough security , financially and enough satisfaction psychologically to undertake a spiritual journey of just understanding the true nature of nature. Some great people in history have never felt the need to prove anything. Also nothing guarantees boredom only the incapacity of the mind to entertain itself with yourself.

  18. I trade Forex for a living, and ever since I switched to playing only one pair (GBPAUD), learning everything about it, inside and out, only focusing on mastering that pair, optimizing my money management and the trading strategy specifically for that pair for 6 months straight, I’m now trading it with 75%+ success rate. And every trade makes me 3-6 times more than what I lose.

    This was the best decision I’ve ever made, play one pair well, rather than 10 pairs poorly. It gives me an edge over 99% of traders out there. I can come with full confidence, put down 200k on a trade, and walk away within a two hours with 100k in my pocket. All this while hanging out at Nikki Beach, Miami. Easy and stress free.

    I’m 101% sure that if I kept playing many pairs like 99% of traders out there due to greed of trade volume over trade quality. I would probably have quit FX very quickly due to the stress, losses and information-overload.

    The fact that you become a master of one pair, is a long term asset that no one can take away from you, EVER.

    • Daniel, It appears to me one could think that you are adding data in support of the ubiquitous concept that specialization is the best approach. However, in reality you are showing that using your best knowledge of a given field–in this case, realizing that trading one vs. many is a good idea –is the best approach for this particular “science.” So? (I apologize is this wasn’t your point.) No one has said that using your best effort or information in a given area isn’t a good idea and I believe my appreciation of the joat approach comes from all the reasons listed above in the many thoughtful posts. However, none of these have ever discounted the idea that you should use your best info when pursuing each interest; that is if you want to be as successful as you can in that particular area. Your comment makes sense in stock trading, but imagine how the cattle breeder would fare if they took your approach? It’s always a good idea to use your best experience/knowledge when approaching a given discipline. However, knowledge of as many areas as interest you will more likely keep people like me, anyway, sharper and more capable/innovative in all of those areas–not to mention the life-is-interesting/engaging factor. Supporting data previously presented.

  19. Tim, this is very refreshing to hear. In always been an admirer of artists with versatile styles eg, Graham Greene wrote books on philosophy, religion, war s well as detective fiction.Ang Lee directed The Hulk, Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi – diverse subjects but wonderful movies . Further home I love cooking, technology, writing detective fiction and being innovative. Gives me hope!

  20. I am so happy that you wrote this article. I actually have been reading the Four Hour Chef, and I love the fact that the book isn’t only about cooking, or “one dimensional”. I absolutely love the way your brain works. People tell me all the time, that me having so many skills and interests it makes me look as if I am all over the place. I dont see it that way though. I absolutely love to learn new things! If something interests me, I will try it. Thanks again Tim Ferriss! You give me HOPE. I will now refer to myself as the Jack of All trades, Master of many.

  21. Hey Tim,

    Thanks for this analysis. I’ve always thought of myself as a generalist and hated that phrase “master of none” you mentioned. I’ve fretted that Renaissance men were of a bygone era, and that I was born in the wrong time period. Having spent much of my life trying to fit a square peg (me) into a round hole (career), I’m still trying to figure out how to fit into this world that seems to demand specialization. I recently left my career to start over, and this helps knowing that Renaissance men aren’t a dying breed.

  22. Tim, well done, on this article, and the whole echiladas…….
    We are all pieces of this fantastic puzzle (aka multiverse).
    Live simply, Be nice to everyone, and Embrace the unknown.