It appears the old saying ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ is long dead. There are many Jacks of all trades commanding massive success in fields that they are technically yet to master. And many even go on to create new standards for the ‘specialists’ in such trades.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group consists of 400 companies with offering virtually everything from airlines to broadband. Aliko Dangote of Nigeria is a billionaire that whose businesses range from cement (building) to sugar (food) – how on earth do they connect. Other names will start ringing in your mind right now of creative individuals who’s defiled the odds and stepped beyond their comfort zones to excel in new territories almost simultaneously.
This begs the question: “what on earth was the then wise man that condemned the Jack of all trade thinking”. Don’t dwell on that, rather focus on reasons why you can be and how you can effectively be Jack of all trades and succeed in all.
Tim Ferriss gives the following top five reasons to be “jack of all trades,” (something he rather prefers to call “generalist,”):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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