Essay On Jack Of All Master Of None

The Myth of the “Jack-of-All-Trades, Master of None”

One of the main issues, when people are trying to define what it is they would like to spend their next X years doing and eventually mastering, is not really choosing, but rather trying to figure out how does that occupation fit in the larger context of their own existence.

For example, if you are a farmer, there is only a finite number of hours per day you can dedicate to things outside the development of the farm you are working at, as opposed to living in a bigger city, having a family that produces money in their sleep and not being particularly interested in academic schooling, which gives you to some extent the entirety of the day to dedicate to what would you like to master.

This translates into a simple but powerful “the more free time you have, the more you can use it to try stuff out and come to your own conclusions on what it is you would like to master”. To me, the whole idea of mastery is nothing more than the self-expression of your ability to consciously dedicate your time towards something that in the long run gives you structure for the entropy of your mind (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow).

What this means is that in order to have any kind of mastery on any kind of subject, you need the discipline to tame the chaos of your unconscious mind, i.e. to kick yourself in the butt to focus.

Without focus, there is no such thing as skill.

The issue that I have with the assertion “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” is exactly this: people who can’t direct their focus on multiple things over the course of their lives usually use it to put themselves on a higher moral ground against people who can focus on multiple things, thus making the ability to focus on multiple things seem like a weakness instead of an economically viable strength.

There is obviously nothing wrong with having multiple skills or even having superficial knowledge in them- where superficial knowledge is enough to give you the benefits of living in a state of flow and/or monetize it; what seems to be wrong in this context is a group of people judging another group of people for spending their time in how they believe they should spend their time. Let’s make a case though for both ideas, mastering one subject only vs inhabiting multiple abilities and acting them out sometimes simultaneously.

Kim Jung Gi is a Korean comic book artist, well-known for his ability to draw intricate visual structures without the need to sketch things out apriori. He is what people in the graphics field call a master because of his propensity to effortlessly depict complex scenery with only his mind serving as a sketchbook. Right now he is selling artwork at an aggressive pace, gives live demonstrations of his abilities and inspires artists from the entire world, having practiced drawing exclusively for almost his entire life as a skill.

Robert Greene is the author of five international bestsellers, being well-known for his lengthy books on power, seduction, and strategy. Until he was 36, he worked countless numbers of different jobs, learning how to master basics for brief periods of time while he extracted overarching principles for life that became the main themes of his literature. He was a jack-of-all-trades who one day met a book publisher that took his ideas to heart and proceeded in making him famous and rich.

There are obviously other countless examples for both ideas; the point that I am trying to get across is: there is no correlation between being a generalist (jack-of-all-trades) or a specialist (master of one) and fame, money, happiness or excitement for life. None. The only correlation I see fitting the context is: by being a generalist you have more chances of developing or inventing new, innovative ways of living, while by being a specialist you have more chances of properly being able to educate others in the specific field you are operating; but this is obviously a conclusion drawn from intuition and common sense, not one that stems from experience or scientific research.

The debate of whether or not you should be a generalist or a specialist is, to me, useless and futile; in my estimation you can be a specialist in something and a generalist at other things and this could be the default state of any human being- regardless of your area of specialization you still need to be acceptable at socializing, sex, health, and self-knowledge, which by no means are unimportant for any human being’s life. And this brings me back to the point I was making at the beginning of the essay: whatever skill you are trying to pick up on, what’s important is not what it is specifically or how many of them there are, but rather how do they fit in your day-to-day life.

The reason I wrote this essay was this: to my current understanding of the particular field of design, I can see young people like me getting bombarded with mindsets and ideas that contradict each other; from “jack-of-all-trades is bad, better do just one thing” to ridiculous concepts like “T-shaped” employee that makes virtually no sense when you consider that you already are some form of T-shaped employee, whether you like it or not.

The confusion that designers have to face in not feeling free in pursuing whatever seems exciting (bear in mind, while also having a goal in mind as to why do they pursue design to being with) stems from people’s own inability to correctly assess and dissect design properly. This is what design looks like to me, dissected in as little number of required interests as possible:

As you can see, there are at least four main areas of interest that you need to know of if design sounds appealing. Everyone who tries to sell you some way of how you should or shouldn’t spend your time, while simultaneously failing to provide you with an accurate description of what that particular field/ job/ subject/ area of interest really is, is simply trying to make you conform to his/ her way of living your existence. If you are a designer, it makes way more sense to pursue multiple interests, especially if they enhance your understanding of any of the above skills.

I’ve written this quote before and I will write it again and again:

“The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.” ― Robert Greene, Mastery

Whether or not you choose to specialize or not should come as a result of your own critical thinking and efficient assessment of personal goals and motivations- not the result of reading a bunch of internet articles written by people who may or may not know what they were talking about.

Having finished recently Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide, it became clear that too much information often causes you start having decision paralysis. That insight also combined nicely with one my favorite idiomatic quotes:

Jack of all trades, master of none,
though ofttimes better than master of one.

Having worked in marketing and programming, project management and motion design, this may even seem a personal counter sense. In fact, trying to pretend you do or know a lot of things on several disciplines induces mediocrity, by not excelling in any of them.

Relax, my cat wasn’t harmed for the photo shoot

The same reasoning applied last Monday while commenting about “who owns social media“, as i stated that only users own social media. Not PR agencies, not ad agencies, not SEO experts. Everyone and his cat is trying to get  a piece of the cake, even if we’re all clueless about it. We’re all learning as we go.

So stop pretending your agency knows all about social media when they just don’t have the skills or human talent. If you try to be jack-of-all-trades, you risk being regarded as master of none. Be a PR agency. Or a Design Studio. And work with the best partners to provide the best social media strategy.
As for the so called Social Media Experts that are becoming more usual nowadays, beware. Ask what they did for the community, what social web tools do they use besides Facebook or Twitter, demand for examples.

This is not the end of it, yet.  Just this morning, as i was thinking about these subjects and the way they relate to my professional experience, i tweeted:

Don’t get offended by the mention of parasites. It’s actually an evidence in nature, stated by the the much wiser author Kevin Kelly on his latest post “Increasing Specialization”, on what was a personal closure on this specialization subject. It’s something that works for nature and i believe it should apply not only for professionals but also for organizations.

We can’t all be a Renaissance Man. We can’t all be as good writer as we are engineers. We can’t all be companies that are both creative and perform six-sigma. You’ll only make a fool of yourself when facing someone who actually knows about the subject.

Digital Marketing will have a hard time being respected if every 15 year old kid proclaims himself as a Social Media Expert. Or worse, if companies actually hire them because they don’t respect the discipline enough or just can’t find the talent to work on it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be interested about it:

Be absurdly great at one thing. Be curious on all things.

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