The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades

390 Comments

1951_Plymouth_Assembly_Line___Little_did_we_realize_in_1951_…___Flickr_-_Photo_Sharing_Specialization isn’t always a good thing. Photo from 1951 assembly line.

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.

Please check out Tools of Titans, my latest book, which shares the tactics, routines, and habits of billionaires, icons, and world-class performers. It was distilled from more than 10,000 pages of notes, and everything has been vetted and tested in my own life in some fashion. The tips and tricks in Tools of Titans changed my life, and I hope the same for you. Click here for sample chapters, full details, and a Foreword from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

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

  1. There is an excellent book called The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine that talks about this and why some of us are meant to focus on more than just one thing. I highly recommend it.

    Nice to see a post on this issue in an age that pressures us to find our “one true passion” and focus only on developing a single skill. Many of us have broad skills and interests and need the intellectual stimulation of multiple pursuits to keep us going.

    Like

  2. Can it be that I opened a friend’s email today and ended up surfing to this article which I have never found before? I have been in a quandary about how to best market my “jill of all trades” talent. While I’m a writer and editor, I really am best at project development and organizing which widely uses my writing and editing talent. All four give me a unique and wide range of what I can do, but it is this article which I really needed to tell me that it’s okay I can’t seem to find one niche. Thank you! Now, what to call myself; I’ve never figured that one out!

    Like

  3. I heard the saying that you can do whatever you want and at any different level mastery as long as you good in that skill that pays the bills.

    How does a generalist demand specialist wages?

    BD

    Like

  4. Tim,
    As a 46 year old former corporate manager, I have seen a trend taking place in recent years in corporate America that seems to indicate specialization is the key. The generalist seems to be unable to penetrate the job market effectively for lack of a label that HR can understand. I myself have struggled in promoting myself within the corporate structure for this reason.

    I now have my own business and my general knowledge is more of an advantage.

    After reading your book, I have decided to put into practice your methods of automating a business and freeing myself and family for greater things. My problem is, As a generalist, I am having trouble defining a market and product to build my business around. I NEED MY MUSE! Can you give some methods on narrowing down the possibilities?

    Thanks Brother,
    Cole

    Like

  5. Being a jack of all trades has helped me make connections which weren’t previously seen, and helps me improve my work/life balance no end.

    As a full-time technical writer and part-time web designer, I’m interested in software UI design, Information architecture and all the tools of my full-time trade as well (typography, illustration, information design and writing). There is so much crossover between all these areas that being a specialist in one would leave me, essentially, professionally crippled.

    There are other aspects which have led me to “embrace Jack” but I’ll write them up on my blog once I’ve given them a little thought.

    Great post.

    Like

  6. As a Jack of All Trades, I’ve learned that I have one particular distinct advantage that no specialist can match. Some creative specialists can be out-of-the-box thinkers in the sense that the cliche is currently used. They can be ingenious, and they can break rules. What they absolutely can not do that I can is get the refined solutions that our found in other people’s boxes!

    What my co-workers have called “brilliant” in a number of different settings isn’t brilliance at all. I have often taken a technique or tool from one world where it has crystallized into absolute uselessness and plopped it unchanged into a different context where it is just what the doctor failed to order.

    Like

  7. Hi Timothy,

    I just got your book on audio (iTunes)… I just wanted to say thanks for putting it together… what an eye opener.

    Sincerely,
    JF Grissom
    San Diego, CA.

    Like

  8. I believe the ability to master many things and quickly is a function of IQ.

    I believe what you say holds true for those with high IQ but not those with lesser IQ’s.
    I have seen that fact reported and as a holder of a high IQ have seen it in daily practice.

    I used to believe everyone could do anything because I can but after years of encouraging others beyond their limits I sadly realize it simply isn’t true for most people.

    With a higher IQ comes an almost insatiable NEED to explore many topics. I often wonder if those with lesser IQ’s and needs aren’t happier and more content with their mastery of a small part of the universe.

    Like

  9. 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.Thanks again for a great book!

    Like

  10. I think a false dichotomy has developed in this conversation: a true specialist (such as the PhD scientist) is not what generalists get pushed to become. Generalists are typically urged to “pick something” at a MUCH lower level of skill and accomplishment than that. A perfect example is the way that smart, verbal people are pushed into law school. Often, we are told, “You can use that law degree in anything.” The real message isn’t “become a specialist.” It is “put yourself in a box that can be labeled.

    Like

  11. A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, write a sooet, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, solve equations, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight effciently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. Robert A. Heinleim

    Like

  12. Echoes my own thoughts exactly.

    When people ask me what I do, I counter their question with what did Leonardo da Vinci do? Was he a painter? Was he a sculptor? Was he an inventor?

    Leonardo wasn’t pigeonholed, so what’s with the modern preoccupation with defining us all by a single occupation?

    Like

  13. Hi Tim,

    I think I’m a “jack of all trades” myself. My interests and activities range from writing, singing, playing the guitar, martial arts (Aikido, Jujitus, Kali, Kendo, etc.), technology , business, travel, psychology, languages, among other things. I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a “master of none” since I’m doing some of these activities at a world-class level, too.

    Just like what you wrote, it is excitement and fun that motivates me to pursue my interests. I get bored easily and my different activities make me feel alive.

    One thing I’m working on right now is becoming an entrepreneur. Your book has provided me some great ideas.

    Vielen Dank und viel Erfolg!

    Ton

    Like

  14. Dear Tim,

    Really looking forward to your blog on the explanation of “world-class” as you mentioned in one of your replies. (below)

    ———–
    ###

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

    Thanks

    Hi Manan,

    I think I gave my thoughts in one of the comments to this post? If not, my apologies, but this will be something I’ll explore more in future posts regardless.

    All the best,

    Tim
    Manan

    Like

  15. I love this! I was once told that saying “jack of all trades, master of none” in high school after telling the teacher I could fix the computer he was using. I was also a black belt at the Tae Kwon Do martial art, wrote poems in english class, did well in physics and loved to create digital artwork. After spending 5 years in University specializing the boredom out of me, I am finally ready to get back to my roots. I know that I was really a more amazing person back then, I had dimensions, I had passions and ideas. These days the best I can do is answer programming questions.

    Now it’s time to be the entrepreneur that has been simmering inside of me! Thanks for the insightful post.

    Like

  16. Tim,

    Because the product I support is *SO* f’ing complex, I feel that becoming an expert in it is the only way to be successful in my position.

    But then I read your blog from time to time and find posts like this. You are one seriously sharp knife. You cut through the b.s. and go to the heart of the matter. This sentence struck me severely, and I had to stop and internalize it for awhile:

    ====
    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.
    ====

    You made my confront my main issue: while the product I support is complex, it is no longer intellectually stimulating or fun. I do it because it brings in a paycheck.

    I suffer from medical depression and I think the position I am in goes a long way towards keeping me ‘down’. We’re a single income family of 6. I make enough money to support my family and we’re comfortable, but I hate my job and my lack of zest for life that I used to have several years ago.

    HEEEEEELP!!!!

    p.s. I live in Austin but couldn’t afford to get an Interactive badge for SXSW. I truly wish I could have come. All the best.

    DL

    Like

  17. Response to geo’s comment about IQ: I think you have a good hypothesis there, one that reminds me of an observation that’s always irked me. As the responses to this post illustrate, some number of people (though we may be a minority) do, in fact, function this way.

    Set aside the issue of whether “IQ=smart” and consider that THIS “syndrome” is a normal one for some portion of people who score high on IQ tests — that compared to others in the population, this group includes folks who a) can learn a broader spectrum of things than average, b) enjoy learning and feel driven to it, c) learn rapidly, and d) have learning achievements that may be less than focused specialists but are much greater than average. Why demonize it!

    Why not just accept it as one in the array of human possibilities, and provide kids who display these traits with appropriate career direction FOR THEM. Barbara Sher has said that “dumb” companies fire such people while “smart” companies let them move around the company tinkering with and solving the problems no one else can solve!

    Like

  18. Tim – kick ass post and I couldn’t agree more, as a proclaimed renaissance man by friends and family. I relish the challenges, enjoyment and fulfillment that comes out of taking up new hobbies and interests. I agree you can become world class at anything. My challenge is mostly from taking up too many hobbies at once and pacing myself a bit in order to become masters of them. I think the balance of left brain/right brain activities makes you much more capable of anything you set out to do. Loved your talk at SXSW and look forward to keeping up with your blog and tweets. Just remember, Maslow Forgot about Beer (the title of my blog ;)). Keep it up!

    Like

  19. Dear Tim,

    My apologies.

    Yes, you had posted your thoughts on being “world-class” earlier as a comment. I missed it as I was searching for your replies only through Ctrl + F and “###”.

    Loved your thoughts on the same.

    Thanks.

    Like

  20. Is it possbile for a 14 year old to become jack of all trades? Cause I’m trying to excel in tennis, video production, graphics, algebra II, and dance. I have to balance school work and my hobbies, but I want to know your suggestion. Should I put all my efforts into school so I can go to good college and master those skills later, or should I find a balance? Please reply ASAP!

    Like

  21. Junus,

    Hey how are? I would definitely suggest balance. Academics are always good but I can tell you from personal experience that you want to have fun while you are in HS. Don’t miss out on doing all the fun things there are to do. I for example started martial arts in hs and am glad I did, otherwise if you wait till you are older it may be more difficult for you to start new hobbies/sports.

    I hope this helps. I noticed your comment and felt compelled to throw in my thoughts.

    Cheers

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

    Like

  22. Interesting. Gave me a new look into the wisdom behind Catholic medieval and rennaisance philosophy and culture, of being universal…

    Like

  23. This is so true. I always believe practical experience is far more than theory, sitting in a lecture theatre etc. Its also very handy when your stuck in situations to be able to wing it and work it out. Most people lack these skills and are too scared to have a shot at something. How else are you going to learn except by trying anyway! Thanks Tim. keep up the good work.

    Like

  24. Amazing article! Very thought provoking-and I am specifically thinking how this is applied to character development as well. Dynamic, engaging, and fun people pursue a multitude of interests and curiosities, often employing extensive and articulate vocabularies, and attend to both themselves and their social networks in genuine and authentic ways. They are the beautiful, smart, funny people we all want to get to know and when friendship is established we enjoy “being” with. And the wonderful part is none of this is developed by specialization. Afterall the beautiful woman who flawlessly paints her face and gracefully glides through the room in a beaded gown but has nothing to say becomes a hollow ornament. The geek that can speak fluent German AND Klingon effortlessly with his friends but finds himself utterly tongue-tied around ALL females of the species is really cuttin down his chances of gettin laid. These are cliche and extreme examples of course but even the more subtle forms of cultural inhibition are dangerous and can be just as miserable. Such as the struggling art student that takes herself and her emotions way too seriously to let go and get some groove on at the local dance club. Or the father that has expertly planned for his family to arrive at the same cabin in the same woods with the same great fishing down to the minute. These are not the people we want to hang out with much. What we would like to to engage with the folks that have something new to say. Wear something unique and intriguing and colorful. Or look like they are enjoying all sorts of hilarious inside jokes. What are these people thinking? Feeling? Doing? Where are they going? How did they get there? How do they look so good?

    Generalization. The All you can eat buffet of Life.

    On a positive end-being dynamic, curious, cultured, and multifaceted is very attractive and affords you the opportunity to “play” with others. Banter. Explore. Surprise. Inspire. And most treasured experience of all is the exchange of insight and experience and inspired creativity-dealing in the multiplication of value rather than merely addition. Afterall-any animal added to another animal can make an additional animal.

    But what animal can throw a really great party?

    I didn’t read all the commenting posts to this-I had to generalize-even though I’m sure I missed some awesome one. But the spirit of each one of them is largely the same grand feeling.

    Here’s a quote I was reminded of, from Robert A. Heinlin’s Time Enough for Love:
    “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

  25. Hello Tim,

    My name is Braden Loader. I’m currently a commerce student at the University of Manitoba, and to be frank, I’m tired of being 21 and not sailing my own boat off the coast of Costa Rica!

    I have a prospective business idea in the form of a self-guided adventure travel company, yet feel my business plan and concept are loose and undeveloped. I believe some serious strategic aid is to be sought if I’m not to be one of the several thousand internet sites that bite the dirt immediately. Realizing this may be an atypical request, I can only hope you’d humour me, as a newcomer such as myself could learn a lot from your business savvy. Where and when may we meet?

    As urgency is a matter of opinion, I’ll leave it up to you!

    Regards (I just can’t do the “cheers” thing),

    Braden Loader

    P.S. Apologies to those with intellectually stimulating comments, all I can do is try!

    Like

  26. I love the Heinlein quote, it sums life up for me!

    As someone who’s been called a Renaissance Man more than once, I feel like I’ve just found a second home!
    I’ve only just started the book and I’m loving it.

    As a kid, I thought I’d like to be James Bond, able to draw on whatever skill is required to handle any situation. I wanted to be McGyver, to solve problems logically and instead of shooting them or blowing them up. Leonardo Da Vinci became my idol. Learn the art of science and the science of art. I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on since the age of four in pretty much every field imaginable. Martial arts, basic military training (I’m Irish so no danger of going to war!), playing the guitar, singing, working as a potter, a stint in McDonalds, an IT Diploma and 9 years and counting living in Paris, France married to the love of my life.

    Yet something’s missing.

    And I’m still trying to find it. How do you tie it all together? How can you use that generalist non-specialist mindset to get ahead?

    Too complex to categorise…….I love that. And I’d rather be familiar to competent in a dozen fields than a world leader in one single area with little or no knowledge in any other.

    Like

  27. Specialization does make sense for branding.

    When your aim is to establish a unique position in the minds of your audience, being “the ONLY _____ that _____” (read ‘ZAG’ by by Marty Neumeier) gives you a distinct competitive advantage. “Being the best in the world is seriously underrated” (Seth Godin), because your message cuts through clutter and gets noticed quickly.

    But there two primary functions of business: innovation and marketing.

    Being *perceived* as a specialist makes sense for marketing.
    Being a generalist is crucial for innovation.

    Specialists who only know how to market fail to innovate.

    Like

  28. One other thing to note. I can’t recall the exact references (though I am sure there are many beyond a couple), but there has been more than a few inventions and cunning edge discoveries discovered simply because of knowledge in another field. The one I am thinking of is a discovery made in a field of science due to the founder drawing something from the knowledge of violin playing. Great post! It is very inspiring.

    Like

  29. I checked out Alfred Loomis on Wikipedia. According that source, he was the original inspiration for Bruce Wayne and Batman!

    Do you think that someone will soon base a comic book character on your lifestyle and persona?

    What’s your own personal opinion on wearing your underwear outside of your pants?

    Seriously though, your achievements are amazing, inspiring and very possible for those willing to adopt them. I’ve done intensive training and gotten excellent results in such a short time that you get the inevitable, “You’re so lucky” or “You’re so gifted” comments. All nonsense of course, it’s just dedication, a few street smarts and effective leverage of time and resources that does it. I have to say that you do all of this with a great amount of style. Hats off to you!

    Like

  30. Interesting to find this article. as I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not I’m over extending myself by trying to learn and accomplish too much.

    The point about knowing 20% of a language and being able to communicate with 80% of the people is really true.. not just figuratively speaking of language.

    I follow all sports just enough to have an intelligent conversation about them, same with politics, stocks, and music.

    I’m not a fanatic of any of these… and wouldn’t miss them if you took them away.. but by taking a half hour every day to read up on these 4 topics, I can talk to just about anyone.

    Like

  31. I think generalist-specialist may be a false dichotomy anyway. My suspicion is that most talented and highly successful people are or end up being particularly capable at accomplishing some particular thing or cluster of things. The trick is that “things and clusters of things” as they exist in the real world are necessarily interdisciplinary because disciplines are arbitrary constructs. The most valuable person in most situations is the person who has the abilities and sensitivities of a specialist in the randomly combined handful of areas that are pertinent to that situation. That person is always going to look like a generalist – at least in that narrow job history.

    Like

  32. Hey Tim
    Great post
    I’m writing a book on this subject, advice for people juggling many talents and passions. Can I get an interview with you? Or cite part of this post? Thanks! enjoying following you on Twitter
    Lisa
    P.S. I have an apartment in Paris you could use

    Like

  33. @Lisa,

    No problem if you want to cite a few quotations from this post, as long as you attribute it to me and provide the blog URL (www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog). I’m taking some time off of interviews, I’m afraid.

    Best of luck and perhaps we’ll bump into each other in Paris 🙂

    Pura vida,

    Tim

    Like

  34. Thanks for posting this, Tim. I couldn’t agree more. I happen to have en endless well of curiosity, it seems, and I’ve spent most of my life trying out the many different things I want to know how to do. For years, I was mediocre at most of them. I’m still mediocre at some. And others, I’m just getting started.

    At the same time, a teenage passion for cars now has me able to lube points, change water pumps, and do all sorts of things under the hood I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. The same for computers. I was a geek then, but now I get to be the hero who can fix most people’s tech problems.

    I wrote for fun. Now I do it for a living (and a good one). I paint, first not so well but now not so badly. I draw (always have) and had a published weekly cartoon strip for a couple of years.

    I cook, sometimes pretty well and sometimes badly. I play the guitar. I juggle. I’m learning right now about photography. I’ve learned how to travel and now live overseas (Paris) a good part of the year. My French is coming along. Next, my wife and I plan to tackle Spanish.

    I say this not to brag (well, maybe a little… because I’m proud of how these skills piled up) but because I never would have imagined, when I had few or none of these skills under my belt, that I’d get this far. Nor did I realize how much each newly mastered and divergent skill would give me both the energy and the zeal to tackle the next thing on the list.

    For instance, I’m learning WordPress. For years, I couldn’t get anyone to create a site for me that was quite right. Mostly because I didn’t know the possibilities myself, and couldn’t direct them. Finally I just decided, I have to learn to do this… and it’s coming together. Not perfect. But a year from now, I’m guessing I’ll be pretty good at it.

    Anyway… great post.

    You’ve got a quick wit and you’re clearly a clever thinker.

    Good stuff.

    P.S. And no, at this point I haven’t read your book yet. But what I’ve seen on this site convinces me. I’m going to go check it out right now.

    Like

  35. I learned the value of being a Jack; when up against an economist I would pull upon my IT background and knowledge of systems (something the economist may not be as familiar), but when up against an IT expert I would use my economics background or business (which they may not be as familiar with)…in other words, you can exploit the expert’s limitations.

    Like

  36. This post describes me to a tee! At the tender age of 25, I’m already an author, journalist, business owner, and candidate for state-level office. I have already been mocked by many people for being a “jack of all trades” and for “doing everything and nothing” with my life. But the funny thing is, is that I know many of these people aren’t happy with their lives and one-track careers. On the contrary, I’m very content with my life and work.

    Thanks for this post Tim!

    Like

  37. Being able to delegate tasks to people smarter than yourself is an important skill for the generalist. I personally think creating a list of 3-5 areas you would like to become knowledgeable in and then continually learning in those areas will improve your ability and make you become a ‘specialist’ in each field but a ‘generalist’ overall. This is even more important as an employee who does not have their own business running part-time. Being able to move from one occupation to another and having transferable skills is critical to surviving in the Information Age.

    Like

  38. this may already of been said but
    how does one know what 20%
    of the information they will need
    (example when learning guitar there are
    dozens of cords but for the sake of
    idea lets say there are 10 which 2
    are most used? do you really need to know
    that augmented F sharp cord? but what of the g cord?)
    so how does one go about finding the 20%?

    Like

  39. I would define a generalist not as a person who knows “a little of this; a little of that” but as a person who has achieved about “mid-level” specialist abilities in more than one area and who has derived insights from the connections others (including specialists) don’t see in order to solve new and complex problems and to innovate.

    Like

  40. questions:

    What if everyone was a generalist? If everyone was a generalist, we would still have people who mastered some occupations better than others. How would one generalist give up his skills to another?

    Like

  41. I bought the book two days ago. I’ve been reading this blog most of the day. this post especially rings with me. I’ve always wondered why we never strive to be like the great polymaths like Leonardo, Michelangelo, etc.

    Why the obsession with specialising.

    As such I’ve thrown myself into learning more and more. Some of my personal goals include ju jutsu & iai jutsu, poetry, philosophy, break dancing, yoga, Spanish and Japanese.

    Since expanding my horizons like this the world and my life has become 1000 times more fulfilling. I’m re-discovering lost hobbies and interests. I love it. I love the fact I’ve found someone who so successfully displays this too. One hell of an inspiration.

    Like

  42. Reason Number 6: Cross Procedure.

    If you have a discovery in your main field of expertise, other fields can be improved with the same type of thinking or similar concepts. Many developments in a wide range of fields can achieved by using “cross procedure.” Here is an example. Computers! They have been integrated into every facet of our lives however they certainly did not start out that way.

    Like

  43. As Robert A. Heinlein wrote, “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.”

    I’ve always believed this, though my personal reasoning is most in line with the boredom argument. As soon as I understand something with any depth, I’m ready to move on. It’s not the destination of knowledge but the journey of learning that I enjoy.

    Seth Godin has tried to make me question that, but it’s one of the few places he is short-sighted. As he writes, [paraphrased, badly] if you are looking to hire somebody, you hire the absolute best your money can afford. My retort: who then does that hiring?

    Like

  44. Just a quick thought.

    I recently switched to Google Chrome as my web browser and all of your blog postings come out with a black background and gray text, barely readable. I don’t know much about web design to offer specific suggestions, but you may want to look into it. Thanks.

    Like

  45. Tim,
    After reading your post I have to admit, i did recognize myself deeply, many thanks.

    But lately, i do not know, i have read your book with shiploads of interest and inspiration, i found it hard to outsource duties to third parties. Maybe due lack of trust to others & feeling too important to my own duties. I feel a bit awkard to my own lifestyle.
    My activities are with creative skills; I am a graphic designer, powerpointpimper, making animations, helping people out with visualizing their dreams and goals in life, i create paintings, storyboards, sell & design T-shirts & rebuilt furniture, organize events for people to share their passions, goals in life & inspirations along a bonfire, i do vj-ing at dance-parties i.e. all very nice to meet nice people and do my thing along the way.
    I go on holiday three times a year and learn a lot and see interesting people and their cultures. I follow courses in kitesurfing,

    The ‘generalist’-thing is making me a bit chaotic and i have noticed in the years that friends of the second circle are changing rapidly, it is all dynamic. But sometimes it really is making me tired. Questions as; should i move on like this, why is there not more money coming into the pocket from all the things i undertake? I eventually would like to buy a house, at least a place for myself. ( i am living for 4 years in properties of friends or people i met along the way).

    My request for your advise is; how can i outsource some of the duties within my ‘jack-of-all’-trades so i ‘work’ less and not feeling tired of ‘having a loads to do’-voice in my head & how can i make more of a living out of it (maybe more business-like, a side i have to develope probably) by doing so?
    And beyond that, i have the feeling of having a lifestyle to make some jealous with but why is there not the consiousness within me that says it is all ok like it is?

    My greetings from Holland
    Armand

    Like

  46. I find that most personalities who do well in their respective niche actually have something to bring to the table from outside of the subject. They are not experts in one field. They are experts in many areas and choose one area to focus on. It’s proven that great ideas are the combination of several preexisting ideas.

    Take Tim for example, who’s knowledge of how many different aspects of life work makes his lifestyle approach work.

    This is far more interesting and effective that the standard self-help folk who churn out the same material again and again.

    Like

  47. Further, the jack-of-all-trades mind is best served in an era where we are spending time online and a myriad of subjects is a click away. The growth in the longtail of divisions of a particular subject proves that breadth is important.

    Like

  48. As an avid serial specialist, thanks for the article! Just one thing-any suggestions for one of the 2 day challenges? I went to Whole Foods market and not a single “attractive” male in sight! I am all for asking for numbers (it will be a first; I am the one asked), but what next?

    Like

  49. I am little confused – as I am always being told that is it better to focus on one strength or idea first, rather than have 10 ideas all up in the air ( so to speak ).

    ie don’t start a new chapter before you’ve finished the last one.

    But reading your other posts, it seems I am not alone. As self employed graphic designer, I often feel weighted down by the multitude of tasks and responsibilities. Juggling many hats, sales, admin and the design.

    However about six months ago I went to on a workshop run by Wealth Dynamics speaker Roger Hamilton. In his workshop he talked about finding your core dynamic your strength. Any elements of your business that you find difficult or frustrating – means you are not working in your flow. And those are the part you should outsource. I have to say it was an enlightening moment for me. By actually letting go of wanting to be in control and master everything, my business has started to improved.

    Here is Roger explaining his philosophy,

    Like

  50. Completely agree. Being an expert in a narrow field can not only be boring but also dangerous.

    It leads to your back-pain specialist not realizing that there may be something wrong with your stomach. To interdisciplinary academics being shunned from circles of so-called experts -when they’re often the visionaries that can see the connections that others miss.

    Like

  51. I can’t imagine a comment on a post this old is likely to get any useful responses, but it’s worth a shot. What do you (anyone) think is the best way to master drawing quickly? Alternatively, and perhaps more usefully, is there a general way to break down any given skill so you can master 80% of it quickly? (I feel almost certain that Tim has posted on the latter topic before, but I couldn’t find it.)

    Like

  52. Matt,
    Learning is my passion, and learning what matters most so that I may enjoy the knowledge and teach it effectively quickly is how I spend most of my time. Is there something specific you wish to learn or simply to synthesize the principles of rapid mastery?
    Best Wishes,
    Sitara

    Like

  53. Hi Tim

    I read your book in about two days – I always thought there was something wrong with me for wanting to master lots of different things. I was born to be a Polymath and I am a Creator according to Roger Hamilton’s Wealth Profile Tests.

    Thanks for this Tim, this has really clarified my path in life and I will pursue different paths with a new zeal.

    As for becoming ‘World Class’ in different fields – I would argue that you only need to better than 80% of those in your field to do that and seeing as so many people give up so easily – I believe that if your consistent then that would be pretty simple.

    I mean look at those people who take the EAS and Body for Life challenges getting incredible model-like bodies in just 3-4 months.

    Anyone could do it – It’s not ‘can you?’ – It’s ‘will you?’

    Like

  54. There seems to be a false dichotomy in many responders answers. There is a third option between the “specialist” and the “generalist”. It would have to be a “multi-specialist:”.

    If you work hard and systematically for 30 minutes a day on almost anything you will improve. If you can work regularly at this for 5 – 10 years you will be considered truly gifted.

    Thus – one could chose 5 totally disparate hobies (a musical instrument, a series of foreign languages, a martial art, a unique artistic hobby, distance running…) and by spending 30 minutes a day on each of them you will become “world class” in probably about 5 years AND you can continue to super-specialize in a career if you so choose.

    Thus – The MD/pHD who is also a university level pianist, speaks 5 languages and holds black belts in 2 different martial arts is a very achievable goal if a consistent plan of attack is followed

    Like

  55. Finally some support for being a jack of all trades! I do believe however, that we who are the jacks of all trades, owe our success to the specialists who make it possible for us to acquire a particular specialty so quickly by learning from their work, mistakes and products. I’m just glad they are there to allow me the freedom of being a master of none but oft better than a master of one.

    Like

  56. This sounds good on paper, but when you have kids and a spouse to support, you had better get a specialty if you want food, clothes, and shelter.

    I can tell that many of you here do not take responsibility seriously. I at one time was a dreamer. But when reality set in, I realized that I was unfocused and was making excuses.

    It is a good thing to generalize if you have no responsibility. But for most of us, being very good at one job is all that we have to depend on. Being average or knowing a little about a lot is a good career path for someone who enjoys making minimum wage. I know plenty of know-it-alls who can barely keep the lights on.

    Like

  57. Yadgyu – that depends on the field. In some fields, business men with eclectic backgrounds oversee PhDs who make much, much less than they do.

    Like

  58. This is true Barbara. Most CEOs are not the smartest people at the company. But on the other hand, most people will never become CEOs. It is better to seek specialization. There is true job security, but being a specialist can help.

    I think most people want to be the best at a skill. It is obvious because kids want to be great like their idols. Many kids want to be the best athlete or entertainer. That never changes. What does change is that most people lose focus and give up on greatness. They settle for less and pretend as if being great at one thing is bad. But most successful people are great at one thing. They become the people that we idolize because they are great at that one thing!!!

    It is sad to see someone who is great at one thing try something else and look like a fool. Greatness can only be achieved with unrelenting focus and dedication. There will always be some fly-by-night acts who get a short burst of fame. But the greats stand the test of time. Michael Jackson was no Jack of all trades. He was remembered for being a great entertainer. No one cares if he could milk a cow or do an oil change or do some other random skill. Peole just wanted him to sing and dance.

    Greatness = Specialization

    Like

  59. Specialization is really only the way to go.

    Those who are great in life are usually great at one thing. It takes focus, dedication, patience, and perseverance to be great in life. Most people are not great at life because they lack these qualities. We don’t remember Michael Jackson for a myriad of skills. We remember him for being a great entertainer.

    I would strongly encourage 99.99999% of you to focus at one skill and try to become great. Otherwise you will be known as the dude who a little about everything, but who really isn’t that good at anything.

    Specialization = Greatness

    Like

    • it is an interesting take on things, but I tend to disagree. I am a jack of all trades and have done many things and have the toys and fame to back it. No I’m not a millionaire, but am usually the one that many call when they need something done right, or need a problem fixed. Having many skills is never a bad thing.

      Like

  60. Yadgyu – a couple of things:

    First, you say not everyone can become a CEO, and then you use Michael Jackson as your counterexample. Many more people become CEOs than become anything comparable to Michael Jackson.

    To stick with that example, Michael makes the case for those of us promoting generalism! You can say he was a “specialist” “entertainer”; I think it’s more accurate to see him as an uber-generalist: singer, writer/composer, dancer, recording artist, and video creator/producer are all different specialities. (MJ’s back-up dancers are specialists; he was a generalist.) He was also a philanthropist and, according to news reports, aspired to make feature films.

    Even within the realm of music-making, his unique contribution was breaking the genre barriers between “white” rock ‘n’ roll (e.g., guitar riff elements and such) and “black” R&B and soul.

    So – your example argues against your point.

    Like

  61. Michael Jackson was a generalist – singer, dancer, songwriter, video producer, philathropist, aspiring feature film maker – all different specialities. He achieved his breakthrough by combining elements of rock ‘n’ roll with elements of R&B and soul – again, no specialist.

    And as few people will ever be CEOs, many, many, many fewer will be world-famous entertainers in the category of Michael Jackson!

    Like

  62. The inherent meaning of expert means you are actually a master of all of the minute parts of that which become the “thing” you are an expert at… thereby making you a generalist…

    Think – a banker is good at math, people skills, forcasting, complex spreadsheets, risk anaylsis, risk avoidance.

    A bartender is good at selling, mixing, tasting, serving.

    No one is a specialist. People who promote specialists are either your boss, or are too scared to take a shot at living.

    Boo crappy examples that don’t prove a point. Hooray – having many talents and outlets.

    Like

  63. Wow… I wrote in earlier in full agreement with the “jack of all trades” idea. But this latest run of posts, admittedly, has given me a gut response that’s almost the opposite of what I said earlier.

    That is, for all the reasons to support generalism, it’s a mistake to dismiss specialism entirely. To be a generalist, I believe, is not to someone who takes it easy and absorbs whatever experiences and opportunities that drift by. Rather, it’s to be someone open to voracious curiosity. Someone willing to try a lot and do a lot, even if it’s out of their comfort zone or not clearly applicable to whatever else it is that they happen to be doing.

    Was Michael Jackson a generalist? Is a banker or a bartender? I think those remain open for debate, despite all the evidence for both sides of the argument provided above. What remains undeniable, though, is that those who succeed either work hard, work smart, or some of both.

    Tim, it seems to me, is advocating working smart. But not in a way that cheats any important endeavor of energy (whether your own or someone you’ve put to work on making that happen). What he’s not advocating is being unserious about accomplishment.

    Likewise, specialists often succeed at one thing because they’re passionate enough to specialize and because they dig in deep and learn to do that thing. There are infinite stories of great surgeons who can also play the piano, hike a mountain, or spot a good wine. There are writers who could paint, speak multiple languages, and throw a good punch. And the list goes on.

    Are they generalists? Yes, in the sense that their passion for living is not restrained only to that one thing they’re known for best. But you’d best believe that the one thing they did extremely well, they did often and above all those other things.

    Maybe that all runs against the theories of the four-hour-work week. But I don’t think so… for reasons already mentioned above.

    Like

  64. To some degree the argument is semantic. So, I’ll offer my definitions! A good generalist is a multi-specialist who, because of the multiple perspectives, is able to “break rules” intelligently. The person who drifts from thing to thing with no intellectual or social compass is not a generalist. The “true” specialist is limited by his/her rules and stumped when a different approach is the only thing that will work. The generalist is characterized by lack of such limits.

    You want someone to come into your company and conduct a training, you get a specialist. You want someone to tell you whether it’s really training you need or whether it’s really a new recruitment program or to fire the CEO because his affairs with underlings are causing havoc, better get a generalist; you’ll pay the specialist trainer tens or hundreds of thousands, and everyone will still be blind to the problem.

    You do not want to be a specialist when your line of work is, say, selling newspaper advertising. Much, much better to be a newspaper ad specialist who ALSO knows something about, say, social networking and can make the shift when craigslist comes along.

    Back to the Michael Jackson example. As I conceptualize it, there are great entertainers who fall into both categories. Their trajectory tends to be different. I’ll take the low-hanging fruit first, since the two are often compared.

    Elvis – specialist: though he was certainly a genre crosser and a genre creator (even if he did so passively), he was a singer/performer who did some arrangement and writing of songs for himself to sing. Actor? The consensus is no. His philanthropy seems to have been merely personal gifting. He wasn’t a dancer. And so on.

    MJ – multi-specialist really – no specialist songwriter OR singer OR dancer could accomplish those videos that made him famous.

    I’ll make a comparison with another entertainer. Jerry Garcia was a specialist. Designed guitars for himself to play, yet look at the Grateful Dead movie he did some directing for. You can see, it’s a bit “off” as a film because he could not really direct. Neither Elvis nor Jerry Garica – who both made big accomplishments in their specialities – could really get through in the generalist realm.

    (And I say that as a bigger fan of those two than of MJ.)

    Like

  65. In addition to semantics, there’s another meta issue to be tackled. Is being a generalist or a specialist really a choice? I think the whole “jack of all trades” epithet arose because there are people who simply aren’t happy or successful as generalists, whose minds don’t work that way! There are others who cannot function as generalists; if they don’t choose to focus, they do end up simply wandering rather than pioneering.

    Like

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

    Hey Tim,

    By not focusing on only one thing, you constantly stimulate your creativity and increase the potential to come up with something great.

    When your passion spawns many things, you are likely to combine them into something great. Just like artists who were great at one medium brought in elements from other things they were passionate about (The Beatles), or businesses who fused 2 disparate elements to create something remarkable (Apple fusing art and devices).

    It’s actually easier to learn the 20% (of the 20/80) of things you’re passionate about and be able to combine them into something unique and great than focus exclusively on becoming the best at one thing (unlikely).

    Scott Adams of Dilbert on how you have 2 options in life:

    1. Become the best at one specific thing.
    2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

    “The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.”

    By combining multiple things you’re pretty great at–but not the best–you can create remarkable things that are uniquely you.

    Awesome list Tim, inspiring to hear this, especially in this day and age. So true how we should be more like Da Vinci than a NBA star,
    Oleg

    Like

  67. That was absolutely beautiful and brilliant to me, and much needed to be shared with the world. Thank you so much Tim, that really touched my heart. I’ve always felt similar, and my personal vision is strongly involved with creativity and the Generalist concept.

    Like Lisa, I’d also love to cite a line or two from this post in a book I’m writing, and if you prefer me not to, I totally respect that.

    Maximize peak experiences 🙂
    Awesome.

    Like