The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades (#19)

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:

[You can find the full transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.]

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.

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The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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401 Replies to “The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades (#19)”

  1. Thank you Tim, this article saved me today. I was going mental trying to decide what area to specialise in, but I see now how the 80/20 rule is far more practical and life-giving than going down a wormhole of specialisation to the nth degree especially if it leads to anxiety, fear of loss of opportunities in that one particular area (and therefore left in the lurch without a backup skill) and boredom. I find it very hard; however, to put “Generalist” on a LinkedIn profile even though I agree for sure that it’s the best “title” for me, mainly because society is so obsessed with labels and seem to want to reduce who you are down to a couple words so they can tick the box that they know enough about you by just that title, so I struggle with applying for jobs for that reason as I have a wide & deep variety of life experience (like many people) and trying to choose just one on a LinkedIn profile is pretty challenging … but we can write our own rules! Perhaps it’s time to assemble my own company / jigsaw puzzle.

  2. I absolutely love this article. It is as if someone read my mind and wrote it down! You made my day for days and weeks and years 🙂

    Jack of all trades doesn’t work for everybody but it is the way for a creative mind.

    Thank you.

    Arma

  3. My God I have lived with that stigma all of my life. Ever since in high school a classmate whose position on the basketball team was given to me told me he thought I was good at everything but not exceptional at any one thing, I have doubted myself. I’m now 82. Fortunately I didn’t let that stop me with my varied interests and have enjoyed a rich multidimensional life and I’m still going strong in my art career.

  4. Thanks Tim. I’ve been struggling with the idea of whether my career has been building towards something as it is extremely varied. You are qualifying some of my personal beliefs about my path. I appreciate the post!

  5. I’ve been a jack of all trades for many years and I find that others I meet that are like this are willing to share and never want to quit learning or asking questions , great post Tim

  6. I actually new someone who had a business card that said “Professional JOAT”. {Jack of All Trades}. The real trick is to know when to see the specialist. Steve Jobs hired some kick ass programmers.

  7. 6 or 0, depending: The more new skills you practice, the more your brain develops meta-skills and meta-strategies, things that make you better at learning new skills and solving new problems in general. 2nd order skill learning. Acceleration.

  8. I’ve been a Generalist all my life, getting new skills came easy to me since childhood. I think that to be a really good generalist you first need to be an autodidact. I am a self-instructing generalist, and I don’t there is other way around that. The problem I have today, is I am multitasking with skills in shorter time spans everyday.

  9. I, too, am a generalist, but its not in the time spent in skills, its how I go about them and think deeply about the subject matter I am engaging in. I have two sayings that support and endorse how I engage a new task: “You don’t have to know exactly what you’re doing to know what you’re doing,” and “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

  10. i love that book Tuxedo Park. Loomis introduced ultrasound, radar and sonar and the atomic bomb along with many other projects!

  11. 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.

    -Robert A. Heinlein

  12. #6 having many skills and endeavors give a person more perspectives to be closer to finding the unifying essence of excellence

  13. Tim did you write this about me? I sure felt like it, but I guess I’m no Steve Jobs.

    I am a real estate broker, auctioneer, a licensed water well driller, RTK GPS auto guidance specialist, GIS software specialist, I’ve developed a few iOS apps and I’ve been flying airplanes since I was 14. I’m not rich but I don’t think I will have any problem finding work in the next recession.

    Good article – Thanks

  14. Thanks T man. I’ve started thinking I’m a real jack of all trades kind of guy because I’m good at a few things (with a talent at a few ‘soft’ intangible things which I can apply across fields to different skills), and have been thinking…you know what, I like being 25 and taking up skateboarding out of nowhere…and I like starting a business, or the idea of doing that, but I also like art…and I’d like to survive in the wild…and I’d also like to be a kingpin poker player/gambler…and While I’m at it, have mad ‘life hacking’ skills and mma skills so I can live like Jason Bourne. Then randomly one night I think; you know what, I’d like to maybe learn some neuroscience now, you know, now that all those limiting beliefs from school and uni (no tim, you’re good at the humanities, not science or math) have basically been eradicated. Speaking of, I want to be in the top 20 percentile of mathemeticians; so I can go back to school and correct my teachers…hah!

  15. We get advice to the contrary, all the time, from experts. But this post just blows that out of the water. Here’s confirmation that it is actually “good” to spread out, learn more, do more, and be more.

    The best of us (visionaries, legends and heroes) spent time learning how to round out their personas and become more robust individuals, by knowing more about more, not hiding away in the cubicle of specialization.

    “Generalization” is not the same as having a “lack of focus”, I don’t think; which is what experts often tell us it is. The stimulation gained from expanding our horizons as we generalize can only make us more interesting, empathetic people, just as Tim points out in this post.

    I’m starting to wonder if the contrary advice frequently offered by experts is meant to sustain a hierarchical structure that keeps them at the top (as specialists), while the rest of us languish in squalor beneath, aspiring to “one day” be same as them; maintaining the status quo.

    Being a “jack of all trades, master of many”, allows us to even out the playing field; making it more democratized; more equal. I’m all for that.

  16. Hey Man!

    Thanks, this article gave me a better way to sell my lack of desire to be specific in my life.

    I can’t imagine myself being happy, ever! With a career that dose not have diversity and challenges. I can attest to being able to see the connections between skills and using the combination of different skills to create something new or even solve a problem in a diffrently way. I’ve gotten discouraged in the past for who I am, because of your wonderful timing with your articles and pods I have grown personally and have more comfort in doing it my way.

    Thanks gain man, keep it up! Much love.

  17. AWESOME POST! I often classify myself as a Jill of all Skills, Master of Some. However, that said I have found myself at odds with other people who don’t value learning enough about broad number of topics. “Stay in your lane” had seemed to be my admonishment. LOL. Bravo, Mr. Ferris for explaining our position to the world. 🙂

  18. I’m an Army musician. I play trumpet, banjo, laptop DJ, keyboards, pedal steel, and lapsteel. A master of none, but I get the job done at a high enough level that I’m proud of and consistently challenged. It’s a great way to dig deep into music and life! Two thumbs up for the jack of all trades!

  19. AWESOME POST! I often classify myself as a Jill of all Skills, Master of Some. However, that said I have found myself at odds with other people who don’t value learning enough about broad number of topics. “Stay in your lane” has seemed to be my admonishment. LOL. Bravo, Mr. Ferris for explaining our position to the world. 🙂

  20. I consider myself a “Jacqueline of all Trades” (Haha, right?), however I decided to take the route of combining several skill sets and experiences and focus them into one stream of work: Infopreneurship. Mentoring, educating subscribers/clients/visitors, etc.

    As much as I’d like to agree fully, long-term JoaT for most entrepreneurs isn’t viable. Nor wise.

    I’d have more trust in an expert over a dabbler on any given subject. But the life and career stories of the dabbler are far more interesting than that of th expert.

    In my opinion, of course.

  21. It’s refreshing to hear this point of view. However, still important to note that what you choose to learn still matters. If you’re a generalist who knows a smattering of finance, programming, and social science, you’re probably going to do well. A smattering of art, religion, and music… you might have a harder time finding your niche.

  22. I think being a “Jack of all Trades” is part of being a successful “Lebenskünstler,” who crafts and lives life by design (for all the reasons you mention!) Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insights!

  23. Thanks for sharing this article on Twitter again. This is actually how I am trying to define my career, at the moment. As a ‘Jack of All Trades,’ I feel I have the ability to be a well rounded player and someone who can be comfortable in a variety of situations.

  24. I realize that I´m a bit complex to categorize, I´m mechanical engineer with an especialization on Project Management PMP ,Computer Deverloper on Ruby and Rails,and currently Marketer, blogger and Entrepreneur.Totally agree that this path is more fun and that needs to combine a macro generalist and micro specialization approach ,I think more than a choise it´s a need.

  25. I love this post, I tend to be a generalist too, especially when playing videogames, I like to dabble in each genre and get hooked evenly that I’m good at all but no MLG pro, I don’t get a high K/D ratio in FPSs, I don’t win slot in races, but I do get podium, I’m bad at fighters but I can give them a run for their money.

    In real life I’m also one, I cook adequately, I can sing certaon songs well, I’m great at drawing but not so much, I Also shift from one thing to another, and like a quote I love to say ”Life is too short for just one thing.”

  26. I almost commented that the secret is now out of the bag, however, from experience I know this will not change the beliefs of the unbelieving or those who don’t already understand. Well put, sir.

  27. A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an

    invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a

    sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the

    dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an

    equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a

    computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.

    Specialization is for insects.

    Robert A. Heinlein

  28. The difference between a specialist and a generalist is in the Conative (Action)(not miss spelled) part of the brain. As apposed to the Affect(emotion) and Cognitive (thinking, And this is where the skill is trained) parts of the brain. Check out Kathy Kolbe’s work on this part of the brain. She has 3 books explaining her ideas. Take the “Kolbe A Index” It will be very liberating for those who are not specialists, stick with one thing type of people.

  29. No one hires generalists. Job descriptions are overtly looking for someone who.has years of the exact work that are seeking to fill. Entrepreneurial spirt is not a trait embraced by HR word filters. But life is more than how you make money. Generalists are hooked on the experience of life long learning. They are ok with learning to eat the cetera out of every cake that captures their fancy. Getting paid to do that is not at the center of a generalists life.

  30. There’s a small typo (reason #3, Maslow) 😉

    It’s ironic how ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ used to describe someone able to undertake many tasks on a ship. However the ship already had a master, so he was master of no ship. But in the years that became master of no trades. Although there is an equivalent in any known language – about people who expand their expertise to many fields, without ‘mastering’ any of them – I don’t think it is necessarily wrong or right to be one. I guess the biggest issue in ‘perception’, as in “do we want to be perceived as jack of all trades?”

  31. I have to disagree with the generalized idea presented in this post, Tim. Yes you can apply the 80/20 rule, but it simplifies when someone is considered an expert. In well established fields where more than a century of competition and development has led to a ridiculous skill ceiling, even 10 years of deliberate practice with guidance from the best mentors may not get you close to that edge between pro and amateur. Conversely a young field may require just a minimal effort to be considered an expert in, with a lack of established, efficient mental structures or serious competition.

    Maybe it would have been more efficient to focus on the idea of figuring out which fields you identify with, and how well developed these fields are. This makes it easier to be a jack of all trades in the sense you describe. It also helps people to better understand how to apply the concepts of the 80/20 rule to truly assess their opportunities vs cost vs efficiency.

    P.S. Check out the work by K.A. Ericsson on deliberate practice, and his book “Peak” (2016). And for more detailed info the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise (2006) is also really something else.

  32. I do think you need both though. Sure, Steve Jobs had the variety of experiences to give Apple a leg up in design and innovation, but he would not have been able to get Apple anywhere without Wozniak to take care of the technical details. Product comes first after all, and you need at least one person willing to put in that extra 5%, because just with diminishing marginal returns, There may be millions of people who have reached 80% mastery, but only a handful who have reached 99.9% mastery, and it is those who have the depth, combined with someone who has breadth, that make all the difference.

  33. Very well articulated. Something I have always intuitively believed . A generalist goes through a much steeper learning curve.

  34. Thanks for sharing Tim, inspiring, as I’m constantly learning about different industries and in different areas of life, I didn’t realize how boring it would be to specialize and not expand. The generalists do seem to be the CEOs.

  35. Finally, vindication for someone who has always struggled with being a jack-of-all-trades by nature. Musician, engineer, programmer, technician,mechanic, wood worker, welder, painter, teacher, leader, speaker.

  36. I would also add a sixth reason: it will make you more secure. We live in a volatile society where things change fast, oftentimes faster than we are able to process them. If you specialize in one thing, you doom yourself to failure and poverty, perhaps worse, in the almost inevitable event that your chosen field goes by the wayside. Trust me. I’ve been there, and I generalize now because I don’t ever want it to happen again.

  37. Great read. I have always considered myself a jack of all trades, and was discouraged by many to thinking that was bad. I enjoy it, i have had jobs in so many fields, work with many different experts, and learned so much. I think after a couple years, I get bored and want to learn something new. I have worked in mortgages to forklift driving,and so many mkre in between. I love it. I believe all these skills is culminating into a big bang of awesomeness for.myself,family, and helping others. Thanks for the article. Have a beautiful week.

  38. “Above all else, the mentat must be a generalist, not a specialist. It is wise to have decisions of great moment monitored by generalists. Experts and specialists lead you quickly into chaos. They are a source of useless nit-picking, the ferocious quibble over a comma. The mentat-generalist, on the other hand, should bring decision-making a healthy common sense. He must not cut himself off from the broad sweep of what is happening in his universe. He must remain capable of saying: ‘There’s no real mystery about this at the moment. This is what we want now. It may prove wrong later, but we’ll correct that when we come to it.’ The mentat-generalist must understand that anything which we can identify as our universe is merely part of larger phenomena. But the expert looks backward; he looks into the narrow standards of his own specialty. The generalist looks outward; he looks for living principles, knowing full well that such principles change, that they develop. It is to the characteristics of change itself that the mentat-generalist must look. There can be no permanent catalogue of such change, no handbook or manual. You must look at it with as few preconceptions as possible, asking yourself: ‘Now what is this thing doing?'”

    — Frank Herbert, Children of Dune

  39. I learned to code and got a job coding for a fortune 500 company at 32 years old because the oil industry collapsed. I can make beer, wine, mead, and even run a still. I’m learning to weld and play guitar as well. I’ve managed a small business, done lots of selling, worked in retail, as a bouncer and I’ve been able to catch fish almost everywhere I’ve lived or vacationed. I can solve some simple physics and calculus problems, never did pick up chemistry or memorize much biology.

    I think the original saying was actually “jack of all trades, master of one”. My first software manager used to encourage me to be T shaped with my tech skills. To become an expert front end or even an expert at one front end framework, but learn a little bit about everything else would be an example. I think that’s a good approach.

    Tim has done this. Tim is a master content producer. He made more money writing a book about running a supplement company (4 hour work week) than he did running a supplement company (I don’t remember the name, I haven’t read the book in a while). So he knows a lot about many subjects, but he makes a living as a master connect creator.

    I’ve been following Tim since I was in my 20’s and really did not believe it could be possible for someone to learn enough about something to be able to useful in just a year or two. After all, I had been in school for 13 years and college for 4 years and was not gainfully employable. I did lots of jobs that don’t require any special credentials or experience (mostly commission sales jobs, some labor too), before finally making a significant income working in the oil industry. After a few years, the oil industry collapsed and I found myself broke again. Working another dead end, low pay, low skill job.

    I really wanted to get back in to 6 figure income territory. It was pretty nice to go grocery shopping without a budget, drive a reliable vehicle and go to the doctor when I wasn’t feeling well.

    I barely made enough money to pay the bills and I was only working 50 hours a week so I had plenty of freetime. I looked around and decided that if I could learn to code, I might have a shot at making a decent living again. I started studying in all of my freetime, took community college classes, went to an online code camp and applied for coding jobs every day (no, I wasn’t qualified but I was desperate!).

    Over about two years I learned enough to pass an interview, which wasn’t very much, I learned more in the first 6 months of working than in the previous two years. Now, just over 2 years in to coding for a living, I’ve got code in production on and am even running code deployments to a massive finance companies website.

    I’ve got a lot to learn, but in becoming a master software engineer, and a “jack” of many other “trades” as well.

    My point is, I doubt that many people are smart enough or have enough freetime to master more than one or two things. And nobody should intentionally avoid mastering something, or putting more than a year in to learning something.

    In my life, the effective strategy for me has been to learn at least one thing well enough to make a living at it, whether your’e a coder, a content producer, or something else, you’ve got to learn at least one thing well enough to make enough money to cover your basic needs and have some time and money left so you can learn a little bit about wide range of other things. But its unlikely that you’ll make money from the other things. You just won’t be good enough at them to be useful to anyone. Unless you’re a content producer like Tim.

    Don’t shy away from mastering at least one thing. Two would probably be better. Mastering one thing doesn’t mean that you can’t also learn other things, it just means that you might be able to make a decent living in the meantime. Ultimately, that’s what really Tim did.

    He’s not really that complex, not even too complex to categorize, he mastered and got rich by producing content. Now he has enough money and freetime for lots of hobbies.

    1. To be clear, I’m a big fan, bought and read all the books, listen to the podcast a lot and agree in general with the idea of knowing enough about a wider range of things, I just think that it’s also important to be T shaped. Be an expert at something, never stop getting better at that thing, but also take time to learn about other things.

  40. Dear Tim, I fucking love this. It is so validating and just what I needed to hear right now. Thanks for this and all you do, you’re generosity with your ideas has helped so many.