On being a Jack of All Trades

Stumbling upon an article from Tim Ferris on being a Jack of All Trades, reminded me about my decision to become a generalist a few years back.

I can’t quite recall whether it was after reading a Robert Kiyosaki book, or the 4-hour Work Week, or something else, but I did make the decision, and looking back, I’m glad I did.

There were definitely some downsides, but I think it’s worth it. One downside that I’m always encountering is that coming from a technology background, it’s still incredibly frustrating when I don’t understand something tech related and need to ask for help. It’s even worse when I don’t understand the explanation. Depending on the situation, I could either pay someone to solve the issue for me, or spend more time to better understand the situation and work on a solution.

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.

The upside of all this is I understand a lot more things now across a different categories and can piece the experiences together, giving me a better or broader view of things. Being a generalist also required me to be nimble, catching up and learning different trades quickly to make up for lost time against others who have been practising it for years.

Not that I’m against mastery of any field. However I do feel that once you pass a certain point, there are diminishing returns for your time spent on it, and unless you’re absolutely certain that it’s your one true passion, your time might be better spelt elsewhere.

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.”

It’s important to note that being a generalist isn’t for everyone, and I’m glad that there are specialists in this world. It’s great that the world is filled with different types of people, and my choice is to be a generalist.

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.

I also happen to think that it’s more fun this way, so there is also that.

Published by matt

A tech enthusiast who spent his first paycheck ever on a mobile phone. Over a decade later, he's still throwing all his money at mobile technology, much to the chagrin of his wife.