Lately, something has been on my mind. Everyone has heard about it and most have thought about it. “Jack of all trades, master of none” - which one is the right one.
What’s interesting to me is to think about which one is better for me. At times I’m tempted to be the master of one and have expertise that few others do. At other times, I’m tempted to be just good enough in as many subjects as possible.
After much reading and deliberation, I think the latter is a much better career and life strategy for me for these reasons:
What do Steve Jobs, Barack Obama and Travis Kalanick have in common? They are not experts. Steve Jobs is not a better marketer than any of the best marketers in the world. Barack Obama is not a better lawyer than, say, the Attorney General. Travis Kalanick is not an expert programmer.
What they do have in common is that they are really good at being good enough at many, many skills. They all are able to spot trends, articulate a big picture, and then have the experts act on them.
There it is again. The Pareto rule - “for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes”. The 80/20 rules also applies to skills - 20% of Unix commands can help you do 80% of things on a computer, 20% of movements in a sport make up over 80% of the sport and so on. So by being decently good at a skill, you can easily be in the top quartile of the population for that skill. Amazing, isn’t it?
You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hours rule. So if you want to be an expert in, say, accounting, it will take you almost 5 years of full time training. Many of us aren’t made to be that patient. Those who are will probably give up and hop onto being an expert in something else. Want to be a meditation expert? Prepare to give up an entire lifetime. For some skills, there’s a high chance that the skill will be irrelevant by the time you reach the expert level.
Think about how many people play for the NFL every year? Or how many albums make the platinum status. Or maybe people can write Assembly code with their eyes closed.
There’s only a few people. Very few. Basic statistics tells us that it is nearly impossible for most “experts” to make it to the top.
The reason why xkcd’s Randall Munroe is famous and funny is not because he is an expert artist or an expert physicist. It’s because he’s decent at both of them - a mix of skill that not many people carry. Scott Adams of Dilbert comics wrote more about this here.
Now I’m not insinuating that there is no place for experts in this place. The people who are #1 at what they do are famous, rich and happy. As are the generalists. What it comes down to is, like for most things in life, personal choice.
For someone interested in entrepreneurship, I think it’s invaluable to be able to talk to a room full of developers, designers, managers, lawyers, accountants and more in a single breath. That’s a skill that not many have, and those who do are on the top of the world.
So what am I doing? I’m trying to be a jack of all trades. I’m constantly trying to learn new things and new skills. I’m making sure these new skills stimulate me mentally and physically. Learning something new makes sure I’m not bored or in a monotonous routine. It’s making sure I’m becoming something that many are not.