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.
Jack of All Trades, Master of None
The ordinary human mind is crazy. Man wants to know many things and to practice many techniques. But one must ponder the saying:
One thing at a time and that done well is a very good thing as many can tell.
But many people are not satisfied with that. They go to different teachers and practice different techniques. As a result, their mind becomes more confused: which one is better, which one is not? A confused mind is far from the truth. Truth is revealed to a person whose mind is tranquil. Faithfulness to one's own Master and sincerity in the practice of the technique bring quick spiritual progress. To highlight this, the great Master Swami Shriyukteshwar used this parable:
Once upon a time lived a fox and a cat near a forest. Both were very close friends. They occasionally met each other and discussed their life and activities.
One day both were sitting together and were talking about the art of self-preservation. The fox asked the cat "My friend! How many techniques have you mastered to save yourself at the time of danger?"
The cat answered "My brother! I know only one technique—the art of climbing up a tree when I sense some approaching danger."
The fox said in a deprecating manner "Ah! You know only one technique. Really your life is miserable. You do not know any other technique beside climbing up a tree?"
The cat asked "My friend! How many techniques, really, do you know?"
The fox replied "It is a long story. Please wait. I will bring my note book, in which I have written down all the techniques that I learned from different teachers at different times, to save myself in different situations." The fox brought a big thick notebook and opened it with a lot of pride. It said "I can run when the problem comes." Opening another page, "I can hide myself in a bush." he continued, "I can enter into a hole and protect myself." Opening every page, the fox was narrating different techniques with vanity and pride.
While both were talking, a dog came running towards them from a little distance. The cat exclaimed "My brother! Be careful; a dog is coming!" Warned by the cat, our poor fox kept turning the pages of his notebook while thinking what would be the best technique to save his life. The cat called out "Brother! I do not know many techniques. I only know one technique, and that is to climb up the tree. The dog cannot come there."
The cat dashed up the tree. Despite his so-called intelligence, the foolish fox was not able to decide what to do. The dog was getting very near and the fox was in trouble, while the cat was saying "mew! mew!" from the tree top.
This story exemplifies human psychology. Man wants to learn many techniques, but is not satisfied with a particular process. This is the trick of the mind to deceive man.
Once you are in touch with a Divine Master, follow Him faithfully, with love. That technique will enable you to cross the problems of life and help you to be realized.
Referring to this situation, Shri Gurudev comments:
If a student goes each day to a different school, can he get education? Please follow
that technique which will give you simultaneous development of body, mind, intellect and soul. Please practice sincerely. Human life is very short. Why do you spend your valuable time, unnecessarily by going to many teachers, but learning nothing? Practice one technique, and be perfect.
*May 10, is the Holy Birthday of Swami Shriyukteswar Giri Mahasaya.