Jack of all trades or Master of one?

Usually, when I tell people that I want to “do both” or explore multiple pathways, there’s a fair amount of scepticism whether I’d be able to manage everything, or even concern that it’d affect the overall quality of my learning.

There’s an interesting saying which seems to have both positive and negative connotations depending on the context: “Jack of all trades”. As a stand-alone phrase it’s often a compliment for someone who’s handy and able to combine knowledge from different areas (otherwise known as a “generalist”). But if it’s used with its latter half (“Jack of all trades, master of none”) then there are negative connotations, hinting that they’ve only managed to build superficial knowledge of many things but haven’t managed to master any of them. But then there’s also speculation about the “full” quote being “Jack of all trades, master of none but oftentimes better than a master of one”.

So, which is it?

The saying is thought to come from or be related to the Latin term Johannes Factotum (meaning “Johnny-do-it-all”) which suggests that someone’s spread themselves too thin by trying to do it all. According to Oxford’s Dictionary of Proverbs, this phrase was used in Robert Greene’s scathing critique of Shakespeare’s earlier play and comments on his shift from actor to playwriter.

But I’m not here to debate which is the real version or its roots. I’m interested in the ideas behind it. What is the best approach to take when learning? Is it better to have a wide but shallow understanding of many things or to have a laser-like focus on one specific area?

The Specialist (Master of One)

There are definitely benefits in having a specialisation and becoming an expert. You get to really dig deep and focus all your attention towards one thing that you’re (ideally) really passionate about.

You can build connections with like-minded people who “speak your language”. As you become more specialised, there are fewer people who are at your level so you become one of the go-to sources for information. You keep up with the latest trends and new information. You might even turn into a leader or pioneer. There is the weight of knowledge behind your words now.

In a practical sense, if you focus only on one thing, your rate of learning would likely be much faster than trying to divide your attention between competing goals. You don’t want to become a Johannes Factotum.

Johannes Factotum (Johnny-do-it-all): spreading yourself too thin by trying to do everything

But is the idea of committing 10 000 hours to master anything overrated?

Bring in, the Generalist.

The Generalist (Master of none)

Despite all the advantages in knowing (almost) all there is to know in one area, I also think it’s also equally important not to become too absorbed into your own niche. In fact, interestingly, the original saying was a compliment for someone who was able to combine and use all sorts of information together. They’re really handy and know many things.

The point is, in some cases, it’s better to know many things broadly rather than deeply. For example, I remember in a first year maths class, my lecturer mentioned a proof that only a handful of people around the world could only (kinda) read because it relied on knowledge across many disciplines. Another example, I’m no mechanic but my loose knowledge of cars has helped me avoid many disasters on road trips.

Usually this approach is dismissed based on the argument that there’s not enough time in the day to dedicate towards becoming a master of all. But isn’t this the very reason why you should spend it doing and learning the things that you’re passionate about – as broad or as narrow as they may be?

I think that if it’s important enough to you, you’ll usually find a way to make time for it, even if it means rearranging, substituting or replacing some of the other things that you’re currently doing. We humans are flexible creatures. We learn to adapt.

Master of some? (Conclusion)

So what’s the answer? Well… it depends. There are benefits to both approaches so maybe it’s best to walk somewhere down the middle, depending on the situation. That seems to be the consensus among some of the papers that I’ve read1,2. Become the master of some.

In my mind, there are two ways to do this:

The DIY-er: have one main focus (your “specialisation”) where you have intermediate-advanced proficiency. But, occasionally dabble in other things and build up a more general knowledge and set of life (or professional) skills. Pretty handy when you want to just get something done and don’t want to wait to find “the right person” – it’s all up to you.

The Collaborator: alternatively, you could focus on becoming an expert in one field and band with other experts from different areas. That’s the logic behind interdisciplinary research – they’re taking their specialist knowledge and working with others from different backgrounds to create and answer questions in new ways.

It’s even been done effectively in our everyday lives. Think about the McDonalds x BTS collaboration – it’s apparently the main driver behind McDonald’s 2nd Quarter boost in earnings and revenue!3,4

Whether you want to be a Jack of all trades or a master of one, at the end of the day, there’s no harm in wanting to learn more.

  1. Boh, W., Evaristo, R. and Ouderkirk, A., 2014. Balancing breadth and depth of expertise for innovation: A 3M story. Research Policy, 43(2), pp.349-366. [link to full article here]
  2. Teodoridis, F., Bikard, M. and Vakili, K., 2018. Creativity at the Knowledge Frontier: The Impact of Specialization in Fast- and Slow-paced Domains. Administrative Science Quarterly, 64(4), pp.894-927. [link to full article here]
  3. CNBC: McDonald’s earnings beat, driven by new chicken sandwich and promotion with K-pop band BTS
  4. Soompi: BTS Meal Helps Boost McDonald’s Worldwide Sales By 41 Percent In 2nd Quarter Of 2021

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