Specialization is for Insects – Why You Should Be a Jack-of-All-Trades


“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

There is a fantastic podcast from Tim Ferriss detailing the virtues of being a jack-of-all-trades, or a “generalist.”

There was a time when jacks-of-all-trades were considered invaluable. They could just as easily chop firewood and pitch a tent as they could do their own taxes or write a letter to a senator. They made life richer and more rewarding, for both themselves and others.

These days, however, being labeled a jack-of-all-trades is essentially the kiss of death, particularly in business. This, as the Bluth family puts it, is “a huge mistake.” But why?

GOB: "I've made a huge mistake."

Being a jack-of-all-trades means you are an effective learner

I do a lot of things. I talk to girls, play the piano, write, draw, take pictures, cook a meal, sell watches, fix cars, install water heaters, and build stuff. Growing up, I was always asked, “Is there anything you CAN’T do?” (People actually ask me this. The answer, by the way, is yes. But I won’t get into that now.)
As more people asked me this, I did some self-examination and eventually concluded that none of these talents people were referencing were inborn or natural to me – I was simply good at learning. I enjoyed the satisfaction of picking up a new skill and accomplishing on my own a feat others typically had to pay someone else to do.
Effective learners can quickly excel at a new task, even with little or no prior experience, and become, as Ferriss puts it, a “jack-of-all-trades, master of many.” Effective learners actually carry more value than specialists because not only can they quickly adopt the same skills as a specialist through focused training and practice, but they can adapt to new roles as the tasks evolve.
When I entered the work force, employers soon found that they could basically plug me into any role they wanted and get a very high level of performance from me. I dove into these new roles, nearly all of which were brand new to me and in which I was never formally trained or educated, and successfully tackled pretty much everything that got thrown at me.

Yet I’ve had countless interviews and meetings with executives and career advisors who, after discussing my skillsets and experiences, have told me, “You’re a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none. You need to pick one thing and just be good at that.”

Nowadays, this is widely accepted as conventional wisdom – but is it really true?
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO. Not pictured: the world’s greatest coder.

Specialists voluntarily cap their potential

Take Mark Zuckerberg for example. Yes, he built the original prototype for Facebook, but I doubt he was the best coder at Harvard, and he is certainly not the best coder at Facebook today. In fact, it is highly unlikely that he has done any coding at all in over 10 years. Instead, he makes decisions regarding a plethora of issues at his company, like environmental and community responsibility, privacy and legal affairs, social media expansion in Asia, and how much money to budget to each department. Oh yeah and he happens to be worth $46 billion.

Mark Zuckerberg isn’t a prodigy in any one field. He is a thinker and an adaptor to his environment. The master coder eventually becomes VP of software development. The jack-of-all-trades becomes CEO.
The problem is when it comes to applying for normal jobs, managers do want specialists. Why? It’s easier on the decision makers. Managers don’t know what to do with a candidate who has a diverse skillset. It’s the paradox of choice – having to assign a person like that can be paralyzing. They have a math-shaped cog that needs replacement, so they just want a math-shaped person to fill the gap in their big machine.
This is bad if you are trying to land a corporate drone job, but it’s great if you are an entrepreneur or want to take over a company. If the former is true, you can always play to your interviewer’s insecurity and simply highlight the one skill he or she is looking for.
Dick van Dyke as Bert in MARRY POPPINS
He also sweeps chimneys and draws sidewalk chalk art. Like a boss.

Jacks-of-all-trades get to have more fun

Ferriss’ last point is that the jack-of-all-trades “maximizes his or her number of peak experiences in life.” Put simply, the more abilities you master, the more rewarding your life will be. I mean, why not have the pleasure of being able to crack a safe or build a freestanding structure with your own two hands? Why not be good at both marketing and financial analysis? Your opportunities are doubled (actually they more than double because a master marketer/analyst is greater than the sum of its parts).
It is intrinsically fulfilling to ascend the ladder from newbie to competency to excellence. If that’s you, don’t let the naysayers get you down. You get to have all the fun!
Ferriss goes into more detail with the advantages of being a generalist in his podcast, which you can listen to in full here. You can also read his related article on his website here.
I’d love to hear from other jacks-of-all-trades and what your experiences are. Leave a comment if you’d like to share!

One thought on “Specialization is for Insects – Why You Should Be a Jack-of-All-Trades”

  1. Learning a new skills may give you fresh perspectives on different topics and fields. And sometimes context switching can produce very unique mashups that give birth to new and interesting projects.

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