Jack of All Trades, Master of None

A very common phrase that has been tossed around for as long as I can remember is “jack of all trades, master of none.” Everyone has heard of it and most people assume that it contains a fundamental truth about what it takes to be successful.

Taken at face value, this old adage presumably asserts that it is not in your best interest to dabble in a whole bunch of different things. It doesn’t make sense nor is it all that possible for you to figure out how to be a world class photographer, a classically trained theater actor, a great auto mechanic, a genius Internet marketer, an astute mathematician, an accomplished author, a talented carpenter, and an expert in traditional Chinese medicine, all rolled into one. If you try to divide your time, attention, effort and resources into all of those areas of interest, you will indeed become a master of none.

You’ve spread yourself too thin, they’ll say. This is another example of the Pareto principle in action, they’ll tell you. By stretching yourself across so many disciplines, you effectively become not very useful in any one of them. At this point, many people have taken this observation for granted and assumed it to be obvious.

Except it isn’t. Nor is it completely true. That’s because there’s more to that old line that what is most commonly passed around as this assumed sage truism. And the part that gets dropped off completely changes the way you interpret the part that you know.

“Jack of all trades, master of none is oftentimes better than master of one.”

Think about that for a minute.

I think the take-home lesson of the extended line is perhaps even more applicable today than ever before. According to some of the most recent statistics on the matter, the average person will change jobs somewhere between ten and fifteen times over the course of his or her career. Many people spend five years or less at each position and, what’s more, many of these jobs may not even be in the same industry or tap into the same disciplines or skills.

This is in stark contrast to what the world of work looked like for a lot of people not even that long ago. I remember when I worked with United Way on one of their fundraising campaigns, I had the opportunity to talk with someone who was on the verge of retirement with CP Rail. He told me that he started working at that exact same rail yard as a part-time job back in high school, transitioning to full-time after graduation, and he worked fundamentally the same job for the next 40+ years of his life. He moved up the ladder to become a supervisor, but the actual tasks didn’t change all that much.

A story like that would be absolutely outlandish today, in a world where people change their jobs more often than they change their wardrobes and almost as often as they change their smartphones.

It is absolutely true that you don’t want to spread yourself too thin. There are only so many hours in the day and you can only dedicate so much mind share to each thing that you want to do. It is also true that the overwhelming majority of your income, in the case of making money online by running your own Internet business, will also come from a relatively small percentage of your exploits and endeavors. The Pareto principle will prevail much of the time.

However, you should avoid falling into the trap of pigeon-holing yourself and becoming a simple “master of one.” You may be very good at that one thing, but it won’t be enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great photographer if you don’t know how to market yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great marketer if you don’t have a good handle on how to track all the stats, metrics and analytics. It doesn’t matter if you’re great with organizing numbers if you can’t think strategically about what to do next.

In a constantly changing environment, the greatest asset you can have is versatility. Be a master of none. And be prepared to master something new over and over again.

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3 thoughts on “Jack of All Trades, Master of None”

  1. I think Michael that you want to master one business niche but learn many skills in that niche. I love blogging, and that is my niche; teaching people how to blog. However, I had to learn and improve my:

    – writing skills
    – video creation skills, aka, speaking in front of a camera and interacting with folks in a live setting
    – marketing skills

    among other skills.

    Do one thing well as far as a niche. But expand your skill set in that niche, to really make things pop.

    Ryan

  2. saket raman says:

    Why i liked your blog is the fact that your blog is quite different than another blog in the same niche. I love to write and my niche is tech and travel.

  3. DNN says:

    Being the jack of most trades is good. If you plan on being masterful at many trades, you’ll need to pray on it. The human mind can only retain but so much information.

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