In Defense of the Jack-of-All-Trades

Are you passionate about multiple things? Is your passion constantly shifting? Do you feel guilty about not being able to focus your life around a singular skill? Do you wish other people understood the inner logic of all your different interests and how they all connect together? Are you constantly wishing that you could finally just pick a hobby and turn it into a life-long passion that your entire life revolves around? Do you find yourself obsessively going down new research rabbit holes and quickly becoming competent (but not masterful) in a given area in a short amount of time?

You, my friend, might be a jack-of-all-trades!*

(*this post inspired by Tik Tokker @thebiancaeast)

And I am here to convince you there is nothing wrong with that!

In our culture jacks-of-all-trades are not respected to the same extent as the ultra-specialist who spends their entire life mastering a single small area of life. The obsessive musician. The intense painter. The nerdy programmer. The chess master.

There is of course nothing wrong with being a Master-of-One but this way-of-being-interested-in-the-world is already widely praised as being the ideal whereas the jack-of-all-trades is always being accused of being a “master of none.”

We are told if we want to be successful we need to spend 10,000 hours narrowly focusing on a single habit or activity at the expense of everything else. We are told this is the only way to truly be “good” at something. The implicit assumption is that being good at one thing is the goal.

But what if you don’t want to be good at just “one” thing? What if you want to be good at gardening, playing the piano and ukulele, drawing, writing, website design, photography, as well as knowing a lot of multiple different fields including philosophy, psychology, history, urban planning, permaculture, and many other things? (I just described myself, btw.*)

(*subject to change, obv)

Us jacks-of-all-trades are told that we are mere dilettantes, mere amateurs, that we should just pick a single hobby and stick with it.

Otherwise, we are told that we aren’t special, that “everyone” is like us, that everyone is multi-faceted in this way.

But that is not true!

First of all, I think it is over-estimated how much time it takes to quickly become competent at something. While true mastery can take a life-time, becoming an “expert” is usually not as difficult as the myth of 10,000 would have us think.

We also know that our unique brand of passionate-and-curious-lifelong-learners is not shared by everyone.

Not everyone is getting excited and reorienting their learning journey every week or every month, going down new paths and deep-dives. Most people seem to pick a few interests and focus on them for a long-time and rarely deviate from them once pre-established. Which is not to say people don’t get interested in new hobbies. They absolutely do.

But the true jack-of-all-trades has the obsessive desire to master everything! One day you want to become a master musician. The next day you feel an urge to be a master visual artist. The next day you want to be more about Tarot than just about everyone.

Jacks-of-all trades will feel like this is somehow doable. That we can have our cake and eat it too. And this is what tortures us. In our intellect we know it isn’t possible. But in our hearts we want it to be true. We want to do everything. To know everything. To thread everything together into one all-encompassing whole.

And we long for an opportunity to show the world ALL of us, all the little crevices of our mind that are surprisingly jam-packed with a wealth of knowledge based on two weeks of obsessive researching before moving onto something else.

If this describes you at all, know that you are not alone. Nothing is wrong with your brand of curiosity. You CAN have your cake and eat it too. You just have to learn to accept yourself and realize that it’s ok to shift gears. It’s ok to change course.

You no longer have to feel guilty about this. Embrace it. It is not a weakness.

In fact, it is a strength. In an increasingly complicated and nuanced world, being nimble and adaptable and having the ability to learn anything you set your mind to is in fact a strength.

We are now living in a generalist’s world and you are ready to thrive.

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