Why You Should Stop Specializing and Become a Jack of All Trades

vitruvian man

“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 Heinlen

In olden times people were encouraged to produce creative work in their daily lives. A man would build his house, plant his garden, paint landscapes, write sonnets, perform music, and make all types of household goods like furniture, belts and brandy. The world was full of people with interesting skills, and they were celebrated for their wide-ranging talents. 

A Renaissance Man, as he would be called, could do it all, and with flair. A Renaissance Man was an artist, athlete, carpenter, mechanic, medic, musician, poet, philosopher and writer. Depending on the situation, he could also be a gentleman, a rascal, a fighter or an imp.

But he was never just one thing. He was all things (*She was too, but for the sake of brevity I’m using the masculine form. Ladies, you can be a Renaissance woMan too).

Then along came the 80’s and everything changed. You had to specialize. Nobody was interested in you being “well rounded”. No one wanted you to look “distinctive”. You could have a mustache but no beard, and short hair wasn’t allowed. You had to choose between a feathered wave parted down the middle, or a mullet (business up front, party in the back). Big hair was mandatory (*ladies, you had big hair too, but please substitute panty hose for Mullet).

This era brought in the idea that creative men (*yeah, yeah, you get the drill) were focused. They specialized so they could become expert in one area. You needed to know a lot about a very few things to be useful. If you knew a little about a lot of things, you were a Jack of All Trades, Master of None. Very bad thing. Not the path to success.

I understand the need for mastery, but such a narrow focus comes with a heavy price. Specialists are great in their area of focus. But when the world at large comes at them, they often aren’t equipped to deal, in real time, with things outside their narrow niche.

Generalists are masters of flexibility and improv. Their well rounded skill sets allow them use transferable skills to solve problems and create new ways to get things done. They’re willing to take risks to create and innovate. Specialists are focused on how it’s done, how it’s been done, and why you couldn’t/shouldn’t do it any other way. That’s their power, being the authority on the one right way.

These days some corporations are setting a new path. Though they are loaded with specialists like software engineers and programmers, companies like Apple and Google are becoming giant generalists.

Apple started with computers, then branched out into music players (IPod) music providers (ITunes), phones, tablets and watches. Now they’re trying to sell electricity.

Google started with search engines and a browser, then began mapping the world, (Google Earth) cornering the market on online advertising (Ad Words and Ad Sense), and selling cell phones and glasses.

Can you think of any computer hardware or software companies that moved so far out of their lane to produce phones, advertising, watches and glasses?

I can’t.

Now Apple and Google are jumping into… WTF?! Driverless Cars!!

Why is a computer maker and a search engine/browser company jumping into making, not just cars, but self-driving cars?  How can they do this?

Because they went from corporate specialists to generalists. They became Renaissance Men. They mastered chasing interesting things and applying transferable skills and technologies to wild new ideas. They didn’t let convention or norms constrain their curiosity, and they sure as hell gave their people permission to chase lots of squirrels.

So let’s start looking Back to the Future for more good ideas. Don’t let anyone typecast you or put you in a box. You have a range of skills, talent and knowledge and should put it to use doing a variety of things and doing them well. If you do, you’ll move from Jack of All Trades, to Master of Some, to Renaissance Man.

You’ll evolve from insect to human, and the world and forward-thinking companies will reward you for it…



2 thoughts on “Why You Should Stop Specializing and Become a Jack of All Trades”

  1. Fantastic post, Aram! I have lots of hobbies, and I remember when I read the book Outliers, it was a bit disheartening. If you need 10,000 hours of practice to become a master as he argues in the book, how do you have any time left over to devote to hobbies (and how can you even master any of those hobbies)?

    But it actually turns out that the skills you learn in one hobby can be transferred to your other areas of interest. I just wrote a post about this and how many famous writers often had hobbies in addition to their writing.

    Love the examples of businesses that you gave! Looking forward to your next post.

    1. Thanks Nicole. That’s why they call them ‘transferable’! 10,000 hours seems daunting, but there’s no reason over time we can’t achieve mastery in several areas.Just like your buddies Agatha, Victor, Sylvia, Emily, Leo, Ernest and Jack – http://nicolebianchi.com/

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