Why being Jack of all trades is often better than being too specialised?

Should I be writing about this topic?

Here is little bit of insight into my background.

For most of my life I could not decide what I wanted to do in my life. When I was at school I was fascinated with science and mathematics, was really passionate about sports, admired artist and performer, mesmerised by writer and poets and respected people such as doctors and lawyers who applied their trades really well. It was really difficult to decide which field to follow so I chose a life of ease and persue anything I found interesting and I was good at.

At degree level at university I read join honours in science involving a study of subjects such as chemistry, maths, physiology, computing, biochemistry and statistics. My PhD involved chemical vapour deposition of in-situ doped silicon for microelectronics applications. Following my PhD I worked a General Electric Company as a scientists developing process for integrated circuits, followed by work as a Production Engineer making power devices and INMOS on transputer products. I developed a fascination for surface science  and worked as a development scientist at VSW in charge of molecular beam scattering designing state of the art research equipment for leading scientists in the world.

This followed by an interest in the business aspects of science and engineering and I founded and headed up a devision at Salford University Business Services as Operations Manager. My role was basically to bring in industrial funding for academics. I entered academia as a senior lecturer in manufacturing technology, then at another university senior lecturer in physical chemistry, reader in surface coatings and then ultimately chair in nanotechnology at University of Ulster prior to my current post as head of institute of nanotechnology and bioengineering.

Now when some asks me what is your field and I joking answer “I am a jack of all trades and master of none”. Even though I have frequently worked across several fields I have also published several dozens of papers and books in variety of fields. So what are the real benefits of being a generalist. In the  modern world is it really an advantage compared to being too specialised.

In old days people like Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein were masters of several fields. Da Vinci was a world class artist, engineer, scientist and much more. Is it possible in modern times to emulate such geniuses? Here are some reasons why you should give it a go.

Top 7 reasons why being a “jack of all trades” pays off

1. When you look at any field then people who are in the top 10% in the field are doing more or less the same things and have very little variations. The people higher may be working harder, spending more time or putting in the hours and there will be only slight modifications in their methodology. So to get a quantum leap in what you are doing you have to look for something different that nobody else is doing. How do you do that? Look at the top people in other fields and apply it to your field.

2. Look for cross applications and transferability of ideas and practices. Mastery of several skills leads to confidence in ones personal and professional life whereas over specialisation leads to fear of the unknown and lack of job security. so people tend to overprotect themselves and not interact properly with people in the organisation performing other function. Specialisation also breeds lack of empathy with colleagues in other areas in the organisation and lack of appreciation of their achievements.

3. Apply the 80/20 rule to learning a new topic and very quickly you will as good as the top 10% in the field. Spend few months and you can achieve that easily. This will give you the foundation to move ahead.

4. Variety is a refreshing and stimulating persuite and an innate human need. It has to be satisfied. Over specialisation leads to boredom and ultimately failure. Lack of intellectual stimulation drives people to boredom and depression. Experimenting and learning new skills stimulates the mind and is exciting and fun way to spend time. If you have mastered several skills there are more opportunities for you.

5. Pairing jack of all trades and master of none is an artificial assessment made by the average population. You can easily now be jack of all trades and also master of many.  Specialist over estimate the time needed to master a subject or skill. Being a master of a skill doesn’t mean perfect. the 80/20 rule applies to skills. For example: 20% of a vocabulary in a language will enable you to communicate and understand at least 80%. in sports less than 20% of the moves account for 80% of the scoring. By mastering 20% we are not settling for mediocrity. Generally those who claim that “it takes a lifetime to learn or master a skill”. It is possible to be world class in almost any field within a year if you totally immerse yourself in it. Total immersion and focus gets results much faster. People claim they have 10 years experience however they learnt more than 80-90% they know in 1 year. After about 2 years you are at a point of diminishing returns. For example, there is only a 5% difference in comprehension between a focused generalist who studies for example Urdu for 12 years compared to someone who has taken 10 years.

6. In industry, business and academia it usually a generalist who has broad comprehension of large number of subjects and skills end up at the top and running the show. Richard Branson runs dozens of companies. A Vice Chancellor understands academic subjects, finance, motivation, strategic planning, marketing, economics and many more disciplines in order to run a successful university. Specialist end doing a great job at one function and don’t get paid as much as a CEO or Vice Chancellor.  Is the Vice Chancellor a better programmer than a web specialist? The answer is No. However, he has broad skills and sees the unseen interconnectedness. It’s the person who sees the big picture and can predict trends, innovate and serve a massive customer base will rise to power the fastest in the modern world where technology is a commodity. That’s why in the army they are called Generals.

7. Its more fun and you can enjoy many peak experiences in life and learn to enjoy persuits of excellence in many areas whilst finding areas where you really dominate the field. A specialist is one dimensional spending decades making small imperceptible incremental improvements persueing perfection which is unachievable whilst a generalist is multidimensional and can achieve excellence and enjoy the process.

Don’t become too specialised and put your blinders because it is disempowering and unnecessary and cripples creativity. People who label you jack of all trades and master of none are often unsatisfied with themselves and their achievements. Do you really want to be taking their advice. Judge by results only and ignore those who have not achieved excellence. Look everywhere far and wide and conquer the universe. Be too complex to catagorise and amaze people with your achievements.


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