Jack of All Trades or Master of One?

I am sure that the phrase “jack of all trades and the master of none” was not invented to be used for a person you were pleased with, for if you were, you wouldn’t, for sure, call him jack. You would definitely use something more euphemistic. For example, “someone who is more than decent in several fields but hasn’t really gained the expertise in many of them.” So no doubt, the phrase has a pejorative connotation. But this leads to the following important question – Is being a jack of all trades really inferior to being the master of one (or more)? I believe that it’s not and I will try to explain why in the following paragraphs.

Let me begin my argument by asking this – What exactly is a “trade”? We understand the notion of a trade with the help of our gut feeling. We know, for example, that physics is a trade. We know this because we have seen people acknowledging physics as a separate entity – we have done courses named “physics”, we have seen books with the word “physics” in their names, we know that Nobel Prizes are given to people working in physics, we know their are physics professors in universities and so on. Similarly, we know that cycling is a trade because we have heard of famous cyclists, we know that cycle races are conducted at different parts of the world every now and then and so on. So basically, we decide whether something is a trade or not on the basis of its place in the society, the propensity with which other human beings are willing to recognize it etc., which by the way, is very highly dependent on the way the society has evolved. A society evolved in a different way might have had a completely different set of accepted trades. It is not difficult to imagine a society where, for example, trying to predict a person’s future from his handwriting is considered a trade. Oh wait, that’s our society, but I think I have made the point nonetheless.

But then, the question is – Isn’t this weird? Shouldn’t the concept of a trade and the way the society has evolved be as uncorrelated as possible? A quote from Feynman’s Lectures on Physics is enlightening. At one point in the book, Feynman remarks –

A poet once said “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass closely enough we see the entire universe.

Then he goes on to show how a glass of wine contains the entire universe and adds –

If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that Nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

That Nature doesn’t know it is indeed an intelligent observation, which further strengthens my hypothesis that the definition of a trade should be as independent as possible from what the society thinks about it. And yet, we find that there have been enough people to make the phrase “jack of all trades and master of none” a phrase. We can’t really blame all of them, for it definitely seems that there is one way in which a jack of all trades is inferior to the master of one, which is this. A human being depends so much on the society that what it thinks of him might have an effect on what he gets to eat, and in fact, even on whether he gets to eat. It may seem, therefore, that in order to have a happy and contented life, it is safer to keep the society happy, which will be the case if you do what the society recognizes as a trade, even though Nature doesn’t bother about it. The final step of my argument is to prove that even this is not completely true.

I will quote Scott Admas this time. This post on his blog gives a little career advice. Although reading the whole post will be informative, I am copy pasting the most relevant part from it.

If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.



7 thoughts on “Jack of All Trades or Master of One?

  1. Well written.
    In my humble opinion, though, I prefer the convenience associated with classifying tasks into skills.
    Well, that’s just my opinion… 🙂

    It’s as useful as dividing the earth into imaginary lines, or dividing disks into files(which are accessed collectively frequently). Similarly, there are many tasks which can be performed easily with mutual knowledge, and with mutual benefit, and such tasks together came together to be called a trade.

    But of course, trades do change with changes in society…

  2. Exceptionally geeky-sounding post. After reading the first part (where you are attempting to define ‘trade’), I thought you should’ve considered a career in law. But the latter part convinces me beyond reasonable doubt that you are a physics/ science/ engineering geek 🙂

  3. @Bhavya…

    I agree, I should have considered a career in law. Law has started sounding pretty interesting lately, but I am sure that our formal education system would have already screwed it up, so I am happy that I am not in it.

  4. You probably don’t realise this, but that’s a very philosophical question you’ve asked. I can’t think of a way of answering it that requires a sufficiently small number of sentences. But yeah, the following information might help – I am doing a B.Tech in computer science from IIT Kharagpur. I am in my final year currently.

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