Being A Jack Of All Trades Doesn't Mean You're A Master Of None

You've probably heard the derogatory saying "Jack of all trades, master of none." It implies that by trying to learn many things, you give up mastery of any of them. Quora designer David Cole says this is a myth.

He talks specifically about the field of design (the myth of the "unicorn" designer who can do everything from identity design to user interface design to Javascript coding), but his arguments apply to many fields. You don't have to pick between being great at one thing or just mediocre at many things.

"Learning isn't a zero-sum activity," Cole writes:

The central counter-argument here is that any learning comes with opportunity cost. Learning Python might very well take up time that you would otherwise use for studying, say, product management. This is true, in theory. But in practice, most designers I know, including myself prior to joining Quora, are not learning at their maximum rate. I have spent much of my career solving the same design problems over and over again with no substantive personal growth to show for it. I don't think my situation is unique.

But even if you were learning at your maximum rate, the opportunity cost argument actually works in favour of the multi-disciplinary approach. Design and its component practices are like any other craft: you can always develop a deeper familiarity with the minutiae, asymptotically approaching mastery. But this is a process with diminishing returns. Would you rather carve a door 1% better than you did last year, or learn how to build the rest of the house in the same amount of time? As I argue below, the connective tissue between these skills may actually be more valuable than incremental gains in a single practice.

We've discussed previously how knowing a little of everything can often be better than having one expert skill set. If you're not convinced yet, Cole's many arguments further support the view that you can be a generalist or take a multi-disciplinary approach and still do great work.

The Myth of the Myth of the Unicorn Designer [Quora]

Picture: ulegundo/Shutterstock


    As someone who aspires to the "jack of all trades" mentality, I feel that you can become a master of many. Sure, being expert in one field is great, as long as you accept the diminishing returns that go with the more time you invest in that one field. Once you past a certain threshold in expertise in a number of areas, skills you build can be transferred into something new, giving you a head start in more areas, the more skills you learn.

    While I only know how to speak one language, I've been told that once you learn 2-3 languages, it becomes progressively easier to learn more (assuming they share the same roots). Be a Jack of all trades, and master of some!

      I totally agree. My job is a fairly sedantary IT one, so people are kind of surprised when I get stuck in to pretty much anything and everything that I feel I might be able to do, most of them far outside normal "geek" territory. I probably picked a lot of that up from my dad. In part, I learn a lot of skills to save money (saved a mate the $4000 he'd been quoted to fell a huge tree recently), but mainly because I love to learn new skills.
      If you're not learning something new, what on Earth are you doing? The same old thing day after day? No thanks.

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