27 Mar Jack of all trades, master of none? They lied, according to research
Everything they told you about why having too many interests is bad for your career is wrong.
I bet you’ve heard the term, jack of all trades, master of none.
Long before our modern civilization, people were warned against spreading their interests across several subjects.
The argument is, if you focus on too many fields, you will lack depth and authority in any single subject.
Specialists are the experts, they say.
Come to find out, most world-renowned artists, athletes, leaders, and changemakers across times and generations are generalists. Not specialists. Think of people like Serena Williams, Strive Masiyiwa, Elon Musk, Ben Carson, Steve Jobs, LeBron James, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Thomas Edison, just to mention but a few.
There is overwhelming evidence to show that generalists have an unfair advantage over specialists. Among other things, they:
- Know how to make connections between different experiences and subjects to enter undiscovered territories.
- Have access to better information because they make uncommon combinations of different disciplines, while most others rely on one field.
- Are steadily growing as the knowledge economy expands, thereby making them more valuable than others.
Take LeBron James for example. Before becoming one of the greatest basketball players of all time, James’ first passion was football. According to Willie McGee, one of James’ close friends and high school teammates at St. Vincent-St. Mary, “Before he got a growth spurt, he was one of those little athletes who returned punts and kickoffs because he could make people miss.”
Now, he combines his knowledge of football, entertainment and basketball to dominate the court.
We can say the same for tennis superstar, Serena Williams. In a Masterclass she delivered in 2019, she said that her footwork was developed from watching several videos of Mohammed Ali’s training. Apart from her incredible success on the court, she has done amazing things with her fashion brand and investment company.
Not yet convinced? How about Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos? These are founders of some of the most valuable brands on the planet and they’re all generalists.
Now you say, if research is replete with all these incredible benefits of learning beyond your industry, why do we go through our days thinking that focusing on just one field is the right thing to do?
The answer is simple: they lied to us.
Here’s how the problem started. We’re not learning the right way. Having superior knowledge of different subjects and skills is not enough. The secret source is in knowing how to make the connection between these fields. It’s about learning how to transfer knowledge.
In our knowledge economy, where technology shortens the shelf-life of information, being a specialist is no longer an option. To quote a passage from the Legendary Buckminster Fuller’s Manifesto for the Genius of Generalists, “Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.”
That said, in the remaining part of this post, you will learn fundamental principles that can help you to make connections between subjects, transfer knowledge, and compound your value.
Here’s how it works.
First, understand the concept of integrative complexity
“The future belongs to the integrators.” – Ernest Boyer, Educator
Author and entrepreneur Michael Simmons defines integrative complexity as a learning theory that involves “the ability to develop and hold opposing traits, values, and ideas, and then integrate them into larger ones.”
That means you are able to merge two contrasting viewpoints to form a better opinion.
In our world of political correctness, conventional tribal wisdom, and religious fanaticism, this is a rare skill. Yet, the majority of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, artists, creatives, and leaders use this skill. Unlike the masses that “pick one side of every polarity and vehemently fight for it,” high achievers and Nobel Laureates can appreciate opposing viewpoints without labeling one right and the other wrong.
As part of the process of developing his thought experiment, self-made billionaire Ray Dalio carried out extensive interviews and personality assessments on high achievers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings, Muhammad Yunus, Jack Dorsey, and several other innovators.
Dalio crunched the data from his research with his team of expert researchers. They discovered there are seven common characteristics that separate high achievers from everyone else. Dalio says, the most interesting characteristic is, “All can see both big pictures and granular details (and levels in between) and synthesize the perspectives they gain at those different levels, whereas most people see just one or the other. They are simultaneously creative, systematic, and practical. They are assertive and open-minded at the same time.”
Explaining this further on another forum, Dalio says, “The best ones are people who not only have good mental maps of how things should be done, but they have high levels of humility. It may not look that way to an outsider. But if you’re in discussions with them, what you find out is generally speaking that they’re curious, voraciously curious. They’re wondering if they’re wrong. They’re taking in information.”
Second, master the art of pattern recognition
In 2018, Drake’s latest album, “Scorpion,” debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and had one of the biggest weeks ever for a hip-hop album. Among other feats, it became the first album to reach 1 billion streams across all platforms worldwide – grossing over $1M in 24 hours, according to Rolling Stone.
What made the album so successful?
Noah Friedman and Jordan Bowman analyzed the secret behind the success of the album in a Business Insider article:
“To listen to the entire project, you’re going to have to dedicate a lot of time. It’s Drake’s longest album. It’s 25 tracks and has a running time of one hour and 30 minutes. But Drake isn’t the only artist with a bloated album. The deluxe edition of Chris Brown’s latest was a 57-track behemoth that ran for a solid three hours and 18 minutes. To understand, you’re going to have to look at streaming services. Spotify and Apple Music have completely changed the music industry. In 2017, 54% of music consumption came from streaming platforms, and streaming generated $3.9 billion. But the Billboard charts have had a hard time trying to figure out how to count streams in an industry that was once dominated by physical album sales. In 2014, people sat around, debated, deliberated, and ultimately decided on a way to quantify streaming music: 1,500 streamed songs counted as one album sale. Previously, Billboard didn’t take streaming into account. It only counted the sales of full albums. This caused a huge shakeup in the music industry. Record labels and artists quickly realized that more tracks equal more streams and that ultimately equals more money.”
Drake understood this subject of pattern recognition.
There are universal principles in every field of study. But to excavate them, Elon Musk says, you must “view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.”
Only then can you reconstruct them to create your own unique formula.
In other words, you must “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else,” as Leonardo Da Vinci said.
Bringing it all together: learn how to transfer knowledge and compound your value
In a 2013 American 3D dance film, Battle of The Year, Jason Blake had to train a group of dancers so that they could compete in an international dancing competition. When he realized that the group lacked motivation, he decided to form a brand new team. Part of his regimen includes long hours of exercise, teamwork, and discipline.
One day, the team felt they were being subjected to the wrong training. They were dancers not sportsmen, they argued. Blake sat everyone down and explained: dancing is not only about entertainment. “In today’s society, dancers train to develop skill, but skill alone does not make a dancer great. It is the artistry that separates a capable dancer from a truly memorable one; this quality transforms the physicality of movement into something more profound.”
People who learn across fields can use that skill to have a more robust career. They make unusual combinations others cannot make. They synthesize knowledge from multiple angles thereby compounding their value.
Think about someone who studied finance but also understands the fundamentals of technology. He or she can use the knowledge of finance and technology to build a financial technology (a.k.a fintech) company. The same is true for other career paths.
Instead of narrowing your focus to your field of study, choose to learn other cross-functional skills. If you are a business student, develop an interest in science. And vice versa.
Alluding to this subject, Strive Masiyiwa said, “Whenever I see a business, as a management practitioner, I’m interested in how it’s run. I’m always asking myself, ‘How are they organized?’ When we launched our Mobile Money business in Zimbabwe, it wasn’t a new idea in Zimbabwe or Africa. To be honest, one of our competitors was a year ahead of us, but it didn’t matter to me. I knew that when we finally launched our service, it would be bigger and better because we’re good managers of businesses.”
His engineering background coupled with his management skills has helped him to launch several businesses in different fields.
Steve Jobs summarized it nicely in his interview for Wired in 1995:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t do it, they just saw something.
It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
The message is simple: unleash your learning superpowers. Explore your interests, understand the fundamental principles of each field of study and find a way to connect the dots to build your career.
I’m not talking about dabbling into every fad that comes along; I’m talking about learning how things work in fields that might be of interest.
By now, you would’ve seen how I applied the same experience in writing this article. My background is in accounting, but I love sharing ideas through writing. In exploring my passion, I learned about marketing, content structure, voice, and so on. Combining the discipline of research from my accounting degree and my new knowledge, I was able to write over 100 articles over the past two years. My work has caught the attention of high profile entrepreneurs like Jean Case. My writing has opened many amazing doors for me, including a contract with the Mastercard Foundation. Yet, I didn’t study writing in school.
Over the last few years, I have collaborated with organizations and communities, including several global entrepreneurs and executives to fuel innovation at the intersection of technology and social impact.
Tom-Chris Emewulu is the Founder & President of SFAN (Stars From All Nations). When he’s not building SFAN and helping entrepreneurs and rising professionals create fulfilling careers, he’s telling African innovation stories or advocating for people-centered policy. Tom-Chris is a former consultant at Mastercard Foundation, Seedstars Ambassador for Ghana, and the author of the forthcoming book: Breaking the Limits. He is a thought leader on youth development, social entrepreneurship, technological innovation, and the future of work.