This is a question that has boggled me for a while, I’d say ever since graduation. My belief is that we’ve all been there: you’re going into real life, everybody is telling you what you should and should not focus on in terms of skills and knowledge. Amidst all these contradicting suggestions, and in fear that one skill won’t get you hired, you start piling up skills in wide variety of areas knowing for sure that you will find at least one position that requires one of those skills. Problem is though, you have touched the surface of so many skills that when it comes down to this single one that gets you hired, you’re pretty much the average joe. You’re definitely competent (hopefully), but you’re not quite the master. Most people can do what you can.
I guess that’s where the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” comes from. It describes a “person who is competent with many skills but is not very good with any one particular skill”. Sometimes known as a “polymath“, Leonardo Da Vinci (pictured on the left) is seen as the one of the greatest painters of all time, and the man with the most diversely prodigious talent ever to have lived. Hey, the man is a scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, musician, and writer. Wow! Talk about a jack of all trades!
Now, while we know that having that much knowledge will definitely get you laid at some point, can you really do what this man did, metaphorically? I mean, is it possible for an average human being to know so much about so many things and still maintain acceptable level of human sanity? (ok you caught me, any man who grows this much hair isn’t sane in my book, maybe it was a different time, but I stand corrected!)
This is a question of specialization vs generalization. In other words, how much should you learn about each skill or set of skills in your life including, but not limited to, your job skills? An interesting post by Scott Young addresses this trade off with a neat little visualization called the “T” model. The idea is originally suggested by Ben Casnocha. In a nutshell:
Through this model your aim is to have a moderate amount of skill in a broad range of areas (the top of the ‘T’) and to have a lot of skill in a select few fields (the column of the ‘T’)
The point to take home is that you should make the inevitable trade off: decide what is it that you’re extremely passionate about, and give it the best you got! I mean, by all means, come right at it with a full swing! However, meanwhile, don’t forget about the things that you’re expected to be knowledgeable in, such as soft skills or presentation skills. Most often than not, those kinds of skills will be a prerequisite for your success in pursuing your passion.
Rethinking this model, I’ve noticed that sometimes the depth of your skills is a little more complicated than the above model. More precisely, I believe that leading up to our “expert” skills, there are other ones that we’re supposed to have knowledge in varying amounts or degrees of depth.
I drew down a little diagram to help me get my point across. Notice how the shape of the T is changed into a kind of funnel. I also flipped it to go along the axes.
So does this make sense? And what do you think of the indefinite circled tip at the top of the diagram? Do you think anybody ever has reached that point where he/she just knows it all! I don’t know, but I seem to think that we as humans are never capable of reaching that point because the more we discover about things, the more it’s obvious to us how much more there is to it!