Being a Jack of All Trades Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills… It means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to a reactive viewpoint.

—Peter Senge

I don't like watching football — not even the Superbowl. Or baseball or basketball or any organized sports, for that matter. For the longest time, I thought this made me weird.

Jack of All Trades
Photo credit: Kheel Center (Creative Commons)

Most guys like sports, right? So how could I associate with my own gender if I couldn't spend three hours on a Sunday watching the “big game”? Honestly, it just felt like a waste of time. No matter how hard I tried, I always felt bored.

Instead, I found myself enjoying activities like playing chess or reading books or even participating in my high school academic bowl team (think Jeopardy for adolescents).

As a kid, I was picked on for being chubby, nonathletic, and kind of a nerd. I listened to Led Zeppelin and wore baggy T-shirts. I was not cool, and I paid the price for it in social capital. That awkward feeling of being left out lingers with me even today. Because I still do things that make me weird.

As an adult, I sometimes feel out of place. Instead of playing a game of cards or watching television, I would rather focus on something like working on my blog or playing the guitar by myself.

For a very long time, this embarrassed me. That is, until recently.

The epiphany

It wasn't until I heard an interview with the author Robert Greene that I began to understand what this feeling was. I always felt like a misfit, a person who was never content to do what “normal people” do. And it really bothered me.

But here's what I've come to understand:

Life is full of distractions. While there's nothing wrong with the occasional diversion, you need to be very careful how you spend your time if you want it to count for something.

Those who make a difference have mastered the discipline of focus. They may have many interests and a good amount of luck, but the bottom line is this:

Life is not an accident for these people; they are living intentionally.

If you are going to be a master of anything, you will have to forsake many things. This is the cost of greatness. (And I'm learning to embrace it.)

In his book The 50th Law, Greene writes:

The fools in life want things fast and easy – money, success, attention. Boredom is their great enemy and fear. Whatever they manage to get slips through their hands as fast as it comes in.

You, on the other hand, want to outlast your rivals. You are building the foundation for something that can continue to expand.

To make this happen, you will have to serve an apprenticeship. You must learn early on to endure the hours of practice and drudgery, knowing that in the end all of that time will translate into a higher pleasure – mastery of a craft and of yourself.

Your goal is to reach the ultimate skill level – an intuitive feel for what must come next.

So if you feel this way — like a misfit, sometimes — what comes next? What do you do with that? Embrace mastery.

The call of the craft

If you do something you love long enough, it begins to take over your life. You can become a bit obsessed. As the saying goes, the more you know about a topic, the more you realize what you don't know.

There comes a point in the pursuit of any skill when you have to make a choice: Either you will treat this as a hobby for the rest of your life, or you will begin to take it seriously. You will do what Steven Pressfield calls “going pro.” You will endeavor to become a master.

If you do this, you will practice like you've never practiced before. You will fail miserably, and you will learn how to use failure to get better. You will never give up, never give in, and always persevere.

You will experience hardship. You will be tempted to resign and give in to the taunts of your enemies and critics. Your hands will crack and bleed, your back will hurt, and you will cry.

In all of this, you will be humbled and humiliated, and your respect for the craft will increase.

Count the cost

So before you decide, take a moment and consider what's at stake here.

Understand what you'll have to give up, how you'll be misunderstood, and the loneliness associated with any kind of greatness or leadership. It will be difficult. Which is what makes it so great.

For me, it's been writing — pursuing how to do something as best I can (and giving up a lot of other pursuits in the process).

The irony in all of this is that in my disdain for sports I'm actually learning what it means to be an athlete — what it means to strive and strain and push through the pain to achieve a goal.

If the idea of hustling like you've never hustled and hurting like you've never hurt before actually appeals to you, then there's hope. You may be on the right path after all.

If not, I completely understand. This ain't easy, and there are no guarantees you'll be a “ninja” some day. So if this doesn't stir something in you, by all means go back to watching the game.

As for me, I'm tired of being good at many things, of being a jack-of-all-trades. I want to be a master of one.

What do you think: Is it better to be a jack of all trades, or to pursue mastery? Share in the comments.