And master of none.


At least, that’s what I’ve always been told.  I’ve always been led to believe that in order to master anything, you must study that exclusively for years and years and years- and that’s totally true.   Malcom Gladwell talked about it extensively in his book “Outliers: the Story of Success” when he discusses the theory of 10,000 hours- the amount of time it takes to become a master in a given skill.  This mastery then leads to success in your given profession with all the trappings that entails- higher income, greater prestige, respect and admiration of your peers.  We see this daily in the pay of Neurosurgeons vs. Family Practitioners; highly specialized trial attorneys vs generalists who practice family law; in most fields, we can find those who are highly specialized and at the top of the pay scale vs. those who are generalist at the bottom.


In our culture we value the specialist who is a master of his trade, while the generalist is seen as simply not as good.


Jack of all trades, master of none.   The JoaT is lacking the discipline and focus and therefore will never master anything and he is not as important as the Master.


But that’s not at all what Jack of all Trades originally meant.   “Master of none” was added many years later to make the term pejorative instead of positive.

Originally, it was meant to mean that someone who has a wide, diverse skill set is able to bring those skills together to enhance and strengthen what they have; that multiple disciplines were in fact better than solely mastering one skill.   Being a generalist who was good at several things was as valued as being a master of one.

Jack of all trades, master of none.
Certainly better than Master of One.

Jack of all trades, master of none.
Better than Jack of one trade, master of one.


It’s an interesting concept to me because of my attraction to new things.  I do have some skills I’ve mastered to 10,000 hours- things I can be inferred to have mastery over.   I’ve been an active photographer for 30 years; I was pro for about 8, dropped it completely for about 6, then rediscovered my love of it through fine art photography.   I would argue that I still have loads more to learn; that I’m an idiot savant with a camera who gets lucky sometimes, but others disagree with me on that and seem to think I know what I’m doing.  But for every other skill I have?  I’ve been using pc’s and technology for 25+ years and have a love for ripping things apart and trying something new.  I jump on every new OS that comes out (Except WindowsMe and Vista… I knew better than to get involved with that trash.) and I am now trying to learn how to virtualize servers for redundancy and security.

But there is no way I’ll ever master this new technology as it comes out.   I simply do not have the time to focus on one thing so exclusively to dump 10,000 hours into mastering Virtualization and Server technology.   But does that mean my skills and knowledge are worthless without that mastery?   Is there any point to being “just a generalist”?


I think there is.


We generalist are the ones who take existing stuff and try to use it in different ways.  We combine our sometimes extensive knowledge of a variety of fields and have those “ah-ha” moments where 1+1 doesn’t just equal 2, it equals something completely unique.  Sometimes those discoveries work, many times they don’t, but it’s the synthesis of ideas from a variety of fields that helps create rather than hinder.   Way back when I was shooting portraits for a living, digital cameras were coming out in waves.  I had a full case of ‘blad medium format equipment that cost about $2 a shot to buy, develop and print.   $2 every time the shutter clicked.  Also, it took weeks to get it back from the lab, then to go through previews, reprint the client orders and then deliver the finished photos- there was nothing fast about the experience.


At that time, the big manufacturers were just coming out with digital SLR’s… $25,000 for a 1.2 or 1.5mp sensor that you could use your existing lenses; no way I could afford that.   But due to my experiences with computers and with cameras, I found a little Nikon Coolpix  950 that had a 1.9mp sensor in a body that had full manual controls and full external flash sync.  Would it work as a cheap studio camera?   I popped it into a bracket, hooked a radio slave flash unit to it, set it f8 @1/60th and with a click, I had a functional, portable, digital studio.  It could print a decent 5×7 dye sub portrait (8×10 was too noisy) and while the quality would never be mistaken for film, it was shot and printed within 10 minutes for just the cost of the print.  I wasn’t a 10,000 hour master of photography, nor was I a 10,000 hour master of computer technology, but I did know enough of each field to be able to combine a ‘good enough’ camera with my pro gear to produce decent, inexpensive, instant portraits.


Ultimately, the failing of my experiment with it came down to the Dye-Sub printer.   After 10-15 prints, it would drift out of calibration until skin tones became green… not an attractive look for anyone.  To recalibrate, it took 20 minutes and too many ‘test calibration’ prints that both slowed down production and destroyed any profit margin from a shoot.  I tried photo-inkjets but they were just too slow, too expensive and not built for commercial use.   My portable digital studio worked in theory, but the technology just wasn’t commercially viable- back in 1999.  15 years later and film is almost gone and everyone shoots and prints digitally.   I was 10 years too early.


I came up with a solution and a plan for that portable digital studio because I had “good enough” generalist knowledge about both computers and pc’s and how they could work together to create something few others were doing at the time.


I was (and still am) a jack-of-all-trades, and I am OK with that.   I think it’s one of my strengths.

About Scott

I am an older geek who has a deep, abiding fascination for all things shiny and new, but also a deep, abiding respect for all things shiny and old. Or just old. And not always shiny.

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