Nothing Mastered, Everything Gained

15 July 2020

The concept of a "master of nothing" has been around since at least 1592, but its meaning has changed over time. Perhaps it's best to start with the full quote that lends itself to the concept of being a master of nothing:

Jack of all trades, master of none.

The truth is, that's not the full quote. The original quote from 1592 was a compliment directed at people who were able to juggle multiple tasks. To people who were multi-disciplinary. Over time, the "master of none" part of the quote was added as an insult. Perhaps this was because there were people who dedicated their lives to a single focus and to not master something was to not give your all. Perhaps it was simply a disillusion that mastery was necessary for success. Regardless, the quote should remain a compliment. I say this because I am, in fact, a master of nothing.

But I am pretty damn good at a lot of things.

A quick list of some of the things I've done in my 30+ years on Earth in no particular order:

  • Built soapbox derby cars
  • Built go-karts
  • Wrote a screenplay
  • Got a business degree
  • Started an auto parts business online
  • Started a sports blog
  • Got a masters degree in creative writing
  • Gave radio interviews to ESPN
  • Learned to code
  • Learned to make beer
  • Rebuilt the entire backend of a 1984 Toyota Corolla
  • Made comic books
  • Published a collection of short fiction
  • Managed a team of call center employees
  • Led customer experience for an edtech company
  • Conducted customer experience journey mapping
  • Analyzed systems processes for a technology company
  • Started a blockchain company
  • Started another blockchain company

Could I even have done half the things on this list if I had focused on mastery? Absolutely not. Are there things on this list I might want to master? Sure, but not today.

The journey is the value. I would argue that a lack of mastery but a general knowledge in a lot of things makes you immensely more hirable than mastery in a single discipline. David Epstein, an investigative journalist wrote a book on the topic of generalists versus masters and had this to say in an interview on the topic:

Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. The more varied your training is, the better able you’ll be to apply your skills flexibly to situations you haven’t seen.

You are a more prepared human being when you learn and apply yourself in many different areas. When thrust into a situation for which you have no training, no experience, and no clue what to do next, you are better equipped to figure it out. In my life, I've seen this on many occasions. Asked to do a sales demo without any education or work background in such a thing, I was able to adapt and not only do the demo but lead the demos going forward. Asked to automate a process, my background in various technical areas allowed me to take a very basic knowledge of some subjects, learn the additional material I needed, and apply what I had learned to build an automation tool. When struck by a desire to create something, I have been able to dive in, even without the seemingly necessary knowledge that would be required to finish the thing I wanted to create because I have taught myself how to learn over years of mastering nothing but experimenting with much.

This is not to say mastery is unnecessary in the world. In fact, it's quite the opposite. We need mastery in many areas. But we do not need everyone to master a given topic. General knowledge, when applied broadly and with passion, can create an equitable field of employment in many different sectors, it can enhance the creative arts, it can enrich lives, and it can make the world more enjoyable.

So, the next time you are interested in something new, don't ask yourself how much time you'll be able to dedicate to it. Don't ask yourself if you'll be able to master it. Don't ask yourself anything. Just take the leap. Learn. Enjoy. Master nothing.