Jack of All Trades, Master of None

I just figured it out. That stupid saying was probably introduced to me early on in life. Β It’s a very teacher and parental thing to tell a kid. Most adults have a hard time finding that one thing they’re great at. It would be unfair to plant the notion that there’s more than one thing.

Here’s the thing though. I’ve lived what…35 years of my life in misery, literally, misery and agony trying to find that *one* thing I’m supposed to be master of.

Self doubt sucks

“Is it art?” I wondered until my portfolio quite literally blew away in the wind one day in high school. “Is it writing?” Fiction or non didn’t really matter to me. I wrote a novel, poems, short stories, news articles, technical articles, etc. “Is it programming?” I was good at it in the eighth grade and it’s paid the bills quite steadily since December of 1997. “Is it conferences?” A short stint proved that while fun, that certainly was *not* it. LOL

“Why can’t I figure this out? What’s wrong me?” Every other day, I find myself alone somewhere (my bed, the shower, in the car, heck, even the toilet) and I ponder that. I wonder why I’m broken. “35 years and you still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up.”

See, that’s the thing. I figured you had to be *something*. You had to be a Master of *something*, else you’d be a useless Jack of All Trades. I wanted a sign, from God, from my parents, from my peers, anywhere. “Let me know what it is and I’ll be there. I’ll dedicate my life to it.”

It’s all a Lie

You know what I just figured out though? I think this has all been one big misunderstanding. See, there are few masters. We had Mozart in classical music, Michelangelo in sculpting, Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture, Shakespeare in writing, etc. You know what though? I don’t want to be like any of them. From what I can tell, the masters tend to be more slaves to their medium. They are dictated and controlled by the unquenchable desire to do more, do better, push further, etc. It’s what drives them above all else. I don’t want that.

“Well, you’re not going to be famous.” “There’s no way you can be mediocre at many things and be successful.” “If you’re never a master, then you’re a follower.” I think these are things said by people to justify why they’re not a *master* yet. “I just need to find that one thing” they mutter to themselves as they go to bed each night.

Today Ends the Lie

It’s funny how the little things in life bring about such grand revelations. For me, it was starting up the habit of a To-Do List again (Thanks to Cultured Code for Things, the app I started using again this morning.) I absolutely LOVE To-Do lists. I constantly tell my wife, “If you want me to get certain things done, give me a list. Whether it’s chores or grocery shopping, if I don’t have a list, I’ll get distracted.” Today I wrote about 7 or 8 items. Half dealt with work, half with personal stuff. I did so because last week, I felt like I accomplished nothing. Not a feeling I wish to become a habit.

After reviewing my list and feeling good for checking off items, I realized something. “I wonder if I can put all my passions into a To-Do list and work on them that way.” My friend, Daniel Brunk, pointed out something to me today as well. He said, “You always pick yourself up even though you know you’re gonna fall again.” He’s right, but more than he may have realized. For 35 years, I’ve always focused on one thing. Or at least, that’s what I lied to my self about. I was always trying to master what was my focus at the time. You know what though? I stopped the whole focusing thing probably in college.

Alone == True Focus; Love Ends All That

The second you find love, the second you’re no longer alone in this world, is the second your ability to have a single focus dies. I think that’s why many “greats” and “masters” have horrible personal lives. If you have one focus, one overriding passion, everything else fades. It’s like a drug: All you care about is the next high. People and their feelings don’t matter one iota.

Somewhere in college I discovered love. After college, love finally discovered me. πŸ™‚ It’s only with hindsight, can I see that I didn’t want or need to be a master. I had a great time dating my wife and I was writing like a champ. I wrote a novella and a novel during our courtship and possibly during our earliest days of marriage. This means I was doing at least 3 things at a level I was happy with: being a writer, a fiance/husband and a good employee.

Fast forward to 2004 and my oldest son was born. While learning how to be a dad, I learned the basics of application building in Flash that would lead to my success as a Flex programmer. My kid didn’t suffer and my wife didn’t lose her husband. I was doing 4 things by then: work, husband, daddy and programming at night.

Fast forward to 2006: By this time, I was a hubby, dad of my oldest, dad to my newest, employee and starting my active role in the Flex community (starting a user group, doing trainings, writing articles, starting conferences, etc.). And again, I was happy with my output and I think everyone else was too.

I Don’t Need You to Make Me Happy

I do things for me sometimes and that’s just fine. I’ve written almost 600 poems for my wife. You’ll never read them all and that’s just fine. I’ve written over 25 pieces of prose: one novel, one novella, several short stories, dialog pieces, a play, etc. You’ll never read them all and that’s just fine. I’ve written the lyrics and have recorded the vocal tracks to 5 songs and 3 were never heard by anything except my tape recorder and the walls of my bedroom. Again, that’s just fine.

The thing I think society forgets, the thing that our capitalist society doesn’t want you to figure out, it’s okay not to make a buck off of everything you do. Sometimes, you just want to do something just for the sake of doing it. That’s okay. I want to learn to play the guitar, not to play in front of a stadium full of people but rather to get out those few or single piece of music that’s buried deep inside of me. (Alright, and maybe to play our wedding song for my wife at one of our anniversaries.)

Happiness is Not a Goal, It’s the Balanced State of Living

Thinking back on my life, I can’t help but think about something my dad once said about me. “You’re amazing in one respect. You can take any situation, no matter how crappy, and make it sound like it was the time of your life.” He said that awhile back and I think I’ve lost that ability the past few years.

I somehow joined society’s chorus of complaints. “I don’t have enough time to do all I want to do.” “Of course, if I didn’t have a wife or kids, I’d have all the time in the world.” Lies, all lies. There’s plenty of time in a day to do every thing you want to do. If you want to do more than one thing, like me, you just setup a schedule to fit it all in. You schedule not because you *have* to, but rather because you *want* to.

I want to do the following (in no particular order or rank):

  • make games with my new company in the off hours
  • run for exercise in 6+ mile intervals
  • learn to play the guitar
  • play with my boys
  • make my wife happy (this means trash taking out, dishes, etc)
  • be active in the tech community
  • be a good employee
  • be a good son
  • write more often (fiction and non)

The thing I realize as of today is that being happy in all those things is what keeps me in harmony. If I start to fall short in one of those things, it’ll start to drag down others. I don’t have to be the best in each of those categories, I just need to have fun and, to be honest, that doesn’t necessarily take any talent to do that. LOL

24 thoughts on “Jack of All Trades, Master of None

  1. Thanks for sharing Tom. As always you have a lot of good insights. In many ways you described me…some things which I’ve already accepted about myself, and also other things that I continually struggle with.

    1. Glad you enjoyed! This was one of those post written between the hours of 2 and 4 am, so I’m always a bit worried that I’ll sound crazy when I reread later that day.

      Either this post wasn’t too crazy or you and I both are crazy! LOL

    2. Please read The Power Freedom and Grace, Deepak Chopra!!!!!! This small book will put all your questions in perspective!!!! Good Luck

  2. Tom,

    I often feel the tension between contentment with who I am and what I have at the moment (which is a good thing) and being ambitious and having plans and stretch goals for the future (which are also good things.)

    Balance is critical, but I often make the mistake of thinking balance is a static state to be achieved, rather than a daily way of life — more like riding a motorcycle than driving a car. So by definition, I’ll never find the perfect balance, but that’s okay, the process can be good too. I always try to look for the “joy in the journey”.


    1. Yeah, I hear you about the interpretation of balance. I remember freshmen year in college, my friend Wen Laws had his life balanced and scheduled. It was so set in stone that the whole month was planned and 7 pm to 7:30 pm was the “Have fun slot.” I remember mocking him for that. “You can’t plan for fun.”

      I think many of us feel the same way about parenthood. You don’t have to give equal time to each child everyday. Somedays, you give a lot to one kid then a few days later you give more to the other. This goal for your list of goals. As long as you keep all the goals in sight, how you achieve happiness through them is entirely up to you and very variable.

      Another thing we should remember too is not to be afraid to retired goals and add new ones to the mix. We’re constantly evolving and our goals should as well.

  3. Thanks for sharing. This is something I have been struggling to work on in my life lately, and you really helped to put some of my thoughts into words. THANK YOU

  4. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for the great heartfelt post. πŸ™‚

    A few interesting counterexamples I can think of would be Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and Ben Franklin. I think that the fact that they were so good at different things comes from the fact that they were probably genuinely interested in them and enjoyed them. Granted, I’m not sure if any of them had families.

    Not that we have to be famous for all we do or want to do by any means, just enjoy them and give glory to our Creator through them πŸ˜€

    1. You’re welcome for the post. Glad it came off heartfelt vs crazy thoughts. LOL

      Yeah, Michelangelo was a Renaissance man, but I put him in the sculpting category. The Sistine Chapel was not his idea, but the Pope’s. He’d have rather been sculpting. πŸ™‚

      As for the big man upstairs, I left my thoughts on that outta the post here cuz this is my watered-down site. πŸ˜‰ I usually expand upon my spiritual thoughts at: http://spiritualtechies.com

  5. Thank you! I always felt that everyone else seemed to know what they wanted to do, and did what they we’re good at. The “jack of all trades” moniker seems to follow me around. I was an American Lit. major, switched to Biology, graduated with my B.S. Made medicine, went to grad school for Chemistry for 8.5 yrs., was ABD (wrote 133 pages on a dissertation). Worked at a university, got my MBA, started a company, had to close it, and am now helping my MIL close 2 estates, and scrapping metal for an estate of a hoarder, the property of which she inherited. I am married to the greatest man on earth. I don’t know what will happen next (I, too, love to-do lists, and want to start another company), but, for me, life is never boring. It is not what I expected, but maybe that’s part of the fun.

    1. Yeah, I shoulda figured something was wrong with my college selection. I nailed it down to 3 choices: University of Puget Sound – Computer Science, Oberlin – Neurobiology or Neurochemistry, and University of Florida – Ocean Biology. So each school was gonna be a different field of study. And no matter which school I was gonna pick, I knew I’d add a second major of English – Creative Writing. UPS won out and for my year that I was there, I did study both Comp Sci and Eng – Creative Writing. I quickly realized though that college is made for people who know exactly what they want to do in life and I’m not one of those people. I’m vehemently opposed to college now and I think it’s because it was forcing me to conform to a way of thinking that was against my inner being.

      “..but, for me, life is never boring. It is not what I expeted, but maybe that’s part of the fun.” Exactly. My life is never dull inside or outside my family. Though I could probably spice up my family’s life a bit more now that AZ has cooled off. Yeah, looking back if you told me when I started working that I’d backpack through europe twice, I’d save a bank division directly though my self-initiatie, work at eBay, serve tons of people through the Flex community in Silicon Valley, etc. I’d have said “You’re crazy.” But here I am years later and that’s just some of the fun stuff I’ve done.

      I sorta feel bad now for people who are not like us and all they ever do is the same thing day in and day out. LOL

  6. Hiya Tom!

    Like yourself, I was in the shower today, wondering about …well… life. And this idea of being a Jack of All Trades, master of none, came to my mind.

    This follows a series of job interviews and a period of my life where I’ve been questioning and finding out where to go, and how to get there.

    My girlfriend some time ago, after I did a drawing, turned to me and said: “Is there anything you can’t do?”
    And I answered something like: “That’s the problem, I can do a lot of stuff, but I’m not an expert at really anything”.

    And, like you point out, it’s a real struggle nowadays to prevail and succeed in the kind of society we live in, because expertise, specialization, focus, are values that are much more recognized, rather than the “oh, I see you can also paint and you do quite a bit of volunteering”.

    Therefore, as I was saying, that expression came to my mind, so I had to …. google it, and find out what was being said “out there”

    That’s how I stumbled to your post, and happily read and nodded as I went along. So I guess, here’s a big “thank you” for your shared thoughts, I will definitely check out that application.

    Oh, and I find the phrase
    “Happiness is Not a Goal, It’s the Balanced State of Living”
    just brilliant!

    Stay safe and balanced πŸ˜‰

    1. What is it with showers and introspection? LOL Is it because we shower in the morning and thus we’re more contemplative? But yeah, I’ve been in that scenario far too many times.

      I’m glad you were able to nod along. It makes me feel better that there’s more of us out there, living our lives against the tide. I think as the corporate world declines due to economic collapse and the rise of small niche businesses grows ever stronger, we “Jacks” will play a much larger role in society. I’m not sure how or why yet, but that’s what my gut says. Right now, the workforce is filled with cogs and as Seth Godin says, we’re quickly becoming a society where cogs are pretty much useless. It’ll be interesting to see.

      I’m glad you like that phrase, that was one of the lines I was more proud of in this post. πŸ™‚

  7. I often struggle with such a similar concept. I’m not a master of anything. But dabbler in everything.

    On the same hand, it’s a challenge. Because we’ve got to function in this world. And it can be hard…bills need to be paid. And even if I were to move to a simpler lifestyle (grow my own food, etc). I still have to earn $$$ to pay the taxes on the house.

    Really, I want to be a think-tanker. I love being given a problem and devising a solution. Just not sure where that fits in. And whenever I see a job for anything along that lines it either wants years of engineering (but I don’t want to be an engineer – too much math hurts my brain). I want to conceive the design, and have the engineer work over the fine details. In fact, I often find I get frustrated with the syntax of programming. Often I just want to conceive the UIX, business logic, and design. Digging through the actual code is less fun to me.

    Some of the most peaceful times are when I’m in our new yard, just over-looking the valley below. Thinking…man, I wish I could just grow and live from the earth – while simultaneously taking advantage of modern invention.

    Is it odd, that my dream would be to have a community of friends all living on a hundred acres or so. Using solar, wind and organic growing methods to be a semi-self-sufficient community. One close enough that you wouldn’t worry about finding someone to watch the kids for a night out with the Mrs.

    – Jason

    1. Yeah, I hear ya. Where I think I’m able to cope better than most is that I can take one interest and mold it into my primary job function. This always me to dabble with new technologies at night and thus be current on all the hot techs that then translate into steady work.

      Funny you mention that dream community. When I owned a home in Cali, it was about 1/3 of an acre and I could grow anything (it was southern california after all). I used to think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to buy every house on this city block. Then give a house to a family member or close friend. We could then knock down all the backyard fences and just have a blast with each other. Never have need for a babysitter or someone for the kids to play with.”

      Clearly, we’re a lot more similar than we thought my friend! LOL

  8. lately i have been thinking a lot about general topics that i can relate too, you see I’m a 17 year old senior in high school and ever since this school year started i have felt the need to analyze anything that applies to my life in the slightest way, and I have no idea why. I think this started because of my English class where i have just an absolutely amazing teacher who taught us how to analyze poetry in greater depth than i could have imagined last year, and how to find significance in the slightest of words, and since then I’ve been absolutely intrigued by everything. since then I have been essentially seeking knowledge and finding things out that I believe many people may have never thought twice about. my last semester of high school just started and im beginning a class on entrepreneurship which im finding very interesting. The first thing we did in this class was take a personality test to see how we fit into business, sure enough i turned out to be an INTP and extremely introverted at that, which doesn’t surprise me because I do infact feel that this suits me as do all of my friends close enough to judge such a thing. anyways this turned out being one of the things that intrigued me and i ended up looking into how the INTP personality works, and it suits me very well. ( http://www.personalitypage.com/INTP.html (more about INTP)) i looked into this more tonight out of curiosity and found famous people who are INTP’s
    (this is where this becomes relevant to the article) and a lot of them included men who had great scientific breakthroughs and were masters of their craft. I dont know if i want to just settle for something, i feel that i have the great potential in many area’s; science, math, graphic arts, “english”, and business, and i feel as if “mastering” one of these would be wasting the others, which is why i’ve applied for colleges next year as undeclared. while looking into INTP’s i found out that people like myself often thrive in college, which is great.
    i also hope this doesn’t seem crazy in the morning, as this is a late night post, and these are just my general thoughts that i found semi appropriate to this topic. i apologize for the long post but this is what was going threw my mind and i had to materialize it somewhere. It was also interesting that you posted this article on my Birthday πŸ™‚ “I, like God, do not play with dice and do not believe in coincidence” – V for vendetta

    1. Awesome reply, Matt! I felt the same way my senior year of high school. In college, I went double major since I couldn’t decide. My advice to you is don’t let people tell you what you “should” do. Follow your heart, even if your heart takes in a million different directions. People like us, we don’t fit in the system. That’s okay though, because that’s what makes us awesome! πŸ™‚

      I’m an INFP myself. We INxPs gotta stick together! http://www.personalitypage.com/INFP.html

  9. Tom, read this & loved it. This is my sentiment exactly. The other day the phrase “jack of all trades…” Came to mind and I thought though I may be a jack of all trades at least I’m a slave to none. Thank you for the great read. I also have a question about creating a program to manage and track my employees would love if you contacted me at info@defineyourellement.comv

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