In content-focused sites, the onboarding journeys usually goes as: personal details, frequency of updates, and selection of interests. At the page where you’re asked to select from a roster of topics, I often go beyond that usual site’s limit of 3 or 5. Yes, I’m curious about things from health and fitness to the latest trends in tech, and usually, everything in between.

Here’s one case in point with my onboarding with Refind.

onboarding-1

onboarding-2

Avidly, as a curious learner, all of these interests take up a significant amount of time–some more negligible than the others, but there’s always a time investment involved. Apparently, by design in time’s finite-ness, a yes to one thing means a no to another thing, so there’s always a trade off involved in alloting your attention to one thing over the other.

That being said, having multiple points for curiosity begs that question: Is it bad to be curious at everything? Is it better to devote all of your intention into one thing and be the master at it or is it better to dabble into multiple things and settle with mediocrity at certain points of interest you cannot fully devote your time to? Or maybe in a more colloquial use of terms, is it better to be a jack of trades but master of none or master of one?

I’ve honestly still yet to find the answer. I’m the type of person who seeks to learn about visually everything as evidenced by my digital garden, and I can’t help but think if I should refocus myself into only one field and be the best at it. I admit that in exchange for learning about thing xyz, I have to sacrifice learning about abc so inevitably, there’s that trade-off.

So, which one is better? In hopes of answering my question, I set off to scavenge the net.

The first article I came across upon was ‘The fallacy of being a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ developer’1. It tells us that in the question between choosing to be either, the default assumption is that it’s better to be a master of one since specialists may find it easier to transverse one path. Here’s the insight I particularly liked:

A false dichotomy

Here’s the real idiom-breaker: being a jack of all trades doesn’t mean you can’t also specialise. In fact, the second half of the idiom, ‘master of none’ wasn’t even part of the original phrase.

The generalist vs specialist debate is a false dichotomy. The space between the jack and the master is a spectrum, not a chasm.

In other words, it’s not a yes-no relationship.

Another article from Limelight2 says that while the term “jack of all trades” used to be seen as a sarcastic retort, it can now be framed as connoting how a generalist is more “versatile and adept” at many things, which is why it can be assigned higher value.

In a Quora thread3 (I love Quora!), people also offer the different insights. My favorite takes are as follows:

  • “I would emphasize, you can not be a jack-of-all-trades without being a master of at least one.. What if you could unlock the multiplier for learning, take learning to a magnitude of powers which allows you to apply specific domain knowledge on to multiple subjects and fields? Though mastery of one does not garentee mastery of another, but it gives you a significant coefficient for learning.. Mastery of one trade can be converted into a catalyst for learning other fields. You have something to pull from, complex ideas you can pattern match, and metaphoric analogies that can complete a picture.”
  • “What I am telling you is that life can be damn expensive if you just sit on your laurels and stop learning. The beauty of knowing a lot of different things is that you can easily find work in trades you know the basics in. The rest you can learn on the job.”
  • Being a jack of all trades isn’t a bad thing. It means you are well rounded. And unless you are applying for a job that requires that master of one trade, it’s more of an advantage than a disadvantage, by far. And often, hiring managers are looking for a more well rounded employee, anyways, as it increased problem solving skills and creativity to have so many perspectives. Don’t ever settle for mastering just one skill or field. That is limiting yourself."

Basically, 1) It is not possible to be jack-of-all-trades without mastering at least one., 2) Learning is beautiful, and 3.) Settling for one field is limiting yourself.

The Medium article “Who is a better Hire, Jack Of All Trades, or Master Of One?"4, on the other hand, offers a comparative insight between both, offering a perspective between choosing from either in a workplace setting. The article, of course, explains it better, but the key points are: Jack of all trades–diverse skill set, blessing for start-ups (since start-ups work in small teams that require you to work around), adaptability and flexibility, long-term learner, and a great fit for leadership. Master of one–expertise is precious, quality of productivity, easily can become a jack too, time saved in training and polishing. The article ends on the note that jack-of-all trades may be more helpful in starting business whereas corporate business may opt for masters of one

Truth be told, this is the current framework of start-ups and corporate hiring managers. Honestly? It works!


So.. my take? Definitely, being curious at everything is not bad. Expertise and skill do not exist as a yes-no relationship. You do not have to trade off being extremely at one thing just because you want to learn about another thing. Learning is, in its own self, too beautiful to let go. At the same time, seek to maximize what you want to maximize on. On another end, there’s also nothing wrong with specializing at one thing. Ultimately, it’s a matter of choice.

In line with that, although this is a completely different topic that would prompt me to write about it on another day, I’d also like to type in how this echoes off with the Pareto principle. Basicallly, 80% of output comes from 20% of input. In application, focus on going a certain % of effort (or a 20% of effort at this matter) into what you want to achieve. Set in your mind the certain level of expertise you want to achieve at one matter, and build towards that. Allot your energy wisely.

In that regard, off to reading something completely unrelated to the paper I have to finish in 7 days.



  1. The fallacy of being a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ developer ↩︎

  2. “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”–Meet Victor Vicsek ↩︎

  3. Which is better, to be a jack of all trades or master of one? ↩︎

  4. Who is a better Hire, Jack Of All Trades, or Master Of One? ↩︎