Is there any real difference between a generalist ‘jack of all trades’ and a master? After all, isn’t a ‘jack of all trades’ simply a master generalist?
I’ve been doing several activities for decades now—yoga (50), tai chi (40), shakuhachi sui zen (35), gardening (30)—plus, I have a plethora of skills from electronics to welding and much in between.
Surely, this make me a ‘jack of all trades’, and true to the saying, I’m not a master of any of them. Not surprisingly, I have long wondered about the pejorative sounding ‘master of none’ that accompanies the saying. I’ve no doubt it is true, but so what?
For me, life is an experiment, and this one has played out long enough for me to address the results so far.
First, there is the problem inherent in becoming too much of a master of anything as I pointed out recently in Why Do Idiot Savants Run Things? As with all things in life, balance is key. Too much of a good thing is no better than too little. So actual capability in a field, per se, cannot be the definitive measure of mastery. I imagine that ‘neither too much or too little’ would have to be the ultimate gauge by which to judge true mastery.
Of course, the only ones who really know whether there is ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ are the individuals themselves. It is utterly subjective. Attempting to judge another person’s balance between ‘too much and too little’ can never be more than a projection of one’s own state of balance, or rather their lack of balance. What we judge desirable (or not) in others only reflects what we need, or fear, for ourselves.
Attempting to master something is quite different from the traditional definition of mastery, in my experience anyway. For me, mastery is mostly a matter of the ‘knowing of what to do, or not do’. At that point, I can stop searching for knowing, and settle into my knowing. In other words, I am a master in my own right. We all are! It cannot be otherwise. Let’s see if I can explain why…
The struggle to achieve mastery is essentially life’s purpose, e.g., “get it together”; “get it done”; “get grounded”; “turn over a new leaf”; “be born again”; and just generally ‘succeed’ at what ever one’s goal or need happens to be. Mastery is how close one comes to matching the reality of daily life to one’s personal ideal, i.e., ‘knowing of what to do, or not do’ and doing that. Each step closer to the ideal you get, becomes a new status quo. In a word, progress.
Concurrently, the mind continues to idealize outcomes using the new status quo as a new base line to ‘progress’ from. Ironically, this means that the journey to mastery never ends. As you journey on, your ‘knowing of what to do, or not do’ evolves too. For example, on the surface, I appear to have ‘mastered’ this yoga posture. In truth, I am at the edge of competency, no different than when I first began 50 years ago. Each increase in capability resets the base line to the beginning. I’m always a beginner, and always will be.
In other words, desire’s ideals always reach beyond the status quo of ‘what is’. In my view, this is simply the primal hunter-gatherer instinct prodding us to keep seeking. Seeking facilitates survival (up to a point anyway). And so the journey always [re]starts from beneath one’s feet, and one is always at the beginning of the next step. In this way, everyone is master of their own life. Each does the best they can under their individual circumstance, struggling their way toward optimum balance, and in truth never quite reaching it, naturally, but don’t tell anyone. 😉
Of course there is the ‘hoodwinking’ side of mastery. This is the social need we have to anoint Masters of that which we deem important to us. They symbolize (appear to embody) the ideals to which we aspire. These ‘alpha males’ will surely lead us to a better place… or perhaps like lemmings, off a cliff.