Is there any real difference between a generalist ‘jack of all trades’ and an accomplished master? After all, isn’t a ‘jack of all trades’ simply a master generalist?
I’ve been doing several activities for many years now: yoga (50 years), tai chi (40 years), shakuhachi sui Zen (35 years), gardening (30 years) — plus, I have a plethora of skills from electronics to welding and much in between.
Surely, this makes 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 point out 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. Therefore, actual capability in any field can’t be the definitive measure of mastery. ‘Neither too much nor too little’ would be the ultimate gauge by which to judge true mastery.
The only ones who really know whether there is ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ are the individual doers 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 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. Mastery is mostly a matter of ‘knowing 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. We say, “Get it together”, “Get it done”, “Get grounded”, “Turn over a new leaf”, “Be born again”, and just generally ‘succeed’ at whatever one’s goal or need happens to be. Mastery is how close one comes to matching the reality of one’s daily life to one’s personal ideal, i.e., ‘knowing 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.
The mind continues to idealize outcomes using the new status quo as a new base line from which to advance. Ironically, this means that the journey to mastery never ends… Progress marches forever onward. As you journey on, your ‘knowing what to do, or not do’ evolves too. For example, on the surface, I appear to have ‘mastered’ this yoga posture (photo left). In truth, I am at the edge of competency, no different from when I began yoga 50 years ago. Each increase in capability resets the base line to the beginning. I’m always a beginner, and always will be.
Our expectations always reach beyond the status quo of ‘what is’. This is simply the primal hunter-gatherer instinct prodding us to keep seeking. Seeking facilitates survival, up to a point anyway. You could say the journey is always here and now beneath our feet. We’re always at the beginning of the next step. In this way, everyone is master of their own life. Each of us does the best we can relative to our nature and circumstance, struggling our way towards optimum balance, and in truth never quite reaching it, naturally. Chapter 64 hints at this, A thousand mile journey begins below the feet. Of doing we fail, of holding on we lose.
Naturally, there is the ‘hoodwinking’ side of mastery. This is our social need to anoint masters of that which we deem important. They symbolize and 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.
The Yoga of Perfection
I left the best for last. One main problem I’ve always had with perfecting one aspect of life was that this is putting all my perfection eggs in one basket. However, putting all these eggs in each of life’s baskets is humanly impossible. The Bhagavad Gita hints at what may count for true mastery.
They all attain perfection when they find joy in their work. Hear how a man attains perfection and finds joy in his work. #18:45
A man attains perfection when his work is worship of God, from whom all things come and who is in all. #18:46
Greater is thine own work, even if this be humble, than the work of another, even if this be great. When a man does the work God gives him, no sin can touch this man. #18:47
And a man should not abandon his work, even if he cannot achieve it in full perfection; because in all work there may be imperfection, even as in all fire there is smoke. #18:48
It helps to read between the lines enough to see how these parallel Buddha’s Fourth Noble Truth, and his dying piece of advice, “Strive on diligently…”
At around the same time as Buddha, the Greek poet Archilochos said, ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing‘. Everyone lies on a fox / hedgehog bell curve, with a few of us on either end being extreme foxes or hedgehogs. I imagine the jack-of-all-trades is more on the fox end of the curve, while the master is more on the hedgehog side. Google the quote for interesting angles on this topic.