Jack of all Trades, Master of Total Crap

November 8, 2007

I sometimes tell people that I like programming media applications because they combine a few disciplines that I really enjoy working in, like math, art, and information design. The response I often get is a condescending smile, and the phase:

“Jack of All Trades, Master of None.”

Ah, spoken like a true anyman. If you are a genius, you should put this cliched colloquialism out of your mind forever.

Of course there are limits to the acquisition of knowledge, but the phrase isn’t used to start epistemological conversations. It is used to disparage people who have multiple talents: the only function it has is to discourage people from expanding their horizons for fear of some phantom mediocrity which will inevitably settle upon their every action.

I think it started with the fear within people that they are not meeting some external standard of excellence, or that they can not compare to the people around them. They invoke this phrase as if it’s a law of nature, in the hope that it will expunge their responsibility to be the best they can be since, after all, it’s impossible to be excellent. Right?

Another interesting theory starts with psychological scripts, and Robin Hanson Eliezer Yudkowsky (thanks for the correction, Eliezier) at OvercomingBias.com wrote an interesting article in which he renames the concept of scripts “caches.” The idea is that we deal with far too much information at any given time to actually process it all in real time, so we rely tremendously on “cached” thought, so even though a person hasn’t really considered the implications of what they are saying, any mention of high aptitude or interest in multiple subjects will immediately call to mind the cached thought: “jack of all trades, master of none.”

I can see both of these forces and others still being responsible for the phrase’s staying power.

I guess the thing that allows the perception to exist beyond the psychological convenience of it, is confirmation bias and in-group, out-group thinking.

For example, a racist may think that black people (the “out-group”) are stupid. They will attribute any behavior by a black person to this stupidity, confirming their bias. When faced with a black person who clearly and undeniably isn’t stupid, instead of reevaluating their position on black people, they will assign the person as an “exception.”

Similarly, most people are average (no seriously, that’s the definition), and so they exhibit no exceptional abilities. Occasionally you’ll find a person with one exceptional ability, but rarely will you find a person who excels in many diverse areas… and therefore, it’s very easy to assign those multitalented people who do to a special exception category.

There is a limit to human skill that prevents any person, genius or otherwise, from becoming more proficient after a certain point. Presumably, with directed practice and commitment, one can reach that point. For a person gifted in that discipline, the amount of time it takes to reach that point is smaller than for others. For a genius, there are at least a few particular areas in which that time is very short compared to most.

That’s why Leonardo DiVinci could be an artist and a mathematician: he was skilled in both disciplines far beyond the capacity of most people to be skilled in even one. That’s because he was a genius! Imagine if he had listened to some slack-jaw who told him early on: you can’t be good at more than one thing, so you should give up on all but the thing you’re really talented in. How does a guy like DiVinci narrow down what he’s “really talented in”? How would you?

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14 Responses to “Jack of all Trades, Master of Total Crap”


  1. Robin Hanson didn’t write that.

  2. LG Says:

    I do apologize Eliezer, I am a big fan of the Overcoming Bias blog, and I don’t know why I thought Robin wrote that bit, I’ll correct it right now.

  3. A. Carrozza Says:

    The complete form of the expression is “Jack of all trades, master of none, though ofttimes better than master of one.” Interestingly, outside of its use in the abbreviated cliche, the term “jack of all trades” apparently has a very positive connotation.

    One additional possible factor in the popularity of the phrase which you haven’t mentioned is the relentless movement towards increased specialization in modern society, and the powerful cultural conditioning that people receive to be as specialized as possible. This is most clearly evident in the writing and interpretation of resumes/CVs. Few prospective employers think highly of a candidate with a broad range of professional and academic experiences– even if mastery in several professions or disciplines can be proven through certifications, diplomas, honors and awards. It still comes across as a “lack of focus.”

    Renaissance men and women are anachronisms in modern society. In the world of commerce and industry, modern humans are specialized cogs, and the corporate world likes it that way. Polymaths are loose canons. They don’t fit into a tidy slot, and they tend to wander across institutional boundaries.

    I’ve noticed the same tendency in academia. A deep understanding of the world we live in requires interdisciplinary study by its very nature, but institutions of higher learning typically take a dim view of the crossing of academic boundaries. A meaningfully broad, integrated understanding of how the world works is considered worthless in academia, while thirty years devoted to the study of the migratory patterns of scavenging homosexual Mesozoic echinoderms is valued as a highly successful career. Go figure.

    If Leonardo Da Vinci were to attempt to seek employment in modern day society he would no doubt have a very difficult time of it. If the man is serious about his career as an inventor, why has he wasted his time dabbling in the arts? If he takes his engineering career seriously, what is he doing squandering his efforts in aeronautics, mathematics, and biology?

    In a job interview one isn’t being appraised as a human being, but rather as a corporate asset– a piece of machinery. And, the more a person accepts their role as a cog, the more likely they are to percieve and judge others as cogs.

  4. LG Says:

    Excellent points, but here’s the logical next question, which is much more difficult:

    What, in this highly specialized society that we find ourselves in, is a genius to do? Is it better to find a cave, and live there in peace, or is it better to develop some sort of plan to help others break out of this mechanization? What about the obligation to offer advice to lonely geniuses in the interim?

    Although I’m not sure it’s a universal moral imperative, I feel a personal obligation to help other people as much as I can, so I’ll choose the latter options for myself.

    This is actually the spirit of the corporate critique section: what cultural forces are maintaining this suboptimal status quo, and how might we undermine them?

    My “big picture” answer is scarcity. This whole process started when production-line education for production-line jobs became the path of least resistance for seekers of comfort and security.

    Now it’s a beast that feeds on itself like some perverse Ouroboros, but if we could eliminate scarcity in large measure then I feel that the system would destabilize. It would morph into something that–at the very least–was a little more voluntary: a situation where the people partaking in this corporate culture were those who wanted it, and were predisposed to it, since other people would have no pressing need to conform to it.

    Quite a tall order, but it’s important to realize that it’s bigger than just a human issue. It’s easy to place blame, but just as no one individual white man oppresses womenkind, and no one individual person is responsible for this production-line trend. It’s the product of external and psychological forces that have to be addressed directly. Here are a couple possible paths:

    Air is not scarce for our purposes, but water and food are. Water less so, but in certain parts of the world it is a problem. We could devise delivery mechanisms so efficient that water and food become as freely available as air. Increase Supply.
    We could undertake to control the birth rate to induce a negative growth rate toward some predetermined point, say 3 billion people. Reduce Demand.

    Of course these aren’t really useful suggestions at this point, since one is a technological pie-in-the-sky, and the other is a monumental political quagmire, but it gives us a framework to ask: what is the solution with the most utility? What is the method of arriving at that solution most efficiently?

  5. A. Carrozza Says:

    Just as perception is more a function of one’s internal mental state rather than raw, objective external reality– scarcity has relatively little to do with the availability of natural resources. For the most part, it is the product of fear, avarice, and expectation. It is a projection of the mind. (Of course, I’m speaking here about the phenomenon of scarcity in first world countries. True poverty is a different matter altogether.)

    If this were not the case, there could be no such thing as “advertising.” The target of the marketing industry is the human mind, because that’s where scarcity resides.

    Furthermore, scarcity often seems to be something that humans go out of their way to create. Diamonds and emeralds are pretty, but they’re not that pretty. A painting by Picasso would be a nice thing to display in your house, if you could still afford a house to hang it in. When oil prices go down, vast resources are immediately brought to bear on the problem until they’ve been driven up again.

    Scarcity seems to serve a purpose, or perhaps several purposes, in a complex society. Let’s look at one. A vacuum cleaner performs its function by generating a gap or differential in the atmospheric pressure inside and outside of its body. This gap brings about kinetic movement, which is its purpose.

    In the same way, human society seems to use scarcity to generate economic activity— to motivate people and move resources. I’ve never been the slightest bit interested in economics, so I am abysmally ignorant of economic theory— but it’s clear, even to me, that the healthy functioning of a modern capitalistic society depends on the circulation of resources. In a way, the advertising industry serves as a sociological adrenal gland, stimulating the circulatory system to maximize economic health and growth.

    If all of the world’s present resources were equally and fairly distributed among the human race, wouldn’t there be more than enough to meet everybody’s needs, and then some? If so, then attempting to solve the problem of scarcity by increasing the availability of natural resources is akin to attempting to fill a draining bathtub by turning on the faucet. If a new technological innovation were to bring the quality of synthetic diamonds up that of natural diamonds overnight, people would start wearing pre-solar meteorites instead. (Meteorites that contain grains which pre-date the creation of the solar system.)

    Scarcity isn’t a symptom, it’s an activity. It’s something that humans do. It’s the foundation that modern economics is built upon, and without it the machinery of capitalism would grind to a halt. And given the investment that so many powerful and influential people have in the system, anyone who messes with the system will be terminated “with extreme prejudice.” Invent a method of producing unlimited cheap solar energy, and your chances of seeing your next birthday would be very slim indeed. No, there’s too much at stake for too many people.

    Nature may abhor a vacuum, but capitalists relish it.

  6. A. Carrozza Says:

    Question: “What, in this highly specialized society that we find ourselves in, is a genius to do? Is it better to find a cave, and live there in peace, or is it better to develop some sort of plan to help others break out of this mechanization?”

    Okay, I’m going to go out on a limb here. I take no responsibility for the validity of anything I say from this point on, but… as I refect back on my (subjective) life experiences, there are– not only quantitative differences– but also profound qualitative differences, between “average” people and so-called “geniuses.”

    I am perenially amazed at tbe lack of inquisitiveness or curiosity that the average human being displays. It just boggles my mind. I find myself truly dumbfounded in the face of it. I’m not simply talking about mystical or spiritual or cosmological or metaphysical curiosity. It’s not surprising to me that those sort of interests should be atypical, in a species whose cognitive abilities were evolutionarily designed for the purpose of figuring out which end of a banana to peel.

    No, I’m just talking about simple curiosity. In my (subjective) experience, most people aren’t particularly interested in learning anything about anything. Most people– and I realize that this is a gross generalization– most people are content to live out their lives without investigating anything, without questioning anything, without exploring, wondering, experimenting, hypothesizing– in short, without giving any thought whatsoever to anything whatsoever.

    This leaves me dumbfounded. Truly. I see people going abou their daily lives with no particular interest in learning or exploring ANYTHING, and I wonder if these people actually belong to the same species I do.

    In a nutshell, most people don’t think about anything, wonder about anything, study anything (unless they can get credentials or certification for it), or research anything. Most people (in my subjective experience) are content to live out their lives without investigating or exploring the world they live in in any way whatsoever.

    Am I the only one who has observed this??? If not– if others share my own subjective experience, then I suspect that the average human being has little problem with being a “cog,” since they have no interest in broad, interdiciplinary study or intellectual exploration. In short, it’s not just that geniuses are smart enough to gain mastery in multiple disciplines– the average person ISN’T INTERESTED in more than one thing. Being a polymath doesn’t simply require the intellectual faculties to master multiple diciplines, it also requires a level of intellectual MOTIVATION or INQUISITIVENESS that the average person simply doesn’t display.

    As I said, I’m walking on thin ice here because I’m basing my comments on purely subjective experience, and I’m making some very broad generalizations— but I wonder, can anyone identify with what I’m saying? Am I the only one who has this impression?

  7. Sally Daniels Says:

    Its unfortunate…their brains have an “off button” and a “capacity reached!” button. Your brain does not have those buttons. Maybe the “emergency overload, must process” button, but other than that….no simple curiosity. Sigh.

  8. Stef Says:

    The full phrase is “Jack of all trades, master of none ofttimes better than master of one” as A.Carrozza says

    Its more balanced and refers to a polymath or ‘Renaissance man’ like Leonardo Da Vinci. They are masters of intergration and over a life time may become masters of several things just like Da Vinci.

    In fact, a ‘triple threat’ which refers to an entertainer who is a singer-actor-dancer is one. Some become masters of all three and then add playing a musical instrument on top of that or even directing and producing art. Dennis Hopper is an example of this type of person.

    Also growing up you were around one all the time. She was a ‘Jill of all trades’. And she raised you. She was a chef, a medic, a counseller, a cleaner, a seamstress, a negotiator, an educator, a dietition, etc. That’s right your mum was and is the polymath of most families.

    After reading books like Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” you come to realise that these polymath’s can be a threat to the ruling classes and in organisations; upper management. The polymath’s ability to interpret and integrate knowledge allows them to learn faster than some specialists. As time goes on you realise that a skill in one area of expertise is applicable to another area. So you can fast track learning new skills. In addition, polymaths are able to relate to a larger number of people from various parts of the community. After all they have many common experiences to share with others. They are able to inspire many people, and bring them together for a common cause. Hence, the threat they can pose.

    Hence reducing the phrase to the first line and giving it a negative connotation was a wise move. It reduces the number of polymaths and in short keeps social groups divided. “Divide et Impera” = Divide and Rule. The Roman caesers were a smart bunch.

  9. LG Says:

    That’s an interesting perspective Stef. I find that in most cases, when a conspiracy seems plausible, it’s actually other marginally-related societal factors that maintain the status quo.

    What I’m saying is that your observation that polymaths disrupt the control of leaders may be very true, but I doubt that they, as a group, realize this and collectively chose to suppress them. I also doubt that if the willful suppression were real, the method of suppression would be to build negative connotations into popular phrases.

    I think a more reasonable explanation is that the concept of a polymath plays off the insecurities of the anyman. That anyman’s first response to feeling bested is to discredit his opponent, thus a person who has a wider variety of skills than he does must also be worse at those given skills than other people.

    The issue arises, like I said in the post, when potential polymaths absorb this line of reasoning into their cache when they are too young to filter it. Unfilter it, follow your passion.

  10. AA Says:

    I don’t know, the more I study and read the more I know that I don’t know. I don’t think that people with less intellect are able to make that differentiation. Hence, they come out with all encompassing phrases and judgement calls without even realizing the millions of different ways that one thing can actually mean many things. So, then you her the cliche proverbs that categorize various situations and actions.

    Even today’s psychobabble on talk shows. They lump together so many different judgment calls for such a wide variety of situations not even taking a moment to realize that for the last 20 years their advice has not really been working. The human mind is way too complex to analyze.

    Average people live an average life and I think are generally happy fitting in with society and being “understood”. It is not always a bad thing, and I think provides some degree of peace, hence the phenomenon of the “lonely” genius.

    As far as being cogs, yes corporations design their men to be interchangeable. The business owner does not want their people thinking too much, just do the job you are supposed to do. It is the movers and the shakers that do not thrive in that environment, and either do something for themselves or end up miserable.

  11. A.I. Says:

    So where do we go from here? I understand that YOU can’t tell ME what I need or should do, but how do people that have an interest in everything go about life?

    Just a few minutes ago my Dad said: “They [B. Franklin and L.Da Vinci] were thinkers. They didn’t really have to earn a living.”

    I know they managed to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.

    How do we as modern folk interested in such a variety of topics approach life? We all have to pay the rent/mortgage and we’ve all got to eat; yet no one is going to pay us to just sit around and think. I’m 25 years old and I keep changing my major. I can’t decide which one to do. Can I just go back and get a second, third, fourth, and fifth bachelor?

    Even after formal schooling is finished, should we assimilate to corporate and put pen to paper and fingers to keys without question? How can we fund our thirst for knowledge and appeal to our inquisitive nature?

    What do you all do for food?

  12. Ken Says:

    You have several options.

    -You have a variety monasteries that you could join.
    -Occasionally it’s possible to find patrons like the old days, but normally you have to be focused on something specific that the patron is interested in.

    -You could try academia which will allow you explore various disciplines as long as you output a fluffy paper now and then.

    -Alternatively, you could focus on becoming independently wealthy. That’s my strategy. It only requires $2m in liquid assets: at that level you can collect about $100,000 per year in interest, keep up with inflation, and never touch the principle.

    I view it as a another mildly interesting strategic problem, and it turns out to not be terribly difficult. Switch your major for the last time to something that will bring in plenty of money, then do that for a year or two, then float into perpetual retirement.

    Right now I’m young (younger than you are), and I own a house worth $350,000, have a job making substantially more then six figures, and have begun landing consulting contracts for $200/hr. It’s not enough to achieve my goals, but it’s a good start. The market crash and several other factors make this the perfect time for me to get into buying distressed assets, so I’ll call on some of my network to begin that process.

    All this is for one purpose: so I can work on what I want to work on. I have no intrinsic interest in money or markets or distressed assets. I’m just trying to achieve independent wealth. From the time I decided this to the time I achieve it looks like it will take between 2 and 3 years — a small price for a lifetime of freedom.

  13. A. Carrozza Says:

    If the task of gathering 2m seems daunting, don’t despair. It’s not necessary to become independently wealthy– just financially independent. It’s a well known fact that a disproportionate number of super high IQ individuals live on an unusually low income, say $10,000-$15,000 a year. They manage this by becoming experts in creative frugality. This makes the task of becoming financially independent much easier, freeing one up to explore one’s intellectual interests without the drain of a full-time job.

  14. Ken Says:

    Good to see you again Carrozza!

    You make a good point. I can’t survive on so little because I have a family, but the wisdom in your advice stands strong. Find creative ways to stretch money.


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