Generally Speaking

Jack of all trades but Master of none. . .

. . . is an old expression meaning someone is competent at a number of tasks but doesn’t excel at any single thing. The phrase is meant to be disparaging. But why should that be? Why is it “better” to do one thing very well (specialize) rather than be competent at several (generalize)?

You see both behaviors in the animal kingdom. Some species are “generalists.” They eat a variety of plants (and other animals). Think bears.

This fellow can eat whatever he wants (image credit: Microsoft clip art)

This fellow can eat whatever he wants (image credit: Microsoft clip art)

Other animals are “specialists,” relying on a plant that others ignore. Think koalas and eucalyptus.

Come on, I can’t tempt you with some inedible leaves? (image credit: Microsoft clip art)

Both strategies can be successful. If one food source runs out for bears, they make do with others and survive to make more bears. With no competition for eucalyptus, Koalas survive to make more koalas.

But nature finds a balance. Both strategies also have drawbacks. Generalists face stiff competition for their various food sources. They might be out-competed at times by specialists (or bigger hunters). If something happens to a specialist’s sole food supply, serious trouble awaits.

Nature doesn’t care if a species generalizes or specializes. So why do we ascribe  a higher value to performing one act well over doing several competently?

Me? I’m a generalist. I’m good or competent at a variety of things. But I don’t excel at any one of them. I remember a music appreciation course I took as a university freshman. Our instructor had some of us perform in class for those who had never learned an instrument. With 12 years of piano lessons behind me, I chose a Chopin mazurka. The instructor told me I played “nicely.” If you’ve had musical training, you know I was told that I was competent, not good.

Some years later (we won’t say how many), I’m an archaeologist by profession. Am I a master of my field? No. Am I competent? Yes. Have you heard of me? No. (Although, seriously, how many archaeologists can you name? Indiana Jones doesn’t count.)

My current job duties extend far beyond archaeology, though. They include ensuring that grant recipients meet federal legislative requirements pertaining to the National Environmental Policy Act. Don’t worry. I won’t bore you with the details. But I do a good job with that task, too. Like I said, I’m a generalist. And I’m happy with that. I just don’t understand why those general abilities are considered less successful than doing one thing very well.

I don’t have any insights into the workings of the human mind on this. But I think about it when I catch myself feeling envious of people who are “successful” at activities I enjoy and wishing I could be that “good,” too. Most of the time, I’m happy with my abilities as they are. Sometimes, though, the insecure part of me pops up and throws that old adage at me. It takes a lot of effort to beat that monster back down. And I wonder again why we value mastery of a specialization over competency at a variety of tasks, even where there’s no survival value of one over the other.

Williamsburg Wreath 2009

Colonial Williamsburg 2009

How about you? Are you a Jack or Master? Do you think they should be valued equally in non-survival areas? (It’s a given that we want a highly skilled surgeon if we need one and a highly trained pilot in the cockpit.)

60 thoughts on “Generally Speaking

  1. I love that you’ve found a way to make that comment less disparaging. I’ve always been somewhat of a generalist too, and I’ve spent a lot of time worrying that I will never be a master at anything. Thanks for helping me look at it in a new light. It’s not really a bad thing.

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    • I think I prefer being a generalist. In many ways, that make us the “go to” people for a variety of things, be they work tasks, craft skills for helping the kids, decent sports abilities so we’re not picked last for a team—maybe all of these examples.

      And being a generalist doesn’t mean we don’t do our best at everything. But sometimes our best won’t let us “master” something. I could have taken more music lessons and practiced five times as long every day, but I couldn’t have become a concert pianist. Still, I could play and enjoy doing it. And enjoy a tennis match, doing genealogical research, and the other things I’m competent at. I think that’s a good balance in life.

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  2. I’ve never thought of it this way, I guess, so I’m not sure where I fall. I do know, however, that thanks to my Type A-ness, I don’t like to do anything half-way and so I will study and practice and learn to always keep striving to do something the best that I can. Not the best over anyone else, but the best for me. I’m in competition with myself, I suppose. Interesting post. 🙂

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    • Absolutely with you on doing one’s best. 🙂 And being a generalist doesn’t mean we don’t give 100 percent. It’s just that my 100 percent on piano playing would never get me to Carnegie Hall, even if that was my lifelong dream—which is wasn’t, thankfully.

      I don’t know if this will make sense, but I’d rather have a baseball team with 25 Ichiros than 25 Mark McGuires. Ichiro does many things well, but isn’t necessarily the “best” at any of them. McGuire hit a ton of home runs. But defense? On-base percentage? Willingness and ability to sacrifice to advance the runner? Ouch.

      I just wonder why humans, and maybe especially Americans, value that mastery of one task above overall competency….

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  3. I’d say I’m a generalist as well. Part of this is my love of learning new things. I like to excel at what I do, but once I’ve gotten a good handle on something, I’m often looking around for a new challenge. I think that’s part of why writing appeals to me so much. Each story is a new set of challenges (or should be), so I’m always learning new things, having to figure out new ways of doing something.

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    • I think the generalists are more common and speaking out more on this post. 😉 Like you, I enjoy trying new things. Sometimes I learn very quickly that they’re not for me, and I’ll never master them—downhill skiing comes to mind. 😉 Writing does offer endless possibilities for challenges and new ideas. How well I “master” it remains to be seen. But I definitely enjoy the writing and having new stories come to me.

      I just wish as a culture we would value the people with broad, general “skill sets” as much as we do those who “master” one set!

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  4. I rather like being a generalist. It gives me a large canvas to paint on (my latest exploration!). I like having a broad skill set that helps me approach a situation from different perspectives and choose the best skills for that moment. I go deep with some skills, not so much with others. All in all, I manage very well! Nice post, JM! xoxoM

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    • Yay for fellow generalists! I think I also have some “deeper” competency with some skills (writing, for example) than others. And I think that level of flexibility or generalizing helps me learn other skills more easily than some “masters of specialization” might. Now, let’s band together and claim the respect we Jacks deserve!

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  5. I always hated that phrase back from when I was getting some advice at college and wasn’t sure what courses I wanted to do. I understand that being a master of certain things is a good thing to be, but then it doesn’t help you if the field you are in suddenly has no opportunities and you need to do something else. However over the years I found that certain skills rose to the surface and even though it might not be the ideal thing, I am decent at it and can get buy at it.

    That said, it is useful to learn other general skills e.g. to fix up your home.

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    • It’s such an old phrase when you think about it. I’d guess it goes back to at least the Middle Ages and the old Master/Journeyman/Apprentice system of learning a trade. I suppose the Masters were quick to point out how superior their work was in comparison to a journeyman’s or apprentice’s.

      But I think in American culture (and maybe Western in general), we’ve taken that to an extreme that is behind such stereotypes as “the dumb jock” — where star athletes are assumed to be incompetent in the “brainy” skills. I can’t speak for all athletes, obviously, but I know of one from my high school who went on to play professional NFL football but was also in the National Honor Society.

      I really wish “Zemanta” could have found a few more relevant posts for me to link to. The one it did find touches on your observation that the job market can shift so quickly and that specialization can fail us when we least expect it.

      And fixing up the home…yes, my husband and I could have used more “general” knowledge and skills there! We’ve owned three (even though we’re currently renting), and we had to call in the “specialists” for things that a “jack of all trades” could easily have fixed! But we don’t happen to be Jacks of those trades! 🙂

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  6. I was thinking about this very topic for a potential blog post myself, JM! I’m definitely a generalist. There are some things where my skill level is fairly high, but overall I’m not someone who has mastery of anything in particular. I like your analogy about the Ichiros vs the Mark McGwires. I’d rather be able to do a bunch of different things well than have only one thing I excelled at. In general I think it’s more valuable to be able to offer more, at decent quality, than only one thing that may or may not be helpful to a broad range of people.

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    • Don’t let this post stop you from writing yours! I can see that finger of yours pointed nicely at the idea that specialists are better than generalists. 🙂

      I didn’t know how to work it in, but this post also reminded me of the old Murphy Brown episode about the Olympics where she interviewed a Norwegian skater. Murphy’s questions basically pointed out to the skater how she really didn’t have a life. Is mastery of a skill worth that kind of loss? Not to me!

      So, like you, I’m all for most people being “good” at a variety of skills and tasks than “masters.” We need both. If I need a skilled surgeon to save my life, I damn well want one available. But I also don’t believe s/he’s “better” than me because of that skill!

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  7. I’m a Jack and this comes in very handy. I think the Jacks of the world survive better than masters. I can build furniture with my own hands (but it’s not necessarily something you’d buy in a shop!), I can fix a hot water system (I’m not a plumber), I can paint (I’m not a painter), play music (I’m not a musician),mow the lawn and grow vegetables (I’m not a gardener), change a spark plug and a flat tire (I’m not a mechanic), make jewelry (I’m not a jeweler), cut hair (I’m not a hairdresser), drive a tractor (I’m not a farmer), offer legal advice (I’m not a lawyer), bandage a broken arm (I’m not a doctor) – I’ll stop here 😉

    I love this post – it’s very challenging when you really think about it 😀

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    • Oh, you’ve given such clear examples of what I was trying to express! 🙂 Why are broad abilities like these considered “less valuable” in today’s Western society?

      I’m not saying we need to be “survivalists” (knock on wood), but if an apocalyptic event took place, I’d put my money on the generalists to survive!

      Great points to raise!

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  8. I agree, JM! I’m definitely a generalist, and my piano playing would land me in the “competent” category as well. To be truly amazing, you have to practice 10 hours a day… not something I’ve ever aspired to do. Wow! I think that’s the case with most things that people who are “masters.” My brother-in-law’s brother (confusing, I know) is one of the foremost math geniuses in the world. Would he sit down and write a novel? Probably not. Specialists are incredibly focused individuals.

    Nice points… and bears are pretty cool. ; )

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    • And I think the bear’s overall survival chances are better than the koala’s, especially in a one-on-one match up. 😉

      For me, that 10 hours a day of practice still wouldn’t have been enough for me to master the piano. Talent, of course, plays an important role in mastery of a skill or art. But so does our mental makeup, I think. Mine isn’t geared to the focus needed to specialize on one thing. But that shouldn’t be a knock on me or anyone like me! Now, how do we go about changing society’s inherent bias for the masters?!

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      • Hmmm. Not being one myself, I have to say that masters ARE impressive. There will probably always be a bias. I comfort myself in knowing that there is a huge price for being that masterful at something… and it’s a price I’m not willing (or, as you say, wired) to pay.

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  9. I’m definitely a Jack of all trades too. I’ve never felt it was bad. It’s the mark of a creative mind (that makes it hard to settle on one specialty when there is a world to experiment and try).

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    • If my brain was wired to be a Master, I might feel differently. 😉 But I enjoy trying different things, too and seeing how I manage with them—even though I know I’m not likely to master any of them. Especially downhill skiing… Once was definitely more than enough!

      I’d just like to see society as a whole value “Jackery” as much as “Mastery” as we Jacks do. 😉

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  10. I consider myself a Jack, but like all good creative people, I put my own spin on it. I am an adventurer, experimentor, and renaissance person, like everyone else here.

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    • A creative spin seems to be the common thread among the Jacks reading this post. And I’m glad to see that. Maybe there’s a shift toward valuing Jacks that I’ve missed. If so, I’m glad to see it!

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  11. Among systems thinkers (one of my Jack skills), being a generalist is highly valued because we are the people who are better able to raise our heads to see the bigger, inter-connected picture. I could also make a good case for the idea that writers who are generalists have a broader array of topics, experiences, and ‘characters’ to draw upon for our stories.

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    • Similar to my baseball analogy above, I think society works more efficiently with many Jacks than many Masters, and the Masters must be well-distributed across a number of needed areas. And I hope my generalist tendencies are helping to provide a varied backdrop and cast for my fiction. Archaeologists may dominate in my stories, but they interact with a much wider segment of society regularly.

      I’m glad to see there are fields where general knowledge and skill are valued as much as those that are specialized. I’d love to see that extend to society as a whole.

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  12. My dad’s a Jack (that’s his name, too) and so am I. It took more than a few years to realize that and then appreciate it in both of us. In high school I did want to play the flute professionally but I gave that dream up in college–so hard to admit you’re not the best at something you’re passionate about.

    Being a generalist helps me handle my perfectionist tendencies; I may not be the best at X but I can combine it very usefully with Y and Z with good results. It makes sense to have a small press because I love editing, reading, laying out pages, writing press releases, etc. It was one of those “of course I should do this” moments when I put my love of fiction together with my general reporter skills.

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    • I played the flute less nicely than I did piano. 😉 Luckily, neither was a serious undertaking for me. I would have enjoyed being a better rider, though, and being able to do real show jumping. But mastery does require talent, and sometimes we just don’t have it.

      Maybe when my novels are finished and ready to go, I’ll find myself unwilling to give up control over their publication, too. (Then there’s also the time lag of traditional publishing.) The marketing would be the tough part since I don’t have any experience there, but I think some of my other general skills would help. 😉

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      • I love doing it myself, but as of right now, I don’t have plans to publish my novel this way, so really I have control over other people’s work! You’ll need to do marketing whether you go traditional or self-published, so come to me when you’re ready and I can tell you what I learned. In fact, maybe I’ll run some marketing posts on my blog in 2013. I’m still new but I used to work in PR and apparently I love this kind of stuff!

        We just got into the Oregonian’s books section yesterday! Sunday paper, small blurb in the New in the Northwest section. The content itself was simple, and not a review or anything, but it’s huge exposure to be there. Especially as they only have two pages most weeks.

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        • I know I’m not alone in wanting to hear about authors’ experiences with the publishing industry (whether traditional or indie) and insider tips with marketing. So by all means, I say selfishly, do some posts along those lines! I would certainly welcome your insights and input. 🙂

          Congrats on hitting the book section! It sounds to me like you’re making steady progress with getting your name and the book “out there.” And that’s what it takes for 99.999 percent of new authors. I’m a big fan of the tortoise’s approach since it seems to work best for me. 🙂

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          • Thanks for the encouragement to put some marketing posts together, jm! I’ll work on that once the actual marketing tasks slow down a bit. I’ve been excited to see more movement with the book now that it has been out for a few months. Powell’s now apparently has us on a display in the front of the store!!! I will have to go take a picture. I totally agree about the tortoise approach. I’m now just hitting my stride with this book, two months after publication, with a lot of ideas left to follow up on. If only there were more hours in the day!

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  13. Looks like the Jacks have it! 🙂 I hate to bring this up, but most women are Jackettes. They have to be to juggle home, kids, and work. Conversely, most men have the option to do as they please and concentrate on one thing. However, these men often feel that because they are so good at what they do they are better than those who are good at several things. There’s a reality show there somewhere! 🙂 In the past, the perfectionist in me impossibly aimed for being Master of everything I did, but reality eventually knocked that silliness out of me.

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    • I was thinking that same idea about women and men when I wrote the post. But I didn’t want to make it too long. Or get into touchy subjects like unequal pay for equal work or glass ceilings or corporate ladders that might get me on a rant, which I try not to do on the blog. 😉

      A reality show putting Masters into situations requiring Jack skills could be entertaining—or maybe one of those Japanese extreme game shows. Hmm, you might be onto something here!

      Life has a way of knocking some sense into us, doesn’t it? I just wish we didn’t need so many painful lessons!

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  14. I never thought of being a Jack of all trades (or a “Jill” of all trades) as being disparaging. However, it seems like in society these days, many people are becoming specialists in 2 or 3 areas — a bit in between a specialist and generalist. Great post!

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    • Thanks, Christi! Maybe the Jacks are getting more respect in some quarters these days. It’s about time! I’ve got nothing against people who excel at something—I just don’t think we should put them on a pedestal like we do with star athletes, for example. A lot of the specialists couldn’t succeed without the roles of the generalists. 🙂

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  15. You know, I guess I am a Jack. I have tried to master a lot of things, got pretty good, then went on to something else. Boredom and the need to change do that. I am excellent at Sudoku, but could I race against experts? no. I play a mean game of Scrabble, win much more than I lose. Am I an expert? no. But, I enjoy my life. I am not even a master at that, but with all the things I can do pretty good at…I like my life.
    Scott

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    • Enjoying our lives is the most important thing, of course. And like you, I enjoy trying different things. I don’t ever want to stop wanting to try or to learn something new. And if that’s why I’ll never be a master of any one thing, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m very glad to see that most readers feel the same way. We’ll do our best when we do something—even if we’re not “the best” at doing it.

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  16. I do all sorts of things and many well, but move on – bored. But each career built on something gained from the last – even thought totally unrelated.
    What I have found interesting is that many “specialist” have logic and reasoning skills that transfer to other activities – as well as discipline to work through the learning curve.
    A post to ponder.

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    • Hmm, boredom has been a component in several responses. I wonder what goes into a mental/emotional/psychological makeup that allows some people to focus intently on a goal or task for long periods while others say “enough” and move on to something else.

      This post was such a different direction for me that I didn’t know what to expect in the comments. It’s really interesting to see people’s take on the idea!

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  17. Overall, I’m definitely a generalist. However, I’d like to think I’m a master at raising my children, because no one else knows them better. But even that job is one I struggle with on a daily basis!

    I think there are some job/trades/talents that are specifically geared toward one person, and that they might ultimately become the master of that particular area.

    For instance, I think you are a master at writing Death out of TIme because that is a task specifically meant for you. No one else can do it. Of course, mastering it means practice, refinement, and ongoing effort, but that’s how we become masters at things anyway.

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    • I would rank being a good parent at the top of the most-difficult-but-most-rewarding undertaking list. It’s a 24/7 career with no do-overs!

      Some jobs definitely should be restricted to those who can master the skills needed—like those involving the safety and well-being of others. I just don’t believe the people who can master them are somehow “better” than the rest of us.

      And, yes, my sneaky self-doubt and insecurity like to toss out this old adage in regards to my writing, too—trying to make me feel incompetent or asking why I want to risk rejection and being hurt. I’m learning to turn that into blog fodder as a way to confront—and conquer—self-doubt and insecurity. 😉 We’ll see who’s stronger!

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  18. I’m guessing it might be better for us humans to not be specialized. Especially with writing, the more we know about other things besides writing, the more interesting our writing will be. Your post made me think of this quote by Thomas Huxley, “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” Although it seems pretty impossible to ever attain both parts of that quote, might as well try! 🙂

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    • Maybe at the dawn of humanity it was easier to learn something about everything. 😉 But now? Can an archaeologist with no real interest in air-traffic control (except for the desire for all planes to take off and land safely) really learn something about it? And running a restaurant? And designing an assembly line for cars? My apologies to Huxley—it’s just that the thought of learning something about everything in our complex society is a bit daunting!

      My fingers are crossed that my generalist tendencies will result in books that people enjoy reading. 🙂

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  19. I was stumped when you said I couldn’t name Indiana Jones (and I guess you’re out, too), but necessity is the mother of invention–I name Henry Jones Sr., Indiana’s father–also an archaeologist.

    I am definitely a generalist. A lot of my best-developed skills are intangible skills, interpersonal and the like. There are things that I can do much better than most people, and some things in which I’m below average. Just about everything I can do, however, I know someone who does it better or worse..

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    • Touché on the Henry Jones, Sr. I should have been clearer and said NO fictional characters! In reality, most of us are generalists, I think. And I suspect that’s behind our evolutionary success as a species. It’s our cultural valuation of specialists as “better” than generalists that gets to me. Especially when we take it to such an extreme in popular culture and “idolize” “superstars” in sports, acting….

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  20. Famous archaeologists you say? How about Gertrude Bell, John Camp, Leonard Woolley, and they don’t come much more famous than former president, Thomas Jefferson. Oh yes, it’s fair to say I’m a master at looking things up on Google 😉

    I’m a definite generalist, and yes, it is annoying to always think “Why am I always just quite good at things, why can’t I ever be REALLY good at something?” Not counting those individuals who have take-your-breath-away genius talent at something, I think it’s often to do with focus. If we dedicate our life to focusing on one thing, with barely a cursory glance at other things, then surely we are more likely to become a master at it. Most of us never give that total dedicated focus to one thing. So is the master/jack thing more to do with our internal motivations than our actual abilities?

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    • Very sneaky! And I would have been very impressed with your answer (and trusted that you knew those offhand) if you hadn’t been so honest and mentioned googling them! 🙂 You should have kept that information to yourself! 🙂

      Focus. Heaven knows I can’t do that as well as I used to. And maybe that’s part of the reason we also find it easier to learn (and master) new skills when we’re younger. At least for me, it gets more difficult as time goes by.

      I think you’re right that it’s also part of what goes into the master/jack specialist/generalist thing. And it’s neither somehow “good” or “bad” or “better” or “worse” to be one or the other. It’s just the way we are, and we shouldn’t be judgmental about it. 🙂

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  21. I think I have a few things I excel at. And the more time I invest the more accomplished I become. I also have specialized knowledge in certain areas like Chinese history and politics. LOL. But that’s because I was obsessed with it and read voraciously. I’d rather be good at several things. 🙂

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    • I think I would find it hard to be a master at one thing and not very good at everything else. 😉 And yet I’m sure there are some people like that, and they may be perfectly happy that way. I can’t think of anything I excel at, but I’m also notoriously self-effacing at times. Maybe I’m better than at think at some tasks/skills. Maybe. When I set my mind to something, I can improve at it. But that seems to be getting a bit more difficult to do as the years go by! 🙂

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  22. Is there a difference between a “Master” and an “expert”? I try to do well at everything I try, but get bored or just plain give up if I am not satisfied with my progress. I’m pretty good at a lot of things and terrible at others. I was an absolute master in one area from the age of 12 to 21 years old, besting EVERY adult I faced in competition but unfortunately gave that up when I got married. My point is that I think you can be both a Jack and a Master at the same time. And I have to add that if I had taken Anthropology in my first year at University instead of the last, it would have been my major. The most interesting part of that intro course was the section on Archeology. .

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    • Thanks for joining the discussion! Back in the Middle Ages, maybe there was a distinction. But I think today the words have become synonymous. And you’re right that people can be both a Master of something and a Jack of others. The old stereotype of the absent-minded professor is a good example, I think.

      I’m biased—and have to say archaeology can be a fun career. But if you don’t like dealing with details and paperwork, it might not be a good fit. 😉

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