“Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood.” — Terrence McKenna
You are probably familiar with the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
We use it to justify the idea that one must focus on one thing, reach mastery, as this is the only way towards success and fulfillment.
As most simple truths in life, we use it because we don’t want to use precious mental energy in trying to understand the nuanced truths of success and mastery.
The nuanced point is that even the notorious specialists, such as Salvador Dali or Pablo Picasso, were masters of a multitude of skills and crafts, not the least of which is their charisma and their ability to market themselves.
Jack of All Trades, Master of None
Unknown to a lot of people, the complete saying is the following, “Jack of all trades, master of none, but it’s often better than being the master of one.”
And there are a lot of nuances to think about, and a lot has been written about being a polymath, skill stacking, or becoming a specialist in just one field.
We’re living in an age that makes it relatively easy to collect skills.
We marvel at how brilliant and prolific Leonardo daVinci was. A true Renaissance man, Leonardo took an interest in painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. He’s thought of as being the father of paleontology, ichnology, and architecture. One of the greatest painters of all time. Credited with the invention of technology we never properly developed until hundreds of years after his death, such as the helicopter, the parachute, or the tank.
But what we often fail to understand is that accumulating skills for the sake of it is a sure-path towards failure, the same way as being obsessed with reaching mastery in any one skill will ensure you share the same fate as some of history’s most infamous examples. See Vincent van Gogh or Paul Gauguin or Stendhal.
Leonardo’s supposed last words were, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
He died with a lot of debt. He struggled to build strong relationships, he was admired, yes, but he was also likely ridiculed for his quirks.
The same fate seems to have been bestowed on many of history’s polymaths.
Aristotle mastered half a dozen different fields of study, including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, and politics.
He could define the universe, but brilliant as he was, we often forget he spent his time as a glorified tutor to Alexander the Great, a man who did try (and almost succeeded) in conquering the world.
In this debate of whether to be a polymath or a specialist, we often neglect the fact that it’s not skills that counts, but the dream.