For my whole life I’ve been interested in lots of things simultaneously, and supremely average at all of them.
In my teens I was an early user of the internet, and taught myself to build websites in HTML. Others who were doing similar things around that time have gone on to make millions of pounds from building software or starting companies. I didn’t, because I wasn’t single-mindedly obsessed with it: I was also busy being an average songwriter, following football closely without developing any great tactical insights, and half-heartedly learning languages to an extent that allowed me to have conversations with nobody.
In my twenties I dabbled in writing, business, weightlifting, investing, radio production, classical history and Python programming.
It would’ve been nice if I’d discovered a natural flair for any of those topics, backed up by an obsessive interest which – combined – set me on the path to true mastery.
Now though, I’ve made peace with my lack of talent and dedication – being a Jack Of All Trades (JOAT) – and actually think of “average at lots of disparate things” as a kind of superpower.
Celebrating the JOAT
You always hear about the athlete with their single-minded dedication, their focus, their drive that propels them to become world-class. It makes for a great story…but it’s only one type of story.
Just as there’s value to becoming ridiculously good at one narrow thing, there’s also value in being “OK” at many things:
- You can pull together original insights from unrelated topics that would never normally be connected.
- You can learn new topics quickly, because you’re used to the process of starting out as a beginner and finding your way in a new area.
- You develop a rounded view of how the world works, because you’re used to seeing it through different “lenses”.
- You can mix the creative and the analytical/systematic, because you’ve been exposed to both styles of thinking.
- You can (if you want) execute every part of a project yourself without relying on others, by combining different things you can do and learning things you can’t.
- You’re not thrown by new situations where you have no existing knowledge, because you’re used to being in that situation and learning your way out of it.
Are you feeling like a genius yet?
Three ways to thrive as a JOAT
Despite the many benefits of being a JOAT, the modern world isn’t set up for people like you. For the last 12,000 years, the drive has been towards ever-greater specialisation – and most companies are structured around individuals executing their own small tasks repeatedly, like workers on a production line.
(Incidentally, this is both good and bad. If you were an accountant who’s been accused of embezzling funds, you’d naturally want to be represented by a defence lawyer who specialises in complex financial crime rather than a “generalist lawyer” who also spends time negotiating custody arrangements and reviewing commercial contracts. But you could argue that the financial specialist could do a better job if she was able to pull in insights from other areas of law.)
Anyway: how can a JOAT thrive in a world of specialisation? I can think of three ways:
1: Save your multiple interests for outside work
Give up on finding a job that accepts your averageness across wide-ranging areas, and find one that gives you plenty of free time to indulge your multiple interests in a non-professional setting.
I know people who do this happily: they do a seemingly mundane and cog-in-the-machine job where they can leave on the dot of 5pm and not give work another thought, and enjoy wildly varied and unusual evenings and weekends.
2: Stack your talents
Coined by Scott Adams, “talent stacking” is where you combine two skills to produce something that’s uniquely useful in the world.
I’m the perfect example of this: I’m not the best writer or the best property investor, but I’m a better writer than other property investors and a better property investor than other writers. By combining the two, I get to be one of the best in the world in this narrow area I’ve defined for myself – without having to be much above average at either individually.
3: Coordinate the work of experts
A JOAT can be an excellent project manager: she’s likely to appreciate the skills of people working on multiple aspects of the project, understand their way of seeing the world, and learn enough about how they operate to know if they’re doing a good job or not.
A JOAT can make for a great entrepreneur or business owner for the same reason. They’ll also be free from seeing the business through a “finance lens” or a “sales lens”, and therefore be more likely to pick the right approach for a particular situation rather than the answer always being “cut costs” or “make more sales”.