Jack of All Trades, Master of Some

Over the last few years, by pursuing anything that stirs my interest, I’ve built up a varied skill base. Although tai chi has been consistent throughout, I enjoy the learning process as much as steady focus on a single discipline. I try my hands at many different things.

Recently, a few people have commented on this approach. They use different metaphors: Jack of all trades or wearing many hats. But, many strings to your bow is my favourite.

Something about this philosophy does concern me, though. Will these interests eventually help move me move in a cohesive direction? To draw the bow metaphor to its absolute limit, I hope that these strands will twine to form one robust bowstring. Or, by pursuing them all, am I spreading myself too thin? Will each interest – without integration – be too weak to hold the weight of a strung bow?

That I want to generate income from my interests gives this concern that much more impetus.

Every one of my interests and hobbies warrant a lifetime’s sole focus. Business, language, tea and travel are all areas where one could pursue deep and satisfying study. Even within the system of Chinese martial arts I practise, you could do worse than focusing on just one of its various disciplines. I think my greatest fear is of embodying an idiom my dad used to use when I was growing up: to be a Jack of all trades, master of none.

The question that’s been plaguing me, therefore, is should I narrow field of interests? Is it a fool’s quest to pursue so many goals? Would sacrificing a few for the enhancement of the rest not be a more sensible plan?

The summer is always a frenzied time. It’s always easier for me to take stock and goal set as the Autumn begins to take hold. In this respect, late September is my new year.

This Fall, I was fortunate enough to pass ‘new year’ with two close friends, who also happen to make up the numbers of a mastermind trio. Over our three days away, the guys put things in perspective. They always do.

With the insight I’ve come to expect, Caspar and Jack helped address the fear outlined above. Caspar gave an analogy I liked. He said, that it is all too common to treat goals like you are standing at the centre of a field with varied targets arrayed around you. With this conception, if you move towards one interest, you distance yourself from another. It’s an imagining that keeps us paralysed in indecision and lack of action.

In reality, things are quite different. In truth, it’s rare that movement towards one goal will lead you away from others (unless they do conflict). It’s perhaps better imagining all your targets and goals grouped at one end of a longer field. Whatever happens you have to get moving. Farther down the line you can course correct if necessary – and, in fact, it will be easier to do so because new experience and understandings will inform your decisions.

I once spent the summer working in a gîte. For some reason, the owner trusted me to ferry guests between the train station on the valley floor, to the guest house perched 1000 metres up a mountain trail. The snaking cliff-edge roads have no safety barriers. The Suzuki jeep had no power steering (and the turning circle of an oil tanker). Anyone who has driven the French-Italian border will understand, there was strong incentive to adjust my driving technique to suit the new situation…

Without power steering, you can’t dry steer. (Or at least, you need to be stacked if you try). You have to get moving before you can direct the car where you want, with any ease.

I like this as a metaphor. After gathering momentum, it’s easier to steer toward a desired goal. Furthermore, once moving, you tend to have a clearer vision of your objectives – you are further down the field, after all. Other opportunities, you were’t expecting, often emerge from the miasma at oblique angles on your flight.

Overall, I don’t think it matters that I don’t see how all my interests will tie together yet. Life is rarely as neat as we would like it. But the different avenues do enhance and compliment each other.

The anticipatory anxiety I experience while I explore is nothing compared to the emptiness I would invite if I chose to stick at one path. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in ten years time, but what I’m doing now – even if it’s not the end-game – is giving form to that uncertain future. As long as I keep following my gut, I’m sure I can’t go too far wrong.