Jack of all trades, master of none.

This singular saying—a misquote of Benjamin Franklin (more on this in a moment)—is the defining statement of our time. An alternative form might be the fox knows many small things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

The rules for success in the modern marketplace, particularly in the technical world, are simple: start early, focus on a single thing, and practice hard.

But when I look around, I find these rules rarely define actual success. Consider my life. I started out with three different interests, starting jazz piano lessons when I was twelve, continuing music through high school, college, and for many years after. At the same time, I was learning electronics—just about everyone in my family is in electronic engineering (or computers, when those came along) in one way or another.

I worked as on airfield electronics for a few years in the US Air Force (one of the reasons I tend to be calm is I’ve faced death up close and personal multiple times, an experience that tends to center your mind), including RADAR, radio, and instrument landing systems. Besides these two, I was highly interested in art and illustration, getting to the point of majoring in art in college for a short time, and making a living doing commercial illustration for a time.

You might notice that none of this really has a lot to do with computer networking. That’s the point.

I once thought I was a bit of an anomaly in this—in fact, I’m a bit of an anomaly throughout my life, including coming rather late to deep philosophy and theology (perhaps a bit too late!).

After reading Range by David Epstein, it turns out I’m wrong. I’m not the exception, I’m the rule. My case is so common as to be almost trivial.

Epstein not only destroys the common view—start early, stay focused, and practice hard—with reasoning, he also gives so many examples of people who have succeeded because they “wandered around” for many years before settling into a single “thing”—and sometimes just never “settling” throughout their entire lives. People who experience many different things, experimenting with ideas, careers, and paths, have what Epstein calls range.

He gives several reasons for people with range succeeding. They learn how to fail fast, unlike those who are focused on succeeding at a single thing—he calls this “too much grit.” They also learn to think outside the box—they are not restricted by the “accepted norms” within any field of study. It also turns out that slower learning is much more effective, as shown by multiple experiments.

There are three warnings about becoming a person with range, however—the fox rather than the hedgehog, so-to-speak. First, it takes a long time. Slow learning is, after all slow. Second, range works best in a world full of specialist—like the world we live in right now. In a world full of generalists, specialists are likely to succeed more often than generalist. What is different stands out (both in bad and good ways, by the way). Third, people with range do better with wicked problems—problems that are not easily solved with repetition and linear thought.

Of course, computer networks are clearly wicked problems.

That original quote that bothers me so much? Franklin did not say: jack of all trades, master of non. Instead, he said: jack of all trades, master of one. What a difference a single letter makes.

3 Comments

  1. Mark Prosser on 22 March 2021 at 5:12 pm

    Russ, posts like this are the highlight of my RSS feed. Thanks for the insight, the correction on the quote, and the book recommendation.



  2. Leonardo Anez on 23 March 2021 at 12:46 am

    Hi Russ, very interesting post. One question, where did you get this information: jack of all trades, master of non. Instead, he said: jack of all trades, master of one.

    Have been searching online and couldn’t found that information. If you have any link that you can share will be great 🙂

    Thanks.