Doer of all, master of none — and its gross misconception
Because having only a single mastery will no longer save you from the call to innovate
Innovation. It’s such a strange word that can invoke images of space travel, virtual reality, and 3D holograms. It is also the reason why scientists can print hearts from cells, bio-engineer ‘meatless’ beef, materialize entire islands from the sea, among other grand, fantastical and wonderful things.
Our world craves innovation and constantly seek to build teams and connect people together to create a thing called innovation. While this sounds great, what about the common folk like us? How can we innovate without multi-million dollar funding, state of the art technologies and laboratories? How can we innovate with our limited resources and funds?
The thing with innovation is like asking a comedian to tell you a joke. But comedians don’t tell jokes. They tell us stories that make us laugh.
Society’s misconception of mastery
Modern mastery often comes in the form of student debt and a degree that informs the world that we are knowledgeable about a certain topic. A Masters degree puts us a few years ahead of our peers. A P.h.D places us on the edge of our field and any new output stretches the boundaries of that particular ‘mastery’ just a little bit further.
Some people spend their entire lives working on a single mastery, walking down a clearly defined path towards the concept of success. So it makes sense that we should become a master at something.
But a lot of us often spend our time jumping between interests — not because are incapable of holding our attention to one singular task — but because we intrinsically crave a bigger picture without actually understanding it. Progress in depth may appear much slower but that is not always a bad thing.
The phrase — doer of all, master of none — is often used in a negative manner, suggesting that the person who does everything is not properly equipped to do an efficient and effective job.
However, there are two parts to this saying with the complete phrase being: doer of all, master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one**.
Somewhere in history, we started repeating only the first part and therefore changing the message entirely.
It is possible to become a master in multiple disciplines, or know just enough that is necessary to create a desired output.
Hi there, I’m a Renaissance man, what about you?
The industrial revolution brought the decline of T-shaped knowledge development. Specialization made you special, valuable and cost-effective. Mastery of a specific trade allowed you to fit into the grander scheme of the puzzle that makes up the supply chain.
The idea of T-shaped knowledge person comes from the recruiting world where they assess potential candidates based on their depth and breadth of knowledge. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, was one of the first prominent figures to use the term to create interdisciplinary teams for creative creations.
Steve Jobs famously talked about the idea of creating dots of knowledge in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, and that one day they will eventually connect up and form that something we call innovation. It’s an abstract process that has no prescribed path.
The term ‘Renaissance man’ is making a resurgence under the idea of being a polymath — a person who is skilled in multiple disciplines. It is perhaps why the most successful among us often seek to extend the boundaries of their knowledge in other disciplines. On Bill Gates’ personal blog, he recommends a wide range of books with topics that are not always about technology. Rather, there are multiple recommendations in history, science, and medicine. One would assume that he’s read these books at some point to be able to recommend them.
The missing piece
In the 1980s, Japan had a noise pollution issue with their high-speed trains. The faster the trains went, the louder it got — especially when it exited tunnels where sound waves became compressed and made a loud ‘pop’ that was more akin to an explosion. An engineer named Eiji Nakatsu was hired to fix this problem.
Nakatsu wasn’t just an engineer, he was a generalist with a great interest in birds. He studied a wide variety of birds and understood the different structures and functions of their anatomy — such as why owls are silent hunters due to their feature structures and how the kingfisher’s beak aides its ability to quickly transition between the low resistance of air to the high resistance medium of water. It was knowledge about these two birds that aided in the later generations of Shinkansen bullet trains that are not only quieter but also faster.
Innovation is the act of connecting multiple disciplines together to create something new. It’s a process of synthesis that results in something of alchemic proportions. Modern acts of innovation often materialize in the form of entrepreneurship that provides a solution to a specific problem. It may come out of a group of people or a single person skilled in many areas. The common factor between these two is that there is a lot of different types of knowledge on the table.
The ability to innovate isn’t as elusive as we think it is. It is not the act of conjuring something out of nothingness — but rather the act of joining different knowledge points together to break through the wall of what we already know.
Innovation is synthesis. It is the act of combining components and elements together to create a new picturesque whole. Depth of knowledge comes in handy but breath is the thing that will help you go beyond the known boundaries.