Balance breadth and depth

Be a jack-of-all trades and a master of one

jack-of-all6Anybody who acquires deep expertise does so at the expense of breadth. The challenge is to understand how much depth is enough, and how much is too much. —Andrew Hargadon

Most of us develop deep expertise in our profession and that’s necessary and good. Whatever profession you choose—teacher, physician, painter, architect, plumber—be good at it. There’s a bell curve in all human activity; make sure you’re on the right-hand side of the curve.

But there’s a point at which more expertise is unnecessary and even distracting. Do a cost-benefit analysis before going extreme. Will the cost of pursuing more expertise outweigh the benefit of doing so?

I have a friend who is extremely good at his profession, but that’s all he knows how to do. He has no other interests in life. He has burrowed deep into a narrow niche and lives only in that small area.

I have another friend who is extremely good at his profession, but she also has a broad curiosity about life and explores and excels in many areas. I prefer her approach.

Our world is a fascinating place; adopt a broad approach to life.

Be a jack of all trades and a master of one.

When considering depth and breadth, it need not be an either/or scenario; it can be both/and. Thomas Huxley said, “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” I like that. Have one well-developed area of expertise and stay fresh in that area, but also pursue multiple areas of interest.

Don’t underestimate your capacity to do more.

We all have more band-width than we think we do. Most of us can do 30-40% more than we’re doing. So don’t think that you can only handle one thing in life; bite off more than you can choose.

A broad knowledge base will make you a better and more interesting person.

In Western civilization, the “Renaissance person” (also called a polymath) is, presumably, the ideal to strive for—a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. Think Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci—men who were multi-skilled and deeply impacted the world.

My son-in-law, Jonathan, is a polymath. He’s an emergency room physician, an instrument rated pilot, entrepreneur, sailor, flight surgeon for an F16 squad, works well with his hands…and the list goes on.

My associate, Paul, is a polymath. He’s musically talented, has a black-belt in Karate, is a master chef, speaks fluent Spanish…he could teach at the college level in multiple disciplines.

If I were Captain of a “game of life” and could choose my teammates, I would pick these two men. They are fully alive and have the focus, aggressiveness, and inventiveness to do anything they want to do.

I’ll close with a well-said thought from science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Questions for you, the reader:

  • In what area of life are you a “master”?
  • Have you developed other areas of interest? Name them.
  • Are you curious about life? Do you want to pursue broad knowledge?
  • Identify an area of your life in which you need to say, “I’ve gone deep enough.”

Go deep and broad.

I’ve written other essays that relate to this topic:

[reminder]What do you think about this essay?[/reminder]

What? – In life, strive for both depth and breadth; you don’t need to choose one or the other.
So what? – Your life will be more enjoyable and you’ll be better able to contribute to society if you develop multiple interests.
Now what? – Audit your life and decide how deep you want to go in each major area. Begin pursuing more areas of interest.

6 Replies to “Balance breadth and depth”

  1. Here is a perfect example, Don, where you practice what you preach. You are, in my opinion, the quintessential renaissance man. Truly.

  2. Although a marketing profession is interesting eventually you realize the goal is sales, thus the ultimate goal is money and very consuming. I have a love of learning and wanted more. Returned to school for a degree in Archeology, went on a dig in Chaco Canyon, and found another interest in the history of American Indians which expanded to genealogy. Back to school to become a certified Genealogist which introduced me to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Became a chapter Regent, DARC Officer, & Texas State Chairman for the 2017 Conference. Learning is a lifetime adventure. And learning how to turn an abandoned farm (52 years) into a breeder farm is a learning adventure and finally working. Not only has it been a learning experience for me but the entire family became involved and brought the family together. Isn’t learning fun?

    1. Brenda, I had no idea you had done all of this. You’ve lived a full life. Someday we’ll have to visit about your archeological pursuits; that’s fascinating. Don

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