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The saying goes something like “jack of all trades, master of none” right?

There is something to be said about people who dig deep into a single problem and spend their entire life’s work focused there. Just look at people like Stephen Hawking. His life was his craft, and he was and continues to be richly rewarded for persistence and intelligence. Hawking left behind a legacy that is simultaneously unbelievable and inspiring. But in today’s world the odds are against you achieving hyper-success by one-track-mindedness.

That is why I believe mindful holistic effort holds just as much value as deep thought.

It’s a bit contrarian that, surrounded by an incredible set of academic colleagues who historically have expended their efforts on exploring an extremely narrow set of ideas, I find joy in breadth over depth. Academia is home for deep-thinkers and persistent problem-solvers. This is not to pretend that for some reason breadth ≥ depth (some people might say exactly the converse), but rather that breadth ~ depth. I think this applies in any context regarding effort.

Discovery has always been a goal of the human condition, existing not in digging deep or looking wide, but in gaining new perspectives. It is clear that in the past 50 years or so the opportunities for those with broad expertise have become more readily available.

mindful: busy is not better

It’s more than obvious that the developed world is susceptible to information overload. Taking a broad approach to work can be dangerous because it is easy to get stuck in intake mode without ever producing any output, and thereby without ever producing value for your company or lab or organization.

One important key in taking a holistic approach is to do so mindfully. This includes an awareness of the learning process and when it is time to switch to productivity mode. You may find it worthwhile to assess your own productivity/learning ratio. This is a constant battle for me, but I have found it useful to both schedule my day and remove distractions.

My first rule is to stick to a schedule. It doesn’t have to be the same every day. It doesn’t even have to be written down. It just needs to be established. I have pretty inconsistent sleep, work, and class schedules, but I make sure that I focus my time on what I’m doing. Which is why distractions can make or break productivity.

A few years ago I wrote an article about how turning off notifications gave me back control over my time. Constant interruptions through the entire day are just not worth it. If someone really needs to get a hold of me they will call me.

I also recently started doing a phone fast during each workday’s “power hours,” which for me are 10am-3pm. Android and iOS both provide tools that make this extremely easy, and they will only continue to improve as the people become more privacy-aware.

holistic: the train conductor and the mountain woman

Traditional academic research is accomplished by assessing the current state of a problem to be solved and either finding an answer to the proposed question or developing an improvement upon previous answers to the problem. A more holistic approach includes a broader - and therefore shallower - survey of information and a more careful attention to the interfaces of previously isolated areas.

Consider the following allegory:

A freight train conductor’s duty is to know the train inside and out. She is in control and in a way the train itself is an extension of her own personal effort. She can see the track ahead and the track behind, and her laser-like focus is on getting the load from pick up to destination as safely and quickly and efficiently as possible.

A woman on the mountain, on the other hand, sees the train from afar. She sees the entire train; she sees where it came from and where it is going. She sees the way the tracks weave through their environment and the way they affect the surrounding ecology. Aware of the whole environment, she is equipped to provide insight that the conductor doesn’t have.

Neither perspective is superior or correct. On the contrary, the union of the narrow and the holistic can be something even better than either on their own. The holistic and the specialized are together able to build a more meaningful picture of the world.

effort:

“How do you write like you’re running out of time? Write day and night like you’re running out of time?” - Hamilton

This is a subject that you can read about in most self help books, so I don’t need to beat a dead horse.* Hard work yields productivity, typically. Hard workers are rewarded for their effort, typically. The key when taking a broad approach is to be self-motivated.

Some of my favorite work on the subject can be found here and here. That’s all I’ll say on the topic because I’m ready to finish this article and publish it already.

conclusion

Being a jack of all trades is alright. In fact, there is more opportunity now for jacks than ever before. Some of us will never work quite like the Stephen Hawkings of the world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also find our own success.


For further information on this topic, watch this TED Ed talk by a professor from my university about what interdisciplinarity means for today’s research.

*What did the horse do to deserve such treatment? We should come up with a better idiomatic phrase.