What makes pantologists worthwhile builds ?

16 minutes read —

“A pantologist is jack-of-all trades; one who likes to learn about many different things. Why specialize in one thing when there’s so much more you could do ? That would be boring.”
Urban dictionnary

Gaming foreshadowing

As a teenager, I used to play this wonderful game called Dofus. It’s an action RPG that used to feature 12 different character classes. As with most strategy games ; according to the current meta, some classes and builds were better performing than others. There were a bunch of archetypes that were true and tried so to speak ; the strong warrior, the agile rogue-like character, the fire cat and so on and so forth. I was playing an Osamodas. They are summoners. And they are typically a mid-range class with a strong emphasis on having the bigger HP pool. At least that’s how they were typically played. They rely on their creatures to inflict the damages and play hide and seek in the meantime. Sometimes they would buff-up their Intel stats and cast a bunch of fire spells that could benefit from that. I gave my Osamodas stronger stats in agility, strength and damage instead, as well as some HPs and a decent quantity of summons. At the time ; this was definitively not a thing. The Osamodas had a very limited to non existent deck of spells in those elements. But what it did for me was to render my character less vulnerable to close range combat when equipped with the appropriate weapon ; as well as better able to distance itself from its opponents should there be a need to, and even capable of topping-off the dps dealt by the summons during key moments. Although none of my character’s spells were high DPS ; they were almost all strong enough to end-up somewhat useful in specific situations that were calling for them. It was a highly adaptable character. And more importantly ; I had fun playing it. Every. Single. Time. I did not encounter situations were I was left with nothing to do and no hope at all to switch the board. Games were not made in advance. They were dependent on my ability to react appropriately to the current situation ; not some very obvious weakness that hadn’t been addressed during the prepping. As a result ; this was not a character that I played using the same recipe every time. Options were numerous and it was my job to sort through them in real-time.

The reason I bring this up is because I noticed patterns in the way people tend to play games and the way they approach the larger one called life. And sure enough ; I have this tendency to go wide in my interests and the skills I develop over time. I am certainly not the only one walking this path. Yet there is this emphasis on over-specialization these days. I want to examine what, in my opinion, makes the “Jack of all trades” experience so rich and worthwhile despite the drawbacks and limitations that we are sometimes quick to point out.

Specialization is over-rated

And sure enough ; there is a good rationale to justify specializing as soon as possible. For one ; it’s an easy path to market. You offer a solution to a specific problem. Explaining what you do comes with no difficulty ; you are simply the guy that does the thing. The expectations are crystal clear and from there ; should what you do fit the needs of the prospect, then you would be hired. Simple. Clients are willing to pay a premium for expertise. In addition to that ; if you were to hone a skill for many years ; you would develop efficiency as a side effect of repeating the same process many many times. This means speed. You’ve seen it all regarding that narrow topic ; you do not need to research or waste any time, you know what to do ; you’re on it already. And, done. More money in less time ; essentially. That is certainly a competitive advantage and that is the promise made by Adam Smith during the 18th century in his well known work “the Wealth of Nations”. Ultimately he argues, it is the better path to divide labor into multiple specialized units. Society as a whole benefits far more than if each person was to try and do it all by him or herself. As long as we are able to freely exchange goods and services ; there is no need for that anyways. Give people time to get uncannily good at their very specific craft by freeing them up of anything else they would otherwise have to do, others will take care of the rest of their needs by becoming good themselves at their own very specific craft.

That was the idea. The rest is history. Fordism happened. Labor was organized in a way where any individual was assigned a single task that he would repeat ad nauseum every day. And it worked. We, as a society, produced more cars, more fridges, more everything, and standards of living went up overall. Or did they ? The devil lies in the details. Although in this case, it might be more appropriate to talk about the elephant in the room. Rates of anxiety of depression have been steadily rising for decades since we started organizing our work-lives this way. Close to 15% of the population is stricken with enough anxiety to warrant a visit to a psychologist in France. The body also seems to suffer ; half of all French people are now overweight. Alienation is the term that is most often used to describe the lack of agency and overall disengagement from work felt by specialized workers. As we become more and more specialized, our work becomes more and more repetitive with little to no spot left for learning, improvisation, novelty. It turns into a chore. Research indeed suggests that functional specialization reduces job satisfaction while job enlargement programs contribute to enhanced work attitudes. Working as if we were cogs of larger machines just isn’t that fulfilling, especially on the long haul. We’ve essentially achieved a state of joyless productivity.

Jacks are resilient

Let me tell you about burn-outs. The term was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberg in his book “The High Cost of High Achievement”. He originally defined it as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”. The choice of words here seems remarkably accurate to me. People doing work they love and feel passionate about are particularly prone to burnouts as it can lead to obsessive passion as opposed to harmonious passion.

Trying to master any discipline is an enduring game. The time scale that is relevant is measured in years to decades of focus-intensive work. During all that learning time ; the craft isn’t going to pay its dividends. Plateaus are going to happen. It will seem we aren’t getting better anymore no matter how much harder we push. And most often, we first try to push much much harder indeed. Maybe we won’t get the jobs we thought we would get. Or maybe we’ll even get that perfect job, only to find out later it is no longer needed and be told the industry has moved on. No matter how we twist it ; we’re bound to encounter disappointments sooner or later as is the nature of life.

When that happens, if all you have to keep you afloat is a craft ; then you’re in trouble. Should you attach your entire identity to it ; you run the risk of feeling funny when it abandons you. Hyper-dedication comes at a cost. Basing your entire self-worth to a single discipline implies that the day you fail to perform will also be the day when you will feel worthless.

Opening multiple quests in parallels can prevent getting whipped-out of the game at the first burnout induced depressive state. You do not have one well of confidence. You have multiple. When you encounter that plateau there, you’re still climbing over here. The energy you get in either pursuit should sustain you during the flat-lines on your other quests.

It’s essentially the same idea that investors put to practice when they talk about diversification. You’ll find self-employed persons tend to put some emphasis on the idea of having “multiple streams of income”. Such an income structure is often highly valued as it allows one to stay afloat should one of those streams run dry. Although it might takes a very long time to develop a diverse portfolio, it offers the holder the luxury of resiliency. It’s the same with a skill-set.

Multi-quests foster full attention

In fact if you are interested in a wider learning experience overall, rather than being attached to mastering a single topic ; then you will find that splitting your attention might be really beneficial. Indeed, although you are dividing your energy bar in two or more ; you also get a bigger zeal pool overall since you avoid the near-complete life-force depletion that can ensue from obsessing over a single thread for too long. You’re feeling curious, energized, vibrant.

In fact some people’s productivity really benefits from doing 5 different tasks a day and rotating over those different skill-sets rather than trying to block-in 10 hours on single tasks. They are able to maintain speed easier. Multiple sprints are sometimes more efficient than going for that seemingly never-ending marathon. That sweet novelty factor really rejuvenates the brain in preparation for the next task. Being a little bit scattered might be a small price to pay in exchange for low-pain prolificness.

To put it bluntly ; no-one is able to perform at their best when they are bored. Getting into a flow-state requires an optimal challenge. And part of setting yourself up for an optimal challenge might be to pick multiple challenges instead. Juggling multiple balls is hard. But it can also ensure that you bring in your full attention to the table rather than half-ass life itself.

Diminishing returns when honing a skill

Plus you might have realized by now that learning a topic of interest comes with its specific learning curve. There’s no faster learning than that at the beginner stage of a new skill. Everything is new ; you’re building up from nothing. Jumping from 0 to 1 is infinitely rewarding. But then as you move on your quest ; you may notice a slow-down. You have already unlocked all the main branches. No it’s a matter of sorting through all those smaller ones. Maybe you’re even down to the leaf level. The stuff you learn does not make much of a difference anymore while simultaneously asking more of your time. It asks more and more out of you to produce similar scale improvements to those you once had. That my friend is what is called the Law of diminishing returns. It is an economic law stating that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output. When we are confronted to such mechanics, and still regarding this whole thing through a lens of wanting to maximize learning overall ; we might think “Maybe I should invest that time unit in some other thread to maximize my overall learning experience ; this well is slowly getting exhausted”.

And you might be right. The Pareto principle states that 80% of the effects usually stem from 20% of the causes. In a learning environment that means that you can cover most of the knowledge tree in a somewhat limited time. The last 20% improvements are going to require the most effort by a large margin. This is especially true if you get good at identifying what the big branches are in any discipline in order to cover the most territory the fastest. And that in itself is a skill that is developed through the practice of learning multiple skills.

Meta-skill of learning new skills

Fortunately, being a pantologist comes with its own positive loop. Learning a topic well facilitates learning other topics. Rather than getting in the way ; past experiences are a stepping stones for the next skills to learn.

A staggering example are polyglots. The more languages they learn ; the faster they get at learning the next one. You might think that learning 10 languages would require 10 times more time than learning one ; and you would be wrong. YouTube Steve Kaufman’s counter is currently set at 18 languages acquired in the span of 14 years from age 60 to 74. At this point he does not teach specific languages ; he teaches how to learn languages which is the higher level skill that he has honed and perfected through his experience as a polyglot. There is no other way to max-out this one than to tackle multiple quests.

Knowledge compounds. You might find yourself thinking while learning a language “Oh, this specific part is just like english/french/russian/fill-in the gap”. The wider the territory, the higher the chances that there will be something for the new information to lean on ; making its acquisition easier than it would otherwise have been. Generalists naturally develop more transferable skills.

With that comes increased confidence. Generalists feel like they could do well in diverse situations. They have options and might feel like nothing is out of reach (of course they might be faced with the paradox of choices but that’s another story.)

I came across the following daring claim that I would gladly share despite its edge in celebration of all the jacks among us. “Intellectually curious men become generalists. Intellectually lazy men settle for being specialists.” – Mokokoma

Jacks can still be experts

There is this idea in marketing of the blue ocean.

The out-of-the-box course of action for any specialist is essentially to become better than everyone else in a single dimension. Beside the obvious psychological harm such line of thinking is inflicting on people, this can also be extraordinarily difficult to pull-off ; especially in saturated fields where competition is fierce. Although there sure is some existing demand to be exploited ; it is typically distributed to the few top dogs, unless you are willing to significantly cut on price in exchange for your service that’s essentially a lower-standards version of what they do. This gets tricky doesn’t it ?

Here is a solution. Find a market where there is essentially no competition. How would you do that, you ask ? Well, you create it from scratch. You do what no-one does. You venture into unexplored territory. The places where there are no guidelines. Yes ; this is also tricky. Maybe even trickier. But certainly being a jack-of-all-trades is adding to your odds on that front. Specialists tend to be so intensely focused on a localized field of knowledge that they render themselves blind to most things that do not fall in that category. If all you have is a hammer, then everything becomes a nail, essentially. In fact you would find that when things go sour, the well established figures in their field are usually not the ones turning luck around. The greatest breakthrough of this last century instead happened at the cross-section of several fields ; where knowledge and ideas from one field where used to push forward in the next. The essence of this strategy can be summed-up through this famous quote attributed to Henry Ford : “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

In that sense, possessing multiple skills is a great asset to have. There is distinctiveness that stems from the unique combination of competences that an individual can develop. No one else has that same exact baggage under their belts and it’s going to be hard for others to replicate since it took so long to develop all those various skills. One of the biggest challenges for the Jack of all trades among us will therefore be to figure out ways to make the various parts that constitute their skill-set work together rather than separately or even against each other. The relevant questions become ; how do they combine ? Where is the synergy ? Once you find out the blue ocean ; that unique recipe that you created is going to be unique enough so that you will become the de facto specialist in your micro-field. The whole will indeed become greater than the sum of its parts. At this stage you will be living the best life of any Jacks : the specialized you.

Leadership positions

While I’m on such an uplifting line of thinking, it should be noted that Jacks can make good leaders. Indeed, they’re so well versed in so many different topics than they can develop good overview of the different parts that go into any enterprise. They are good candidates for that “big picture thinking style” that’s required at the top of hierarchies. Military generals were called so because they were generalists. Strategizing is best done with a wide array of experiences to pull from. They know what can be expected from their team and can provide useful feedback. They understand how to channel the various expertise around them into a single light ray ; a skill they developed through their own effort to do so at the local level.

Jacks are also valued and appreciated in small companies where people typically need to wear more than a single hat in order to get the job done with the limited human resources available. In fact, even in larger companies, generalists are often the last people fired when things go sour. If you have only so much bucks to spend on labor, you might as well keep the guys who can cover the most ground. Switching gear quickly and adapting to changing environments with ease is best done by such people. Flexibility rather than being a liability is one of the greatest asset one can possess when resources get scarce. A player that can be used across a wide variety of strategies and who is redeployable are less substitutable than pure specialized workers.

And it might be said that at an even smaller scale ; working any independent profession absolutely requires some of those qualities. Being one’s own boss is a Jack position. A typical day would probably include the main craft, prospecting, marketing, maybe some teaching ; and almost certainly a pinch of creativity to continually figure out new and better ways to make it all work. Most independent artists have to become de facto Jacks in order to do at the local level what others dedicate whole teams to doing. Generalists as freelancers can even become one-stop shops. Competence in many fields might spare clients the need to go to numerous places for hire to get their needs met. The cat who markets him or herself as a designer might also be one’s de facto marketer, virtual assistant, writer and else of their clients.

Time ; the limiting factor

After all that deliberating, maybe you might agree with me that there is a lot going on in favor of becoming some sort of generalist. Yet there is this huge non-negligible caveat. Learning many skills well enough so that they are useful and pay dividends requires massive amounts of learning time. Although they are most-likely not all going to reach specialist standards ; all the generalist skills still need to get mastered enough so that they become useful and practical in real-life situations. They need depth. As a consequence, good generalists are often late to the party. They need a lot of prep’ time and make their best contributions during the end-game rather than early-on. Time is a commodity that is tough to unlock in a world where merely living comes at great expanses. We all need roofs over our heads and food on our tables. Securing enough time is a major challenge for people walking down this path but absolutely necessary to develop that depth that should go along with the range in order to make it useful.

Moreover even older generalists with a lot of skills at their command still cannot handle more than a task at a time. Until they become able to replicate themselves and become multiples ; they follow the same physical laws as everyone else. They need 7,5 hours of sleep and can only operate within the limited wake time they have on their hands. Although they can work on seemingly anything at any moment ; they cannot work on everything. Adaptable does not mean omnipotent. Prioritizing is even harder for such people because of the crippling paradox of choices that perpetually lies in front of them. Being competent at multiple skills does not make it any easier to decide on what to do on a moment to moment basis.

On the other hand you can also twist the table and understand that time is generalists biggest ally. Jack of all trades get better with age. They are like fine wine. Their efforts to continually learn means their skillset is never done expending until it becomes seemingly all encompassing. They will ultimately find a way to combine all the elements of their toolkit into a unified expression. And although it might require a leap of faith to pursue effort during the developing phase of all their branches ; eventually things will connect in a way that is going to be unique to them and representative of their truly unique life-experience.

An ideal worth fighting for

Finally and most importantly ; the pantologist’s path is the funniest there is. Note that I might be biased in saying that. However, being a Jack of all trades means never being bored a single day again. Having a mouth constantly full of new knowledge is a great way to live life to the fullest. It brings intensity to the picture ; it makes the colors pop so to speak. It might even be a bit funnier for the people around, or at least for the 99% of people who do not happen to be specialists in the very same area you do.

Of course nor pure generalists nor pure specialists actually exist in the real world and maybe we would be better off discussing specialized generalists and generalized specialists. The ideal figure would be that of a pit of knowledge that is both richly wide and masterfully deep. That ideal figure we call the Renaissance man and is best exemplified by the figure of Leonardo Da Vinci ; one of the deepest generalist to ever walk the earth. Such a man would have loved the internet, that’s for sure ! There’s never been an easier time to pursue such an ideal. Difficult as it might seem ; I feel it is worth pursuing.