Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Corbett Barr of Free Pursuits.
There’s an age-old question that everyone seems to struggle with at some point in life. Is it better to be a Renaissance man or woman and be good at a lot of different things or to be laser-focused and really great at one specific thing?
The “jack of all trades” question is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I love the idea of being a generalist. I really enjoy the act of creation, and happen to pick new things up quickly. Over the past few years, I’ve taken up entrepreneurship, blogging, sailing, acting, learning Spanish and living abroad.
Jumping from one thing to the next, or becoming moderately good at a lot of different things is exciting. It keeps the brain stimulated, and makes for interesting conversation and an adventurous life.
The problem is that what makes for an interesting life doesn’t necessarily make for a lucrative or successful career.
Why Focus is So Important in Work
If you’re drawn to doing a lot of different things like I am, it’s probably because you enjoy the rush you feel when trying something new. The Pareto principle applies here because you might be able to learn 80% of a skill in 20% of the time it would take to master it. That quick progress is addictive and fun.
In work, however, jumping from one thing to the next doesn’t necessarily pay off. You will undoubtedly end up competing with people who have focused on one thing for much longer than you have. Those people will eventually become really great at that one thing. If you’re only good at that one thing, you’ll lose in a competitive marketplace. The other things you’re also good-but-not-great at probably won’t help you land jobs or customers.
That’s why focus is so important in your work. By focusing on doing one thing, you not only give yourself a shot at putting in the effort to become amazingly great at something, but you also make it easier for potential customers or employers to see you as “the guy who’s really great at that thing.”
Being great at one thing and being known for it is what will help you command premium rates for what you do. Being only good at a lot of things will lead to earning commodity rates for each of those things.
I’m not advocating against trying a lot of different things in life. Experiencing all life has to offer is important and fulfilling. What I am suggesting is that trying to do a lot of different things professionally at the same time makes it exceedingly difficult to succeed.
A better approach is to choose one thing to focus on and do it until you’re great. One of the rewards of being really great at something is that eventually you’ll have the time and luxury of being able to try something else professionally.
Let Passion Be Your Secret Weapon
What should “that thing” you do be? How do you figure out what to focus on? The ideal situation would be to focus on something you’re passionate about. Here’s why.
A lot of people have written about passion and work lately. Leo has talked about finding your passion here at Zen Habits recently. Gary Vaynerchuk wrote an entire book on the subject. There is a lot of advice out there telling you that passion is the key to really succeeding in your career or in being self-employed.
Why should you be passionate about what you do for a living? Because focus alone might not be enough to make you successful. Focus is important, but what happens when the path you’ve taken is more difficult or longer than you anticipated?
That’s where passion comes in. Passion can keep you from quitting when you feel like there’s no end in sight. Passion can help you enjoy the road to your destination enough that you don’t have to only rely on your focus to drive you. Focus alone might get you there if the journey is short, but what if it takes three or five or ten years?
Passion also gives you that extra edge that will show through in your enthusiasm. It will make you stand out as someone who really loves what he’s doing, not just someone who is doing it for a buck. That enthusiasm combined with the drive to go the distance is what makes passion your secret weapon.
That’s how passion and focus combined can rock your career. Being really great at one thing you’re passionate about is an excellent strategy for work. Being just good at a lot of different things professionally stacks the deck against you.
Answering the Age-old Question
So, which is better overall, being good at a lot of different things, or being really great at just one thing?
It isn’t a matter of which one is better. A full life will probably involve doing both in different ways. What’s important is that you’re happy and living the life you desire. When it comes to being successful at work however, it’s hard to deny the power of being focused on something you’re passionate about.
What do you think? Can you be successful at your career without passion and focus? Would you rather be good at a lot of things, or really great at one thing?