You don’t want this
Posted on March 12th, 2013
You have no doubt heard of the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master on none.” Go ahead, say you haven’t. I’ll be forced to label you as a damn dirty liar! Even if the exact phrase has escaped your cognition, you know the idea very well. It’s said that if you spend your time trying to become good at lots of different things then you may indeed get good, but you’ll never be become great at anything. Rather, that outcome seem to take big measures of focus and dedication, and of course comes at the expense of other skills. Feel free interject the romanticized view of the true craftsman, spending years upon years and countless hours honing his skills, cultivating a love affair with a particular art form or trade.
It’s a lovely idea that we can all appreciate. Whether its true or not is a little more murky.
The funny thing about that jack of all trades line is that it actually ends with some variant of, “…Oft times is better than a master of one.” Well, which is it? Can we have our cake and also eat it? Or are we operating purely on assumption and misquoted proverbs here? Is it actually better to have some basic, conversational understanding of many different things, forgoing proficiency all together? Well, of course the answer is highly subjective and not as easy at it seems. It’s not the same for everyone, and even within one’s own experience the right approach changes with time. That has terribly important implications when it comes to making progress, because the fundamental definition of what progress represents to us can shift from beneath our feet like ocean sands. That, and as humans, we often don’t know what the hell we’re talking about, or what it is we actually want! Some plasticity is helpful.
I blame a shit education system for our lack of clarity around goal setting. What is school during those initial, formative twelve years if not a confusing jumble of generic and often inaccurate lessons forced down your gullet by disinterested, overworked and under-compensated teachers? At the height of our childhood curiosity we are broken down and rebuilt so that we become more average, forced into that goddamn bell-curve shaped mold within which we all must fit. The choice is not our own. Pursuing one’s passion, especially for those foolish enough to love art or music, is simply not possible.
The story hardly improves once you get to college. Here you typically coast through a few more years of required general education courses before you feel the heat of the real world start to breath down your neck. So you do what seems natural…you pick the first career path that makes sense, often wasting the next twenty to thirty years of a finite life span in pursuit of a dream you’ll never quite catch up to. You’re left rationalizing to yourself that it sure seemed like a good idea at the time. The goal is a fake one, and no one take the time to ask you whether this is something you want.
I would submit that one of the greatest sins of our society is working so damn hard to introduce more boring, aimless adults to this planet. That’s a shame, when what we really need is more bright and brash young minds who want nothing more than to challenge assumption and tell entrenched authority figures to eat shit. We need more people interested in making real change. Hell, that smells like America to me! But the reality is that this is all by design. It’s much more convenient for all those involved if you would just shut up, fork over the tuition, take the job, then hitch your fate to the nearest passing credit offer.
My first real perspective shift around goal setting came during graduate school. After years of this institutionally enforced aimlessness, I rather enjoyed immersing myself completely in a single topic of interest. The schedule was brutally simple. If I wasn’t in the laboratory doing the research, then I was studying the theoretical angles of my topic in the classroom. My only real reprieve was my Powerlifting training, which incidentally, took place just a few footsteps down the hallway from my lab. There was no such thing as a weekend. The days were long, stretching from dawn to dusk and often beyond. Among this crew, there was simply no excuse for not getting things done. We had limited time to make progress towards a very specific, collective goal. And I must say, those four years changed me forever. They displaced the old version, setting the rest of my life in a completely different context and trajectory. I was now armed with some fantastically powerful scientific tools. But in an odd twist, I slowly lost my appetite for using them for their intended purpose. Did I really want to spend the rest of my life intensely studying within such a narrow view? Would I be happy forfeiting a seemingly endless list of perceived career opportunities? Was achieving that master status worth it in the end? No. To me, this represented the second sharp edge of the sword. If aimlessness and a lack of focus was bad, surely too much of those things was just as silly.
We all must learn the importance of balance, of ebb and flow. We need brief periods of intense immersion to trigger a real change in our physical abilities and perspective. But we also must understand that these times of focus must be followed by general pursuits that provide plenty of opportunity for applying those hard-earned lessons. From that place brand new ideas can be linked with the old, building sparkly new associations and creating new opportunities. The sport scientists and strength coaches among us will likely recognize some small elements of periodization in this description, which is just a method of focusing training effort into a specific direction. I would simple state that this is how you can learn to narrow your view and improve your chances of realizing your goal. This is your next step towards success.
While I usually champion the destruction of all assumptions, I’m going to make one now for the purpose of closing the point. I’m going to assume that you’ve had your fill of balance for the moment. My guess is that you’ve been working hard on lots of different things for a while now, with varied amounts of success. Sure, you’ve learned quite a bit about nutrition and supplementation. You’ve pursued a somewhat well-reasoned strength and conditioning program. You’re learning about mobility and general maintenance of your physical body. I might even step a little further out on this limb and state that, hopefully, you’re pursuing new ideas and opportunities for personal improvement every single day of your life! Isn’t that what brought you my way? Of course it is. With this assumption comes another. If you’ve written down that one key stretch goal, along with a few sub-goals that will serve to lead you there, then you’ve identified what’s important to you. So, you are now prepared to decide what is not your goal, right?
I ask the question because this is where everybody – everybody – fucks up from time to time. Perhaps one of these scenarios sounds familiar. Your primary goal is weight loss and improving body composition, yet you grow depressed and bitchy when your performance begins to decrease. It’s as if the physics of a calorie deficit should not apply to your metabolism. You say you want to spend eight weeks getting as strong as possible, yet you spend half of your time performing punishing metabolic conditioning sessions. Why? Do you want to hold onto that bird while you also go after the two in the bush? Or, if I may hit a little close to home on this example, you state that mobility and range of motion are what’s most important, yet you get nervous when the load on the barbell predictably goes way down. You do not trust that the adaptations will happen and that the strength will quickly return. No, you just get antsy, you bail on the plan, and you fall back into that engrained bad habit.
Here’s what we all must realize. When it comes to achieving a big goal and making a huge, lasting change in our lives, we need immersion. We need a few months to stretch ourselves in a very specific way, so that the stretch will stick! So, our present exercise is simple. Right after we clearly define our primary goals, we need to define what’s out of scope. We must decide what we don’t want. Write down all of those things that you are tempted to do. You know, the movement that just will not contribute to the current pursuit. This doesn’t mean that you neglect these things. Hardly. You simply keep those dishes warm on the back burner while you fry your big fish.
Weight loss requires an understanding that optimal performance can be resume once your body has adapted to its new, svelte form. That takes time. If the goal is to gain strength, then you should be happy with performing a few light conditioning sessions per week, which will preserve your fitness while not sabotaging your ability to recover from the weekly barbell beat downs. And if you need to spend time on your mobility and movement patterns, then for crissakes, have a little patience and give it a chance to happen!
Answer the question for yourself. Right now, what can you do with out?