Being good at something feels really good, and being bad at something sucks. To be good at something, you must do the work: you must sprint the hill, repeat the notes, write out the code, and reread the books. Doing the work also sucks because you are aware at every moment how bad you are at the thing, whatever your thing may be.
When you were a kid, your life consisted of you sucking at pretty much everything and improving for years. After a couple of years, you found ways to not suck, and maybe even found certain things where not only you do not suck, you are even good at them.
Then you hit an “OK plateau” – you are good enough and you don’t invest the time and attention to further hone the skill you developed. For some skills, this may be alright. Do you really need to become the best driver in the world if that is not your profession, only your commute?
Base claim: Do what makes you happy.
Contrarian claim: Don’t try to do what makes you happy – instead, do what is useful, get good at it, and you will become happy as a consequence.
Meta-contrarian claim: Actually, if you have good reason to believe that activity X would be good for you (in terms of career, lifestyle, happiness – like, a generally good choice), then you should go for X. Just keep the contrarian claim in your mind (you may be fooling yourself, and it may be a good idea to work out alternative plans).
Since it’s not easy to become really good at things, and it also takes a lot of time, even the most intelligent and hard-working people will only ever get really, really good in a couple of areas. Some will go for a generalist skill set, some will go for a deep specialist one. I don’t know if that’s true actually. Even famous generalists in different fields (Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, Paul Graham…) actually have deep knowledge in certain fields. This is a nuanced subject because it doesn’t really work with the binary specialist – generalist framework. There is more to it. At a higher level of resolution, we can see that these “generalists” do in fact have deep knowledge of many things. So, if we are really honest about things, when we say “generalist”, we don’t actually mean “person who knows a little about a lot of things”, we mean “person who knows a lot about a couple of things”. A specialist is a “person who knows almost all there is to know about a narrow field, and doesn’t know or do other things”.
META: In this case, it seems that the generalist – specialist framework is a false dichotomy. It’s a mental model that simplifies, but to such an extent that when you dig a little, it doesn’t really ring true or useful. We use a lot of frameworks (and metaphors) but sometimes, like in this case, they appear false and not really useful. How in general do you know that your framework/model isn’t good anymore, or isn’t good for the question at hand? What other model oversimplifies a complex reality, and how in general do you know this?
In addition to the fact that even generalists must develop at least one deep skill (sprinkles are not enough), there are also combinations. Let’s say you take a set of a 100 skills, and pick any 5 skills randomly. Most of the combinations you’ll get will not be very good, or will not really work. You’ll get things like: “cooking, math, dog training, photography, graffiti”. Not that this particular combination can’t work, but it’s distinctly different from “math, programming, writing, entrepreneurship, finance”. In both combinations, you have deep knowledge of math, but in the second combination, it seems to work really well together with other deep skills. In the first combination, it’s just there, not really connected with anything.
The point here is that random picks from a list of skills will not result in optimal combinations. And since even generalists need to develop deep skills, seeing that these things take time and effort, it’s is probably really important to craft your combination to make the most sense. You know, to kinda find your “theme”, where different things you get really good at support each other, instead of being opposed or unrelated.
When I look at my own skill tree, it doesn’t seem to work that well together. My writing and speaking skills – satisfy the really good requirement, I think. I’m a really good translator (but only for English and Croatian – for French and Swedish, I’m just okay). And I’m a good instructor as well. Parkour and martial arts are connected to each other, but not to other things. But I’m not really good at any of them, I’m just decent. I’m learning to program, and that’s completely unrelated to any of the previous skills. I also play a couple of musical instruments and cook okay, I guess. So the “theme” is something along the lines of teaching or communicating, but more could be done so that the skills support each other.
Your skills make your theme (or they don’t, if you do a lot of unrelated things). First, it’s hard to get a theme in the first place. But when you have a theme, it’s even harder to change it completely or slightly, because now, you have to get new skills, get real good at them, and your old skills could die off if you don’t maintain them. So choosing a theme is a big deal.
And finally, how deep is deep enough? You don’t have to be literally the best person ever in a skill to say that your knowledge of it is deep enough. You just have to be really good. “I fear not the man who has practiced 10000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10000 times.” 10000 is a large number, but how do we know that just 1000 is not enough? Or maybe it takes a million kicks to be real good. Or tens of millions. There is no clear guideline to this, but when you are real good at something, you probably know it intuitively.