Family, friends and regular readers will recognise that there are few things in life that don’t interest me. (In fact, family and friends are sometimes shockingly low down the list of things that do. I am very self-contained or, as other people tend to phrase it, unsociable.) I’ve always liked to think that having a wide-ranging curiosity strengthens me but I’m having doubts. I’ve been feeling pretty low recently for a variety of reasons. While trying to think my way through to the root causes of my discontent, I realised something that, while not a prime source of my anxiety, makes me feel pretty bad about myself: there is absolutely nothing that I am very good at.
Sure, there are plenty of things that I am pretty good at, solidly above-average. I’ve sailed across the Atlantic twice and raced at European level. I’ve even been a backmarker at a World Championship regatta. I’ve also done some karting and track days and I’m usually one of the quicker drivers out there. I love astronomy, and I can draw a portrait well enough so people can recognise who it is. I’m a competent engineer and none of my designs have ever killed anyone, at least that I’m aware of. Perhaps there’s a writ in the post.
But no-one will ever pay me to be part of their race crew, and I’ll never set a lap record. I’ll never discover a new type of star or have a gallery snap up my latest work. I’ve never killed anyone but I’ve never invented anything and don’t hold any patents. Obviously what I aspire to be is a polymath but actually I’m just the typical jack of all trades. In everything I’ve ever done, there have always been several people on the scene that can do it better.
To be fair, this has always made me a very useful employee to have around, especially as I thrive on responsibility and so professionally have tended to be thrown the odd projects no-one else wants or understands. But I’d say I’ve only ever once been anything like the company star performer.
It’s all a little ironic really as our world is becoming more and more the realm of the specialist. There have been many candidates offered as ‘the last man who knew everything’ but such a label couldn’t truthfully have been applied to anyone since the start of the iron age. You would need the combined knowledge of several dozen experts to understand how an iPhone works down to a fundamental level. Transport them individually back in time to classical Greece and most of them would make a better living humming remembered fragments of Beethoven than by fostering incredible technological advancements. Experts in cutting-edge technology have no idea how to realise the full manufacturing process from ore extraction to writing software. No-one does.
I’d say there are two reasons I’ve never specialised. The first is lack of opportunity. Having a family, with the attendant time and financial restrictions, prevents me from putting in the hours necessary on the water or the track. (I’m not complaining about this, just observing.) The second is that I am usually painfully aware of my own limitations, and know when to quit. I could devote myself completely to art and eventually churn out photorealistic drawings as often as I pleased, but I lack the creative spark that true art demands. There are many things I could never become an expert at.
So by trying to keep my mind open and through a willingness to turn my hand to new things, I have become a bit of a dinosaur. It all seems so unfair.