Are you generally a specialist?

I am a modern “Renaissance man”, or better yet, a “Jack of all trades and master of none.” I can’t decide if that is a good thing or a bad thing. On long car trips, I sometimes occupy myself (over the din of crying children) by thinking about how I would spend millions of dollars when I win the lottery. And sometimes I think about, what if I could give up all my talents just to be a true master of just one thing, and what talent would that be. Currently, the only thing that I am a true master of is exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. I’m proud to say that I can even do that in my sleep.

So what made me think of this topic? I subscribe to Matt’s Basement Workshop Spoken Word Podcast and I was listing to the episode that featured Bob Roziaeski and his article entitled “Versatility or Specialization”.  It is worth listening too if you are into woodworking. Anyway, I thought about what he was talking about on a larger scale. Instead of thinking about versatile vs. specialized tools, I replaced it with versatile vs. specialized skills, especially as far as I am concerned.

A number of months ago I read an article by Toshio Odate, (please forgive me it I paraphrase from the wrong person) which really made me think about myself. Anyhow, the author spoke about the number of craftsman who try to do too much and never truly master a craft. Lyle Jamieson spoke to me about this too. He recommends perfecting/mastering a particular skill/craft and sticking with it. Lyle said that when he was learning to turning he was all over the place at first, then he decided that he should learn from the masters and avoid learning bad habits and achieve a focus. Me, I am all over the place too. I enjoy making and designing furniture, turning vessels, and teaching woodworking. I believe I am a “good” furniture maker and designer, and I am a “good” turner, but I am not on the level I would like to be. Even though my Mother thinks I am really great (thanks Mom!), I am certainly not a master.

I can look at this one of two ways. As an orthodox Jew, I spend time everyday learning Talmud. Now there are two schools of thought for learning Talmud. First, you pick a particular volume and you spend the time carefully learning every aspect of it. This can take a very long time. Or, you use the Daf Yomi method. With this method, you literally learn one page every day. (that may sound simple, but one page front and back contains a lot of material.) If you follow this method, you will learn all of Talmud in just about seven years. You do not learn all the nitty-gritty details, but after seven years of study, you have a very good overview of all of Talmud. I learn Talmud via the Daf Yomi method. (BTW, I will finish in March 2011 HaShem willing). Daf Yomi is sort of like my woodworking. I am learning about many forms of furniture making, designing, turning, marquetry, large case work, small boxes etc…. so I have a large breadth of experience. Perhaps one day I will find something that really inspires me and then I will stick with it.

I have a lot of respect for the people who have picked their path and stuck with it. I really like the idea of going electric free via hand tools only, sometimes I would like to focus purely on turning, sometimes I think about giving up commission work and only doing more artistic pieces. But I can’t do that (I think). But look at my hero, David Marks, he is a master woodworker and turner. (I don’t have enough faith in myself to think I could honestly reach his level.) Perhaps my muse has left me because of my lack of commitment to any one path. Oh how I wish she would return to me.

As the “The Clash” stated, “Should I stay, or should I go.” Should I give up my wandering ways and purely focus on one aspect of my woodworking, or keep expanding my horizons until I find my path?

I would love to hear your opinions and thoughts on this subject. Please don’t be shy.

About yaakov

Husband, Abba, Furniture Maker, Turner, Bookseller, and all around working stiff.
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9 Responses to Are you generally a specialist?

  1. Lazy Larry says:

    I too seem to be a jack of all woodwork… except turning…. but have yet found the one thing I would like to master… well maybe my Lazy Larrys.. and some boxes and of course cutting boards… leave the bigger heavier items to the younger and fitter…

  2. Tom Tabor says:

    I think I have spent most of my life being a tried and true generalist. Even as a kid I jumped from one thing to another with reckless abandon, but at the same time being completely immersed in the topic of the week or day. I remember wanting to collect butterflies. Within days I had learned to identify every type of butterfly in the North Eastern US. I dove into the details of the subject. Then, when I had reached some limit of involvement and or knowledge I was done. Over. It was time to move on. But 25 years later, I can still tell you the names of many of the butterflies that fly around in the back yard. About 6 months ago, I found spoon carving. Nothing major, not a beautiful chair or an amazing turned bowl, just a spoon. And now, I know that I want to be a master spoon carver. That makes me grin just typing those words. I love carving spoons, I want to improve, I want to make them out of new kinds of woods, with different handles and finishes and designs and….

    Do I want to make other things as well? Of course! But I want to master the spoon. So maybe that is what you are waiting for? You just haven’t found the one thing that mesmerizes you yet. But then again, what do I know? I am some spoon carving nut case. 🙂

  3. It sounds like one of your main specialties is family. I don’t really have anything like that. I spent a great deal of time and energy playing music and learning how to improvise. A great deal of the woodworking discipline is the same as musicianship. I guess everything else is too… it’s all the same subject.

    My daily spiritual studies are linked to playing the saxophone. It is the tool that gets me into the “Zone”. You describe your muse. I don’t know that I know what that is. My teachers told me that success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I don’t wait for it… what if it never comes?

    The more I focus on woodworking or playing the horn, the more it becomes internalized and extension of my conscious thought process. I strive to think less and do more. Good, Bad or Ugly… I just keep chopping away at it. From time to time I experience the zone in which I’m just listening to what is coming out, and not thinking about what I want to do, but intuitively doing it. Like channeling from the source. I’m both the observer and the observed… I’m just being.

    In ’04 I was in a car wreck and it really changed the way I look at everything. I had so many irons in the fire, so many cool things I was trying to master. I was lucky to be alive. It’s not like I never got anything done either. Eventually, I managed to get around to everything and finish my projects… but I decided to pare it all back and try to do the two or three things that I had the most juice about. Now I’m spread just as thin as I always was.

    A trumpet player I gigged with used to say, “There is only one band and everybody is in it”. I say there is only one tune and we play endless variations on it.

  4. Hi Yaakov,
    Nice to hear from you. I hope you had a pleasant, rewarding, and fun Hanukkah.

    OUCH!! You are awfully hard on yourself…”master of none”?? From my perspective you Master most everything in your life. Your writing, your dedication to family, spiritual stability, yes-even woodworking. You have been blessed with the natural wisdom I see in Rabbis, and I would suspect you would be a master rabbi.

    Let me (possibly) repeat my position on focus. I shared my experiences of my early days of turning and that I jumped from one turning project/process to another and did not give myself time to get very good at any one thing. This, I believe slowed down my learning curve. However there are a host of turning skills that are necessary to have fun and be safe at the lathe. This foundation is not that easy. Sure any one element is not that difficult but there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. It takes time to get all the parts coordinated. If you don’t know how to sharpen the best tool control will not help.

    I agree with you about the parallels in your life, Woodworking and studying the Talmud. With both of them you now have a very solid foundation. Both have the question, “Where do I go from here?” Do you remember my advice?? Follow the fun!! In the Talmud you have the chance to expand your studies when you finish the Daf Yomi. Where do you want to go with it?? In your woodworking you can be that master in whatever specialty you wish. Nobody but you can hold you back from becoming greater then either David Marks or me in your chosen path.

    Now the hard part!! How do you decide where to go from here. In your spiritual life there may be goals that are obvious. But in the woodworking life you have to be introspective and find out what is fun for you. What floats your boat. What pleases you. This is very hard. We usually don’t ask ourselves that question and we seldom answer it. We are too busy pleasing others around us and fulfilling the roles expected of us by the world around us.

    Life and lifestyle can get in the way to some extent and you may want to continue the commission work. But all work and no play makes Yaakov a dull boy. Set aside some time in the schedule for some fun. Once you find some answers it may not even be woodworking, it may be fishing. I would suspect that woodturning will take a pretty high position in the hierarchy.

    • yaakov says:


      Thank you for such a well thought out reponse. I will certainly take your advice and “follow the fun”. That is an aspect that I forgot about. Having lost my youthful sense of optimism back in the eighties, I sometimes forget about the fun factor.
      BTW, I did bolt down my grinder and raised it up on a platform.
      Thanks again!
      Your fan,

  5. yaakov says:

    Thanks everyone for the comments! I sincerely appreciated them!

  6. David Marks says:

    Hello Yaakov,
    I enjoyed reading “Are you generally a specialist?” I attended a lecture by Sam Maloof in 1988 or so in the SF Bay area and he commented that some of the young craftsman have asked ” how can they improve their work” and his observation was that they should find one area of woodworking and focus on that specialty. He believes that many young artisans are too diversified ,trying too many different paths and therefore become a master of none.
    As a younger artisan ( I was 37 back in 1988) I fit the very description of what he was referring to. I also know that the world is filled with different people and I was enjoying the work and variety of woodworking paths that I was pursuing. I wanted to express the visions in my head and therefore I needed to learn how to design , cut ,bend , carve ,inlay,gold leaf,veneer,turn,finish,dovetail……….all of the various elements required to get the wood to do what you need it to do in order to express your creative vision. Add to that the challenge of maintaining a family ( Victoria and I have 2 kids, young adults now 27 and 32 ) and it truly is a long hard path.
    In my case woodworking is something required for my own personal sanity so it is right up there next to eating , sleeping etc. I managed to always tie my learning process into most downtime, reading whenever I could ( standing on lines etc). Nothing takes the place of real experience , so arguments would invariably ensue about how many hours I would spend in the shop.
    Lyle had some great comments about playing,which is also true. There is a great book “Sparks of Genius” by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein. It is about the 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. They often discuss the value of playing and how it frees up the mind to discover things. ” M.C. Escher mastered his pattern recognition and pattern forming skills by finding images in wallpaper”. “Play transforms knowledge and builds understanding as we create our own worlds , personas , games , rules , toys , and puzzles – and through them new sciences and new arts “.
    Something that has stayed with me since my youth ( early teen years ) is my love for playing drums. In fact we just had band practice last night and I noticed once again that my mind goes to a different place which has a calming effect on me. I concern myself as to whether or not I will play correctly , although once we start “I feel what I am playing ,more than I think about what I am playing “.
    I just turned 59 years old last month and I love and need to create woodworking more than ever. I believe that now I am finally at a place where I simply need to go to the shop/studio and create. After 37 years of doing this full time , all of the nuances are coming together for me. I am glad that I was driven to learn multiple disciplines in woodworking because now I have the “vocabulary” to express what I see. I will share an interesting story with you. I think Lyle Jamieson will concur with me that in woodturning ( and all woodworking) sometimes things blow up or go wrong. Master woodturners usually tell their students that this is a “design opportunity”.
    I had the honor of having my “Alchemist’s Vessel” on the back cover of the June issue of the American Woodturner magazine. I used a 15 year old piece of spalted , quilted , maple burl for the top portion of the vessel. I was intrigued with the myriad of highly unusual patterns in the wood. Some of my woodturner friends told me not to use it. “It’s firewood, too old, too brittle and too decayed”. I persisted , and as I was very close to completing it, I blew it up. I had a young student in my shop at the time and he was shocked. I laughed and said ” Oh well, I guess it is Design Opportunity time!” I glued it back together and now there was a hold new perspective that came over me.
    It’s called “WTF” ( I don’t want to spell it out, but I think we all know what it means ) Once I had let go of my masterpiece and didn’t “care” so much, I could “play”.
    Through the vehicle of “playing” I had freed myself to experiment. Experimentation lead to the surface decoration that everyone seemed to be fascinated with.
    After completion I entered it into the Artistry in Wood show at the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa in 1999. It won “Best Turning”. This gave me the confidence to enter it into the “Maple Medley ” exhibit at the AAW Symposium in Hartford Conn last June. It was accepted into the show, printed on the back cover of the AAW journal and sold the second day of the show for my asking price of $ 12,000.00
    Over the years I have learned to trust my instincts no matter what other people tell you to do. It is very difficult to separate oneself from all of the confusing influences of the outside world. I find that periodically I need to lock the doors to my shop and isolate myself to pursue my inner visions.

    Yaaakov , I know from having had the pleasure of having you as a student in my shop ,that you are very talented and that you have a natural passion and drive to create. You have to pursue this despite the hardships of raising a family. Even incremental progress fitted in between all of life’s demands is still a progression of your work. My advice is to pursue that which attracts you to it like a magnet. I know you love to make boxes and do marquetry and turning so go for it all. There is a discovery process along the way that we cannot plan for. It unfolds , one thing leads to another and an accident becomes inspiration to transform into something that we couldn’t see until we climbed up that daunting hill.

    I will leave you with one of my most satisfying quotes.
    ” Imagination is more important than knowledge” Albert Einstein.

    Be well my friend , and learn to play from your kids.

    David Marks

    • yaakov says:

      Wow! Thanks so much for those words of advice. After reading everyone’s comments and especially yours, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my heart. I love the Einstein quote. Perhaps I will print it up and put it under your picture in my shop.

      Thanks again!

      Your friend,

  7. David Marks says:

    Hey , a couple of corrections to my post: my vessel won Best Turning in 2009 , not 1999 and I added an extra a to your name Yaakov ( towards the end I spelled it Yaaakov ) , sorry about that

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