Jack of All Trades Master of None

Jack of All Trades Master of None Perfectionism

My book The Athlete within You is almost ready to go to press.  It was a long journey.  It is interesting how I feel about it.  Writing over the years has been a real pain in the ass for me.  Call it perfectionism, fear of failure or whatever you would like.  When I was in graduate school back in Virginia we had a discussion about this very topic.  The gist of it was that my professors laughed at the idea that I was a perfectionist.  They said, as I obviously put so little effort into my technical writing, that while perhaps I feared failure, I was just a lazy, though brilliant, student.

Over the years working with many people, I have determined in my own lazy, but brilliant way, that as I thought back then, they were way off base.  I think people can become so perfectionistic that rather than attempt to do something to their own unreachable standards, they just shut down.  Moreover, because they fear failure, the move on to another activity.  When they find success there and start to master that area of their life, they may become once again caught up in this cycle of perfectionism and fear of failure.   Perhaps this is where we find the saying Jack-Of-All-Trades, Master of None.  (please comment at the end with your Perfectionism stories)

The fear of failure aspect is just part of normal attribution theory in that a person reaches a certain level through natural talent and sometimes because they do not attribute success to work and talent, they begin to become uncomfortable with their lack of success.  This leads them to decide the activity or their own ability lacks worth and they move on.  I think the same thing can be said for someone that is perfectionistic as well.

The perfectionist views a task, like writing or playing basketball, with a view that they should be able to accomplish something based on their ability and work.  Though they may believe in success through hard work, they toil over what success actual means to them.  They struggle with making sure every sentence is right grammatically and in making a point.  Words should not be wasted.  Mark Twain once apologized to a friend by saying “if I had more time, this letter would be shorter”.   For a basketball player, perfectionism is a tough.  If every shot should go in there, is an obvious issue.  In baseball, the best hitters in the Major Leagues hit just over .300.  That means they fail seven out of ten times they step to the plate.  Failing this often can be a problem.  I have seen parents and youth coaches really hammer their players when they fail to get a hit.  For some athletes this teaches them to not only fear failure, but to feel like nothing but perfection will satisfy them.

The combination of both of these attributes certainly contributes to a person drifting from one thing to another.  Usually they are good at what they do, but cannot seem to make themselves remain dedicated to their goal.  The closer they get, the higher the expectation to be perfect.  The harder they work and not reach perfection, the more they fear failure and the unreasonable expectation for success (only measured by perfection).

I realize that I very often post things where I spend a great deal of time explaining an issue and a very short explanation for a solution.  So this is part one of two.  Next post will look at ways to help someone or yourself over this kind of issue.  You cannot expect it to be an easy task.  That would be unreasonable, you might say perfectionistic.  So from one that has been known most of his life in sport as a Jack of All Trades, I’ll be back with suggestions on overcoming perfectionism without giving up a need for achievement.

What I would like is for people to share their perfectionism stories.  Let’s look and see if there are common treads.  It will be fun and of course we put ourselves at risk by sharing something of our vulnerability.  But that after all is what this blog is all about.  So forget about shame, leave fear behind.  Share and help others understand perfectionism, from your own experiences.



  1. “The closer they get, the higher the expectation to be perfect. The harder they work and not reach perfection, the more they fear failure and the unreasonable expectation for success (only measured by perfection).”

    Beautifully written and incredibly to the point. I try and remain committed to being a perfectionist-in-recovery, but it is often so difficult to stay aboard the wagon. Truthfully, the “pursuit of perfect” has been the hallmark of my every endeavor. As a law student, I studied film of every round of every competition I entered. For any final round or regional competition I not only rehearsed in front of a mirror, but I had my hair, nails and make up done professionally so that a hair out of place or chipped polish wouldn’t distract the judges. I kept a back-up suit in my locker, complete with an extra pair of shoes, just in case I dribbled coffee down my blouse or broke a heel. I won 13 of 14 rounds in which I competed. Despite the fact that my partner had an incident of complete brain freeze and forgot everything he planned to say when it was his turn to present, I blame that final loss on the fact that when he froze, I panicked – and momentarily put my head in my hands in front of him, our opponents, and worst of all, the panel of judges. I wonder: had I remained stalwart, would he have come around sooner? Perhaps we could have made up enough ground to win.

    Although my “pursuit of perfect” has been less intense since leaving the legal industry (a playground where every opponent seeks out your failings the way Bard the Bowman fatally searched Smaug’s belly for a missing scale) I will admit to using both cosmetic surgery and a protractor to prepare for my debut a figure competitor. Further, while injury has derailed that pursuit this year, I am now spending hours each week in physical therapy to ensure that when I make a second run next spring, my contest preparation and workouts will be…. nothing short of perfect.

    I look forward to the second installment of this article, as well as to your future posts. Thank you for your wisdom, my friend.

    • Siren- the pursuit of perfection, of the ideal is Man’s & Woman’s (you may reverse order) ultimate adventure. Our striving to be the best is part of being human. If one says the hell with it. Why should I even try? I don’t think I can get there. If the thought of not being perfect hinders our quest, then it becomes an issue. Now I have worked with many athletes who believed that more is better and in their quest for perfection sustained injury. perfectionism has its costs. Knowing when to push and when to ease off is what becoming The Athlete within You is all about.
      I look forward to reading more about your pursuits of perfection on your blog http://sirenofstrength.com/

  2. I have certainly had bouts with perfectionism, and to this day still edit while I type, but to be honest, it has never really been an issue I deal with. What I have always dealt with was a fear of being a jack-of-all-trades. I’ve always been afraid of not being good enough at something, and that has driven me to specify in certain areas, thus doing my best to kill the JOAT philosophy. The problem is, that it becomes easy to accept failure, because your goal becomes unreachable. I suppose that’s two sides looking at the same coin, but very intriguing to see it from your eyes.

    • Phil,
      I do think in many ways you are correct in that we are looking at the same coin. In this age of specificity most people strive to be really good at one thing. Even the family doctor is often listed as something other than a GP as they were a few generations ago. Lawyers practice by specialty and so it goes. I know sports psychologists that specialize in single sports like golf or tennis. for many people this pursuit of being really good at something, as you say sometimes makes it easier to back of and accept less than greatness. In your coaching business people (Provision Coaching) being a JOAT I suggest is something very beneficial. Understanding more than one thing gives perspective and insight in more than a single area. I believe people can be a very good joats. Joat’s have gotten a bad rap. We have moved into an era were flexibility is more important than specialization. Someone has to work with all those perfect people that can’t tie their shoes after all. (I’m going to steal that by the way, and have an artist friend of mine draw up an animal character called a Joat. A goat like creature I think.),
      This of course has moved us away from where I started on this topic, but I’m good with that. Let’s talk about it more later when I write part 2.

  3. Excellent post. I can honestly I say you just helped me realize something about myself that I could never put my finger on. So for that I thank you. I train basketball players in speed, agility and quickness and also in the importance of mental toughness. They are absolutely what you call perfectionists and push to get better. I now see how that attitude can be more of a obstacle than a motivator. It is plain to see in my life as I tend to start things, get excited, make some progress and then self sabotage when things don’t go perfectly. I now can move forward, knowing things won’t be perfect and focus on progress and not perfection. As for the saying “practice makes perfect”, how about “practice makes improvement”. Thanks again.

    • Thank you for joining in on the conversation Anthony. We can look at this obviously from a number of perspectives as you can see when you read the comments of others. Perfect practice still makes perfect and that is the goal of course. The issue with practice makes perfect is more that if we don’t seek a high level in practice we will never achieve our goals. If your speed clients just go through the motions, they will get bad habits and perhaps even slow down. If they don’t use their arms, they won’t really get better and it will show on the field. What we have to watch for is that level of perfectionism where the athlete slows down significantly in order to perform a drill. Say you are using a speed ladder and every time someone steps on a rung they slow and become very dogmatic you know something is going on. The task has become more important than the goal. Eventually they may believe that the goal is unobtainable and just stop.