What’s the alternative to subject mastery?

We throw the phrase “subject mastery” around at work a lot. It is always with a positive connotation: we want people to have subject mastery, or we wish someone had greater commitment to subject mastery, or we’re glad someone does have subject mastery. It feels like the modern dichotomy between extrovert and introvert, where introvert has all kinds of negative connotations (shy, reclusive, weird, loner, anti-social) and the assumption is that people need to be moved from introverted to extroverted. In this case, you have people who are subject masters, and then everyone else who either isn’t smart enough or isn’t disciplined, determined, or focused enough.

The more I think about it, though, the more confident I am that I am not a subject master. I’ve never viewed non-subject-masters as bad people, but I haven’t given much thought to the normative language we use about it. Our language implies that non-subject-masters are bad, just like our culture tends to imply that introversion is bad, so being open about not being a subject master feels like I’m admitting a flaw.

It’s not my gig though. I value that deep down in-depth knowledge, but I have no interest in obtaining it. For me, I’m happy to get to about 70% of something, and the knowledge-goal that is important to me is learning a decent amount about a number of different subjects so I can synthesize that knowledge and come to new ideas or conclusions.

I’m currently reading some Microsoft manuals about the server operating system, and I’ll be branching out from there into a lot of different subjects. Ostensibly, I may pursue certification for these things, but certification is really challenging and requires a level of knowledge I’m not terribly interested in achieving. I want to know that something is possible so I can discuss it, or so I can setup a proof of concept, but taking the time and energy to learn a single thing really, really well is outside my wheelhouse.

And that’s not a bad thing. This isn’t a continuum from bad to good, but rather a matter of opportunity cost and strengths. The more time invested in a single pursuit, the less is available for other pursuits, including learning other things. And when my strength is in learning a lot of things and putting them together, it makes sense to focus my time there.

But I think it’s going to take a while to shake this normative assumption that subject master = good and therefore not subject master = bad. What would that sort of person be called?

4 thoughts on “What’s the alternative to subject mastery?

  1. A failure in every way possible. As are introverts. What kind of looser goes and just learns really a lot of stuff and has ideas and comes up with new concepts and new ways of looking at stuff? That sounds like bad news to me, we should all just learn what other people already knew at one point. BTW, I love reading your blog, but it makes me miss you. Why again do you and April not want a relaxing vacation in Houston? I mean come on, it is pretty awesome. I hear there are some really cool people in the area, too.


    1. We’d love to visit you guys 🙂 Unfortunately, finances make that a challenge. We’ll be able to do lots more traveling when April finds a job, but until then we’re pretty restricted.

      I’m going to PAX in Boston this week, but if I hadn’t bought the plane tickets 5 months ago, I wouldn’t be. I won’t be going next year unless April gets a well-paying job this year.

      But once she does, we’ll save up and visit 🙂


  2. Matthew,

    Why not…be a “jack of all trades and master of now”. I did did not strive for any master but have managed in 67+ years to attain several “trades” along side the masters. I feel well rounded and am able to converse, with most people I meet, reasonably well.

    In case you don’t remember I am a first cousin of your Moms’.

    I do enjoy your comments, keep them coming.

    Pam Clark Schroeder


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