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The Case for the Jack of All Trades

Jack of all trades master of NONE

I came across a LinkedIn post this week on this particular quote and as expected it was not entirely viewed in a positive light. In fact, the post came as a warning to employees. The message was clear: you DO NOT want to be a Jack of all trades — master of none — and that this wouldn’t bring you certain success in your chosen career.

Although, it seems like sound advice and I understand the thought that the author was trying to convey: You need to have mastery of a certain skill before you should attempt at dabbling with other skills to add to your portfolio.

But I still couldn’t help but think: Poor Jack. He’s become sorely misunderstood.

Looking at the bigger picture — the full quote, in fact.

The phrase, “A jack of all trades master of none” is one of the many phrases that people have been misquoting for years. The full quote is said to be:

A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one

The version we are all too familiar with would lead us to believe that a Jack of all trades has no chance of being successful because he hasn’t mastered anything. But now, looking at the full quote, it’s clear that a person with diverse skills and experience has given him an advantage over someone who is a master of just one skill or trade.

Who is Jack and what’s his story?

The word “jack” was used in reference to the common man and history recalls a “jack of all trades” all too differently than the way we see it now. In fact, the phrase was often spoken as a compliment in the 1600s and used, in the same fashion, in various publications during this time.

Although “jack of all trades” had originally carried no negative connotation, the negative perceptions towards this term may have begun when the 16th-century commentators used it to imply that a person was stretching their talents too thinly by dabbling in different tasks or roles. This seemed to be the case when it was used by Robert Greene in 1592 to describe the up and coming writer at that time.

It’s important to note, however, that the “upstart crow” that Greene had described in his commentary would later be known throughout the ages for his literary work.

Any guesses whom he was referring to?

None other than William Shakespeare — poet, playwright, and actor.

The world needs more jacks of all trades

I find it strange how people could continue to view a jack of all trades in a negative light, particularly, when it is something that has become a requirement for most businesses and employers.

If you’ve been on the job hunt lately, you would have encountered the term “multi-skilleda lot. In fact, you may also be using it to describe yourself in your online profiles and your professional summary.

Why? Because it’s a strength.

Business owners and employers prefer applicants who are knowledgeable in different skills and have diverse experience.

Now, let’s go back to Jack. He’s multi-skilled and yet we refer to him as a master of none. We also advise people NOT to follow in Jack’s footsteps and that being skilled in different areas would be a disadvantage to their professional careers. Yet Jack’s multiple skills and experience are what most employers and business owners look for in their recruits. So, we’re sending out some mixed messages, aren’t we?

It’s not impossible to be a master of multiple skills

In the article, The Myth of the Myth of the Unicorn Designer, David Cole shares his insights about the argument that designers must pick between being great at one thing or mediocre at many things.

“This argument is the result of numerous bad ideas about learning, definition, and process,” Cole points out. “Being a long-time generalist designer myself, I feel passionately that this myth is holding back our field and deserves to be debunked.

Cole believes that “learning isn’t a zero sum activity” and shares some very valuable points about the advantages of mastering multiple skills. After all, it is not impossible to be a master of different skills, areas or subject matters. It’s just a matter of prioritization. You cannot learn everything at once, you need to prioritize the new skills that you can learn right now and think of how it adds up to your long-term skill development and career.

The Jack of all trades in the 21st Century

If the people in the 16th century came to recognize and appreciate people who were a jack of all trades, then is it really all too unlikely for a jack of all trades to exist and excel in the present date and time?

Particularly with all the knowledge and information that we’re exposed to on a daily basis. The internet serves everything and anything that we need to know with a simple search term or click. So, it’s not all too unlikely that we can learn and master a new skill if we wanted to.

In fact, I encounter many successful jacks of all trades on a regular basis. I read their blogs and articles. I follow them on social media. I am subscribed to their email list. And every day I am wowed by their knowledge and mastery of the different subjects that they share.

The reality is that marketing, design, web development and many other disciplines are multi-skilled disciplines. You can’t be a master of just one if you want to truly excel in these fields.

And I truly believe that by continuously misquoting “jack of all trades master of none” we are not able to appreciate the brilliance of these multi-skilled individuals who have succeeded in their respective fields. We are also unconsciously limiting the capacity of the individuals whom we constantly advise to avoid being a jack of all trades.

A Den of all Trades

I struggled with the thought of being a “jack of all trades” for quite some time. Many people had also advised me to stick to just one thing — to be a master of just one thing.

But I couldn’t come to terms with the thought that I was indeed a “master of none”. I am not wired for that. I constantly strive to excel in whatever role I find myself in and this requires mastery of the skills needed to fulfill my role to the best of my ability. So, it didn’t make sense to me that I was a master of none. Particularly since many people I’ve worked with could see, appreciate and would even commend me for the work that I’ve done.

I have since accepted that I am a jack of all trades and I don’t think poorly of myself for being so. I don’t see my multiple skills and experience as a disadvantage at all. In fact, it has been an advantage.

As a Virtual Assistant, you NEED to be a jack of all trades. Particularly when you’re the client’s entire team. You answer phones, emails, and chats. You make sure that the inventory or invoicing is accurate. You write articles, publish social media posts, and that’s just the beginning of it. Being a jack of all trades is what made me the quintessential virtual assistant.

Being a jack of all trades has also prepared me for entrepreneurship. It has opened up multiple doors and opportunities that would not have been available to me if I had believed the negative perceptions that people had about being a jack of all trades. These opportunities would not have been available to me if I had not pursued to master new skills, ones which I am most passionate about.

So, let’s cut Jack some slack, shall we?

He’s, after all, a master whose footsteps we should all aspire to follow. Let’s not allow our misconceptions about simple quotes and phrases to diminish our potential or that of the people around us.

And if you’re a jack of all trades who’s also struggling with the thought that you’re going nowhere. Do me a favor and stop. Stop allowing this misconception — and people’s opinions — to shape who you are. Being multi-skilled is already a good start. Now, all you need to do is determine which skills you will hone further and which ones tie up to your long term goals.