Jack of All Trades, Master of Some?
By Jillian Broaddus and Chuck Cusumano
We live in a world that essentially encourages focus to be successful: By the time we are 18 years old, we are supposed to specialize in one major. Subsequently, we are encouraged to pursue one career path, in order to gain the experience necessary to rise in the ranks to success in said industry. Plus, we are essentially only allowed time for one hobby if we truly want to master it – (Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000 hour rule,” in his blockbuster book “Outliers,” which tells us that we can become masters in any one discipline if we devote 10,000 hours of practice to it). As the saying goes, “a jack of all trades is a master of none.”
When it comes to work, the “specialist” mindset can be traced back to Henry Ford’s assembly line (and perhaps beyond!). People were trained – from an efficiency standpoint – to do one thing over and over and over again. Eventually, they’d get good at it. Hopefully, they’d get great at it. But, at the end of the day, did becoming a master at putting tires on cars help anyone learn how to run Ford Motor Company? Furthermore, consider this: The assembly line itself was invented from Ford’s knowledge across a combination of fields that don’t seem connected: Ford was allegedly inspired by Singer sawing machines and meatpacking plants when he envisioned the assembly line!
Plenty of real-world examples also give merit to the thinking that specializing is the superior path to success. For example, consider the often-cited greatest golfer of all time. Tiger Woods picked up a club at the age of two, and during his rise to the pros, he often devoted 12 hours of practice each day to perfecting his game. Other greats of the world – champions in sports, academia, and business – are like Tiger: hyper-focused on their sport, subject, skill, or area of expertise. However, if you take a moment to hear about many of these Olympians’, experts’, and leaders’ paths to greatness, you’ll learn they were multifaceted in their approach, comprehensive in their training, and diversified in their focus.
After all, Steve Jobs’s greatest success at Apple happened after he dabbled in a myriad of other industries and ventures. More than 90% of first-round NFL draft picks were multisport athletes growing up. Many of the CEOs we look up to most are well-rounded leaders who value results and relationships. Many inventions that have changed our world were born from the brains of those who were “cross-pollinated” in their thinking: for example, the inventor of the Segway (Dean Kamen) also invented the slingshot and the pump for intravenous drugs, and the inventor of Lear Jets (Bill Lear) also invented the car radio and the 8-track cassette tape!
So, why are we mentioning Segways and 8-track tapes in an article about leadership success? Because we think in today’s world, there’s more benefit to being a “generalist” than a “specialist.” Here are just a few reasons why:
Knowledge is power: More knowledge (in more areas) equals more power!
You offer a big-picture view: A wider – rather than deeper – understanding of different things often leads to a consideration of more outcomes and, thus, better decision-making.
Not to mention, increased creativity: Along with the above-mentioned “big picture view,” keeping our mind active by dabbling in an assortment of different activities can improve our creative-thinking abilities.
You thrive in a complex world: Our world is interconnected, now more than ever! No longer can we fully and functionally work in a silo. Computer programmers must discuss the end vision with the UX designer, who must communicate with the sales team to understand their ultimate goals. Event planners must have a knowledge of finances and budgeting, freelance artists must be skilled in project management and prioritization, and customer service workers often need to know how to manage other employees. So, suffice it to say, a broad range of skills serves you better in whatever job you’re holding – and prepares you well for career flexibility in the future!
We believe the saying mentioned in the intro to this article needs a rewrite: You can be a jack of all trades and master of some. Or, perhaps Viktor Vicsek said it best when he said, "A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one." In fact, being a jack of all trades is a form of mastery in and of itself! Become great at being good at a lot of things, and watch how you can serve the world around you.
If you’d like to hear more about the benefits of being a generalist, we were invited to speak on the topic on Randy Gravitt’s Leadership Podcast. Check it out on YouTube or listen wherever you listen to podcasts!
And, if you’d like to discuss your skillsets and how you can grow and develop in a variety of areas, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.