To Be A Jack Of All Trades

A Hope for Generalism

"A jack of all trades is a master of none"

This is a quote we've all heard. It means that someone who tries to be great at many different things is doomed to to be best-in-class in any of them. Many of us know this concept simply as spreading one's self too thin. It also seems to have paved a way for certain social norms. Young people are expected to graduate secondary school and know exactly what they plan to do for the rest of their lives. If they go to university, they're expected to know what specific topic to focus on for four years. And, once they graduate university they're expected to spend the rest of their lives on one career path. We're expected to do one thing and do it very well.

Our society rewards specialists with promises of higher pay and the allure of subject matter expertise. This comes at the expense of the generalists, who are oftentimes coerced into specialism for reasons mentioned previously, among many others, and are told that generalism can put them at the risk of being misunderstood or not realizing their full potential.

I see myself as a strong generalist. Those who follow my Internet activity may agree, since some point this out with varying degrees of positivity, remarking that I'm "all over the place" or that I "do cool stuff across the board". But, it's when I approach people or opportunities that expect a level of specialism from me that I feel a bit out of place. When someone asks me what I do, I want to tell them something that encompasses nearly all the things I do, which is why I enjoy giving myself a timeless title like "technologist". But, vague titles like this often confuse people who ask such questions, since terms this vague say so much yet so little. Knowing this, I have to narrow the scope of my actions to something more easily interpretable, like saying that "I work with computers" or just mentioning the latest area I've been working in, like "I'm in computer security".

You'd need to get rid of some sides to make this fit.

When I narrow down the scope of my interests to fit in someone's box of understanding, I feel like I'm limiting myself for others, and I often wonder if I should give someone vague labels to preserve my true identity while risking someone's misunderstanding me or if I should give more specific labels while risking the ignorance of the other things I do.

It's a tricky tradeoff. While I may not be "good" at everything, I consider myself a multifaceted individual. It's bred a distaste for a myriad of things to call myself. "Security engineer" implies I only do security things. "Software engineer" implies I only write code. Even "technologist" ignores my interests in art, philosophy, and other areas. So, it's been difficult for me to find a solid title and caused me to find solace in terms like "artist", "creator", and "creative".

Many would say that I just haven't yet found the one thing I want to dedicate my life to, but at this rate I'm not sure there'll ever be one thing. Exploring lots of domains has fascinated me since childhood, and I don't see it going away in the near future.

I'm not alone, either. There are thousands if not millions of creators of all ages who dislike being put in the boxes that we've established as the standards. Online personalities, influencers, makers, and modern polymaths have noticed society's affinity for specialists and are actively choosing to reject this norm in pursuit of centering their careers entirely around themselves and their interests. It's only natural.

People with broad interests have existed all throughout history, but, like how the conditions of Old Italy bred the Italian Rennaissance, I see the Internet and digital tools creating the conditions for another rennaissance. Platforms like Patreon and OnlyFans enable people to be supported for activity that's not bounded by traditional work. These new forms of patronage let the masses become the Medici supporting thousands of Da Vincis. It's these newer models of support, paired with the democratization of creation tools and learning centers that makes it easier to not only try new things but also be good at them.

It was cool to hear of rennaissance polymaths (a better term for a generalist) like Da Vinci who were good at many things and great enough at some to make history. I don't see why that same unbounded curiosity shouldn't be rewarded today. We have the resources, and we have the dedication.

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

Some of you may know that this is the full quote. It's a sign of reassurance to those who find it in their nature to be a jack of all trades. As a matter of fact, most of us are jacks of all trades! You have the skills and tools available to you to be great at a number of things, and you've probably felt weird when narrowing your focus on a couple things before in life. You may not be the best in all of them, but with enough time you'll be top-of-the-line for lots of them. I'm happy that I'm seeing such ideas being brought to life by younger generations. Millenials grew up with the stress of being generalists forced to be specialists, so many of them are rejecting such a norm and later generations are following suit. Let's follow the trend.

Here's to being a jack of all trades.