Jack of all trades but Master of none. . .
. . . is an old expression meaning someone is competent at a number of tasks but doesn’t excel at any single thing. The phrase is meant to be disparaging. But why should that be? Why is it “better” to do one thing very well (specialize) rather than be competent at several (generalize)?
You see both behaviors in the animal kingdom. Some species are “generalists.” They eat a variety of plants (and other animals). Think bears.
Other animals are “specialists,” relying on a plant that others ignore. Think koalas and eucalyptus.
Both strategies can be successful. If one food source runs out for bears, they make do with others and survive to make more bears. With no competition for eucalyptus, Koalas survive to make more koalas.
But nature finds a balance. Both strategies also have drawbacks. Generalists face stiff competition for their various food sources. They might be out-competed at times by specialists (or bigger hunters). If something happens to a specialist’s sole food supply, serious trouble awaits.
Nature doesn’t care if a species generalizes or specializes. So why do we ascribe a higher value to performing one act well over doing several competently?
Me? I’m a generalist. I’m good or competent at a variety of things. But I don’t excel at any one of them. I remember a music appreciation course I took as a university freshman. Our instructor had some of us perform in class for those who had never learned an instrument. With 12 years of piano lessons behind me, I chose a Chopin mazurka. The instructor told me I played “nicely.” If you’ve had musical training, you know I was told that I was competent, not good.
Some years later (we won’t say how many), I’m an archaeologist by profession. Am I a master of my field? No. Am I competent? Yes. Have you heard of me? No. (Although, seriously, how many archaeologists can you name? Indiana Jones doesn’t count.)
My current job duties extend far beyond archaeology, though. They include ensuring that grant recipients meet federal legislative requirements pertaining to the National Environmental Policy Act. Don’t worry. I won’t bore you with the details. But I do a good job with that task, too. Like I said, I’m a generalist. And I’m happy with that. I just don’t understand why those general abilities are considered less successful than doing one thing very well.
I don’t have any insights into the workings of the human mind on this. But I think about it when I catch myself feeling envious of people who are “successful” at activities I enjoy and wishing I could be that “good,” too. Most of the time, I’m happy with my abilities as they are. Sometimes, though, the insecure part of me pops up and throws that old adage at me. It takes a lot of effort to beat that monster back down. And I wonder again why we value mastery of a specialization over competency at a variety of tasks, even where there’s no survival value of one over the other.
How about you? Are you a Jack or Master? Do you think they should be valued equally in non-survival areas? (It’s a given that we want a highly skilled surgeon if we need one and a highly trained pilot in the cockpit.)
- Being a specialist or a generalist? Which is better for a technical communicator? (techcommgeekmom.com)