“Jack of All Trades” – A Good or Bad Thing?

When I was growing up I’d hear the term “Jack of All Trades” used as a compliment, meaning that a person had broad knowledge and was educated about many things.   It was something I always aspired to, being that type of Renaissance person who used life to learn and experience as many different things as possible.  I grew to enjoy baseball as well as opera, backpacking as well as jazz, political analysis as well as needlepoint.  In the workplace I also volunteered for many projects outside of my knowledge area in an effort to learn something new. I think it made me a well-rounded person and allowed me to experience a great variety of life.

Lately, I have heard this term used with more of a negative connotation, such that a specialist is much preferred to any sort of generalist.  So I turned to Wikipedia to see what it had to say about this phrase and I found the following:

Jack of all trades, master of none” is a figure of speech used in reference to a Generalist, a person, that is competent with many skills but is not outstanding in any particular one.

Ultimately, a Jack of all trades may be a master of integration, as such an individual knows enough from many learned trades and skills to be able to bring their disciplines together in a practical manner, and is not a specialist. Such a person is known as a polymath or a Renaissance man, and a typical example is someone like Leonardo da Vinci.

In 1612, the phrase appeared in ‘Essays and Characters of a Prison’ by Geffray Mynshul and the phrase has been in use in the United States since 1721. The ‘jack of all trades’ part of the phrase was in common use during the 1600s and was generally used as a term of praise. ‘Jack’ in those days was a generic term for ‘man’. Later the ‘master of none’ was added and the expression ceased to be very flattering. Today, the phrase used in its entirety generally describes a person whose knowledge, while covering a number of areas, is superficial in all of them, whilst when abbreviated as simply ‘jack of all trades’ is more ambiguous and the user’s intention may vary, dependent on context.

In addition to this definition, my observation in looking at our current job market and in conversations with friends in employment transition is that openings are geared very much toward the specialist at this point. So although it seems that the world is looking for (and valuing) more specialists and putting less emphasis on the generalists, I still argue that variety is the spice of life.

Picture Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/valerianasolaris

Learning and experiencing many things and having that knowledge to share with your friends, as well as with those in the workplace, can be advantageous personally and professionally. There is certainly a place for specialists and experts in the world but, as a leader, I believe there is also a place for the “Jack of All Trades” who is knowledgeable and resilient enough to contribute in several different areas, especially when the pressure is on to have a finite number of people on a team. So rather than be “master of none”, these people will always be valuable members of any group that I manage and should share the spotlight with the specialists of the world.

One thought on ““Jack of All Trades” – A Good or Bad Thing?

  • 6 May 2010 at 20:05

    The lack of “Jack of all Trades” is actually making people suffer.

    There are not enough General Practioners in medicine right now, only specialists . . . and people’s healthcare is going down hill because of it.

    There is nothing wrong with Jack of all Trades. We are an important part of society.

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