“Jack of all trades, master of none” is a phrase used to describe someone who’s broadly skilled but lacks depth of knowledge in one area.
Often it’s abbreviated. When someone says “Jack of all trades”, we mentally add the second part.
It’s a put-down. A slight on the subject’s character.
Or is it?
In Elizabethan England, Johnny Do-it-all was a popular phrase – or Johannes Factotum in Langlish, the hybrid Latin-English of the period.
One of the most notable uses of Johannes Factotum was in 1592, when Robert Greene wrote dismissively of a young actor-turned-playwright. That playwright’s name was William Shakespeare.
Clearly, Greene didn’t feel Shakespeare capable of mastery of both acting and writing. And yet, by all accounts, Shakespeare was a gifted actor who ran a successful theatre company. His ability to write is beyond question.
By the 17th century, Johnny Do-it-all had become Jack of all trades. And it seems that the phrase had turned from an insult into a commonly used complement.
Then it changed again, when the words ‘master of none’ were added to the phrase.
Fast forward to 1964. I have a watch that was my maternal grandfather’s. He was given the watch in appreciation of 45 years of service to a company that imported German machinery.
After 45 years, I am certain that my grandfather knew pretty much everything there was to know about importing, selling and using this machinery.
Today, very few people stick in a single job for 45 years. Whilst many people switch from employer to employer in the same sector, you’d have friends who have jumped from sector to sector.
In my grandfather’s world, that promiscuity indicated career instability. It was a liability.
Today, it’s an asset.
Get more original ideas
New ideas are born when two unconnected facts are connected. Someone from outside a sector will bring ideas from past jobs and see connections not readily visible to long-term practitioners.
Every business needs ideas. The ability to generate new ideas becomes harder as your specialist knowledge grows. For new ideas, you need new blood (either employee or consultant).
Some companies achieve the same result by playing musical chairs. By changing staff seating arrangements, they change every employee’s immediate neighbours. Half of all interactions at work are with people in your immediate vicinity. If these intermingled staff members have diverse skills, there’s a good idea that an original idea will be the result.
Become more adaptable
Someone who jumps from sector to sector learns how to reapply accumulated skills to each new sector.
I am grateful for decades in advertising, where I worked on products as diverse as luxury hotels, feminine hygiene, whisky, tyres and corporate governance. I gained the agility I needed to jump from product to product and audience to audience.
Technology is changing every business’s playing field constantly. The ability to adapt to change is critical.
Solve more problems
Experience in a field leads to expertise. Expertise and ego are common bedmates. Experts are notorious for missing the obvious. Someone new to a sector is free to ask naïve questions, the kind that often lead to “eureka!” moments, the kind an expert’s ego wouldn’t permit.
Create more opportunity
The same expertise that hinders problem solving also blocks the creation of opportunities. Eight electrical engineers searching for new applications for a flexible circuit board will search for ideas in that part of their brains where their electrical engineering knowledge is stored. They have searched these same files hundreds of time before. They’ll find nothing new.
Learning how to shift focus is easier than you might imagine. There are many techniques that accelerate the process. They also work to cancel our brain’s natural tendency to stick to tried and tested ideas and comfortably familiar territory.
What happens with practice is that you become master of any sector you choose to focus on. You find solutions and opportunities that elude peers and competitors. You avoid being an expert in a redundant industry.
You’re not a master in the sense of someone who has plied a trade for decades. You’re a master in the sense that you call the shots. Your big ideas become the innovations that shift a sector off its complacent axis.