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Having skills in many different areas is pretty awesome right? It means you are extremely versatile and can take on a variety of projects from different angles. Why wouldn’t that be a great quality to have? Well, someone who lived in the 18th century thought it wasn’t such a good quality. Ever heard the phrase “Jack of all trades: master of none?” The latter part of this phrase was tacked on to create a negative connotation, saying there is someone better than you at every single thing you do. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Or can it be such a unique skill in its own right to adapt to any project?
As a person who can never seem to master one skill, I can speak from experience that this is a personality type and a way of life. It’s apparent that the people who we call “jack of all trades” or “do-it-alls” or “renaissance people” or “well-rounded” all have something in common: we have microscopic attention spans. In childhood years we have an extremely difficult time adhering to a school schedule, sitting still in class, or reading in large amounts. Very often, we will be categorized as a troublemaker, or a problem child with too much energy, or even diagnosed with a learning disability. Long story short: we must work at the pace our brain is thinking rather than stick to someone else’s curriculum. It’s not that we get bored too easily, it’s really that the inspiration ball gets passed somewhere else and we passionately follow it wherever it goes, no matter how incomplete our previous task was. This creates a pattern of starting projects without ever finishing them. Along with the unfinished project, this cuts the skill-learning process short, and we may never reach the intermediate or advanced level.
I once went to a networking event shortly after launching Grue & Bleen LLC. At events like this, the most common question that you will ask and answer is “What do you do?” or “What’s your job description?” Since I was a starting partner and represented the entire creative department of a digital marketing agency, my job description was literally a 2 page list of different titles and duties. When someone asked me the inevitable question, my answer was “I’m a designer.” She said, “That doesn’t mean anything... what type of design?” I said, “well I sort of do everything.” After watching her confused look, I started to dig a little further down into a subcategory. “I’m a web designer.” Then she said, “There’s no such thing. You can’t just be a web designer. You can be a UX designer, UI designer, front end developer, content strategist, SEO specialist, information technician…etc.” At the time, I never really heard those terms so I asked her to elaborate. As she went on to explain each of those subcategories of the web design industry, I replied with “Oh yeah, I do all of those!” Her response was “Well you’re probably not that good at them.”
Needless to say, that networking conversation didn’t really make me feel good about myself or my skill set. Was she right? Why shouldn’t I just specialize in one aspect rather than spending all my time and energy learning everything if that holds no value? The answer came from my partners in the company: “Whatever it is that you are doing, no matter what you title it, it’s working.” And it’s true. It always has worked in every project I do when I work alone. Whether it’s writing, directing, acting in, editing, or publishing a short film all by myself…. or arranging, performing, recording, mixing, and mastering original tracks for a musical album, I get the job done. The process works smoothly, the creative flow is 100% on my schedule, and it makes logistical sense to work alone in order to complete my vision. I don’t have to try to explain to a technician, actor, or musician the abstract idea that I have and how their role fits into it, while getting multiple performances that don’t capture what I’m going for.
If there’s a task that must be done, or a masterpiece in mind, some people need to just do it themselves! Why? It’s simple really: relying on other people can be extremely frustrating and, at times, unproductive. Granted, some things are impossible to do all by yourself, but if it’s at all possible to fill in the pieces of the puzzle myself, I will learn how. What?? After all those boring classes I doodled during throughout grade school, I actually want to learn now?? To me, learning is not about getting good grades or doing what I’m told, but about how I can apply something that is relevant to me. Some people love to challenge themselves by studying hard, getting into honors programs, and receiving academic awards. The DIY-ers love the challenge of giving themselves a task and then choosing the necessary topics to study and learning to accomplish that goal. When you do it yourself, you start with what you know, and then you fill in the holes. There will always be knowledge gaps, even in a repeated task, and therefore the learning process never stops. The difference between this method of learning and traditional education is that your curriculum is constantly being altered to fit the task rather than altering your task to fit the curriculum.
School teaches you how to pick a subject to study, learn it from basic to advanced, go further into that field to master a subcategory, and then finally specialize in a more specific version of that subcategory until you are the best in that particular field. Knowledge in one subject is very easy to measure and therefore, creates a system that streamlines the job-hiring process. When you are a person who doesn’t specialize in one thing, it does make it very difficult to fit into the workforce. How can one compete with 100 people who have 10 years experience in the subject that is also the name of the job description?? I guess that’s why I am now part of my own company: my abilities have a different value than I am able to express on paper for hiring managers to read.
The reason why what I am doing works is because of my adaptability to any type of creative task. As a startup company, every project we would work on in the beginning, was uncharted territory. I was forced to problem solve in such a strategic manner, combining everything I knew about every art medium I ever tried. The combination of thousands of different skill set basics (from fixing a door to engineering a pop-up book) creates a subconscious powerhouse of problem solving capabilities impossible to teach in any class. That value has no definitive measurement and is the reason for the struggle with grading systems, resumes, and general recognition.
The notion of focusing on “who’s the best”, in my mind, wastes valuable time. I’m not saying that a little healthy competition isn’t a good thing, I am just explaining why I personally choose to stay out of the race, because it is what works for me and keeps me productive.
Firstly, there will always be someone “better” at some point in time or in a far away place. Secondly, the constant pursuit can cause you to lose sight of your actual personal goal because it can turn into ego-driven pride of beating someone. Thirdly, once you become the “best,” is that enough? For people like us, our short attention spans stand no chance with others’ tenacious will to win. That is why we quickly lose interest in the competitive element and work on something else that interests us. We may seem like we are incapable of focusing or sitting still, but what actually happens to us is that we get hyper-focused on the task at hand until we need to switch gears. The misconception of being unable to concentrate happens simply because we are choosing when to concentrate and when to let our minds relax, and that doesn’t happen on other people’s demands.
Being the “best” painter, or musician, or singer, or writer, or photographer, means absolutely nothing to us. Even if we became world renowned for one thing, odds are we would stop doing that for a while and pursue something else. The mastery of one topic can take more than a lifetime and that just doesn’t work for us! What really matters to us is being our most productive selves that we can be, and that means exploring and learning as much as we can in our short time on this world. Though it is true we may be “masters of none,” our portfolio diversity and general approach gives us a unique ability that has just as much value as a master of one.