You Don’t Want To Be A Jack Of All Trades

By Daniel Scocco

You probably have already seen a bio like this one on Twitter, LinkedIn or on some other social networking site:

John Doe is a web designer, programmer, SEO consultant, web entrepreneur, author, speaker, business coach, journalist and tech enthusiast.

Not sure about you, but when I come across bios like the one above I immediately conclude two things: 1) the person is not really sure about what she wants to do professionally and 2) she is not going to achieve outstanding results on any of the mentioned fields.

This concept applies to any aspect of our lives, and he is one offline example to illustrate it. I play the saxophone, and I used to study on a local music school. I remember that we had two sax teachers there. One of them had only played the sax his whole life. The other played the sax, but also played violin, guitar, flute, and a bunch of other instruments.

The first teacher was considered a sax master, and as a result he was requested to play around all the time, made a good living from giving private lessons and so on. The other one was seen just as an average player, on all the instruments he played. As a result he struggled to get recognition and financial rewards.

You can find similar stories inside the corporate world, too. There are employees who do a bit of everything. They do some marketing work, move to the finance department, then they spend some months working with the human resources manager and so on. But those usually have a flat career. Employees who are very specialized and deliver outstanding results, on the other hand, usually get promoted and reach leadership positions pretty fast.

If you want to achieve success, therefore, you must specialize in something and be among the best people who do that thing. Sure there are some cases of brilliant people who were the best doing several different things, but that is the exception that confirms the rule.

Great painters only paint.

Great programmers only code.

Great entrepreneurs only build businesses.

Great authors only write.

So on and so forth.

What about you, do you already know what you want to do? If you do, focus all your energies on it and become one of the best people in the world who can do that. If you don’t know yet, well, figure it out instead of trying to do a bit of everything. The least thing you want to become is a jack of all trades. In fact the figure of speech goes like this: “Jack of all trades, master of none.”



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27 Responses to “You Don’t Want To Be A Jack Of All Trades”

  • Alison Kerr

    Your point hits home Daniel. My LinkedIn profile could look similar to the example you gave in some ways. I’ll be giving this some more thought.

    Overall I’m a self-directed learner – that’s the thread running through what I do. I’ve got to focus on what that makes me good at. It has to be creative, involve people, and be something where each project is just a bit different so that I’m still learning. And the answer is…

    For now I’m taking commissions for Twitter background designs as well as writing and designing my own sites. All creative, all involve learning, and all use my background in IT.

  • Phil

    The apparent safer/sensible option is to concentrate all your skills and attention on one area as you will be more likely to succeed. But what do you do when financial turmoil affects your industry or business such as redundancies or recession?? You can only walk up one path and you’ll be walking there with untold competition all fighting for that same job.
    ‘Jacks’ rarely stay long out of work, as they have a broader range to fall back on. Although they may not master all their trades they may master some, more than one, something commonly overlooked or disregarded.

    Besides, just because you settle for one doesn’t mean you’ll become its master. If someone isn’t capable of mastery then that will always be the end result, failure to master.

    My opinion: It depends how good you are with each of your skills: poor, fair, good, excellent, Master. If you can succeed in multiple areas then do so.

    Hail John Doe.

  • muhyar

    I accept him (John Doe) as one of the recommended people to follow

  • Srinivas Kumar

    Good article…

    Even i was trying to do so many things myself and the results werent good or i was postponing important things.

  • Kent @ Leawo

    It is possible to be Jack of two or more trades, as long as you make comparison in your community but across the world. Like the former Microsoft China region CEO Tangju said, “I stand out of my colleagues because my musical talent outperforms the computer geeks while my computer skill outperforms the musicians.” This is also good enough for the commnunity to think high of you, if it is the same purpose of being a master of some walk, irreplaceable, right? I agree one should develop their killer skills but disagree the absolute mono-development. It is risky when the public interest in your only specialty is gone. One should secure more options for himself/herself to live in the rapidly changing world.

  • Dare

    You should have mentioned that this is not good if you do want to be an entrepreneur, one of the most successful entrepreneurs were jacks of many trades…Google = biz + technology and many other tech start ups as well.

    If you are a jack of all trades the positive thing is that you come up with lot of unique ideas and see a lot of things other people won’t see.

  • Fajr

    I agree with this to a certain extent. I think that focus and how well one can focus determines whether one can be successful at many things. While I do agree people should work at becoming good before moving onto another skill set, I also think that mastering one thing can become monotonous and boring. Great post! Certainly made me think about my focus and my “Jackie” of all trades approach.

  • Jonathan Watts

    I think there’s a difference between being a “Jack of All Trades” and just trying new things to get a feel for them. In fact, the latter is almost necessary before you can really know what you want to specialise in. Equally I agree with other posters who say that today’s marketplace calls for well-rounded employees. The budget isn’t there to employ a high number of subject experts so instead requires employees to spread themselves.

    If you really feel that you want to become an expert in something however, be prepared to explain it to your boss when you refuse to work on your weaknesses and instead choose to further enhance your strengths!

  • Brandon Kim

    This is a great article and glad I found it. I’ve always been a jack of all trades, master of none within the IT industry. Specializing is important but also don’t forget everyone is in a different situation. If your boss asks you to do something “somewhat” related, and that means you still keep your job in today’s difficult economy, you may have to spread yourself out.

    Otherwise, be prepared to be let go and hope that your are confident enough in your skillsets that you can land another job quickly.

    Good luck to everyone!

  • Ian Sanders

    Interesting debate.
    As author of a book ‘Juggle! Rethink Work, Reclaim Your Life’ I don’t actually agree with the myth that says ‘Jack Of All Trades, Master Of None’. I think it’s outdated for 2010.
    Whether you work for an organisation or are a freelancer, we are more of an asset to the marketplace if we offer more than one talent. Offering more than one skill makes us more enterprising and also more fulfilled. BUT There are two considerations:
    1) Your talents have to be authentic. If you are only good at one thing, stick to that one thing, don’t bull***t it. BUT if you truly have multi-dimensional talents, then there is no reason your work life cannot reflect that.
    2) You have to be focused and realistic about how much you can juggle. There is nothing worse than a juggler who embraces so many different disciplines, they end up poor at all of them. You have to be very disciplined. You have to be ruthless with time.
    In my book, I feature Gary Vaynerchuk’s story. Gary is a great example of a Juggler. His talents are multi-dimensional: wine expert/ entrepreneur/ video blogger/ brand consultant/ social media evangelist/ author/ speaker. Those talents, and his working life is a reflection of his DNA in all its plurality.
    If you have multi-dimensional talents – explore them. But I’d agree, don’t be a shopping-list i-do-everything-kind-of-guy! Like Gary V, make sure there is a common thread to your plurality…

  • Aglolink

    became one of the best from the better, the choice is difficult for us to choose the path we should follow. Thanks Daniel

  • Curt

    What is success? Is it being rich? Is it being happy? Is it different for everyone?

    I’m a scanner. I like to be a jack of all trades. It keeps things interesting for me. If I focus on one thing I get bored very quickly, even if that one thing is something I am really interested in.

    I believe scanners can be great entrepreneurs because starting out many times requires the business owner to be a jack of all trades. And, quite frankly, knowing a little about a lot of different things makes me much happier than having blinders on, focusing on just one subject.

    I think people are different. I really do understand your point, and sometimes I wish I could find happiness in the pursuit of one single area. I agree that it could be a fast track to success. But alas, that is not who I am and would never be happy trying to fit that mold, and I’m good with that.

  • Julius

    I agree with everything in this post. In addition, I think it won’t hurt to learn a few more skills apart from the one you wish to focus on. You nonetheless have to remember to stick mainly to your first skill.

  • Ryan

    I tend to agree with this Daniel.

    You can be at a few things but really good at one. There’s a time factor here. It takes time and focused energy to master one craft. Divvy up your time to work on multiple skills and you’ll lose your focus.

  • media designer

    While Jack of All Trades may sound like a nasty misnomer of a bygone era, it is much more attractive in a small business setting to be more than a one trick pony. Actually, even in larger businesses, if you have more than one feather in your cap, you become more valuable to the company.
    Analogies aside, I believe the length bio is borne more one of conceit than indecision. A more modest approach would be to summarise and just say you are something like a Media Designer. This means I’m great at what I do, which is come up with ideas and create media that works for the client.
    Oh it’s hard to be humble….!

  • Cecelia

    @Lester

    “In a small company, however, jack-of-all-trades can be exactly what’s needed.”

    Exactly. At my company, I am responsible for a number of tasks in a variety of mediums (magazine, website, E-newsletter, social media, training materials, list goes on).

    I can’t help but feel that my ability to tackle whatever is thrown at me on a daily basis makes me much more valuable to my company.

  • Hulbert

    Nice post Daniel. I agree that being too many things at once usually means not being great at any. I think order to master something, we have to pick a category and stick to it, rather than going in and out of different categories, hoping that by doing this, we will impress others. Thanks for reminding us of this.

  • Cecelia

    At the same time, however, many of those breaking into journalism or media are told that, due to shrinking budgets and newsrooms, it is important to be as well-rounded as possible in order to get a job.

    If you only have enough money to hire one person, would you rather hire someone who only knows how to write (but does it extremely well), or someone who is a decent writer but can also copy edit, help with layout, edit video packages, figure out what’s wrong with the website and interact with readers on Twitter all at the same time?

    I think it ultimately depends on two things: where you are in your career, and what your ultimate career goal is.

    For a young blogger/journalist/layout editor (like myself), I’m not going to have the years of experience to be a master in any one area, so it’s important that I be well rounded if I want to get job.

    But, if your ultimate goal is to be your own boss and develop your individual brand, then that is easier to accomplish when you can focus on one area of expertise.

    Very interesting post.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Chris, usually those lists of skills are focused around one thing aren’t they? For example, a programmer might be required to know several programming languages and have project management skills, but those are all skills that a programmer develops over time. It would be weird if he was also required to have marketing or financial skills, though.

  • Colby

    This is a good wake up call for me. I’ve always been a “jack of all trades master of none” in the corporate world. My current position at work forces me to learn a little bit about everything and if we need a specialist we outsource. However, I’ve always known that in order to be a true success I need to specialize in something.

    The funny part is I do this outside of work (specialize). I usually choose one thing I want to do really well and I work hard at it. Why I haven’t applied this to my career…I have no idea.

    Maybe today will be the first day I begin concentrating on one thing in my career and become the best at that one thing.

  • Lester Smith

    Interesting post.

    I’d agree that focus is increasingly a challenge in our world. And the example Twitter bio is clearly a mess. (I revised my own immediately upon reading this one.)

    I’d also agree that freelancers (on the one hand) and employees of large corporations (on the other) can hamper themselves by seeming too scattered.

    In a small company, however, jack-of-all-trades can be exactly what’s needed. Consider my own position: I’m the resident MLA/APA/CSE-style consultant, social-media manager, tech researcher, sometime Javascript coder, sometime proofreader, and regular member of the writing staff. It is exactly that ability to switch hats that has kept me employed here for 12 years, even through some lean times.

    In my spare time, I’m president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, head of a micropublishing house, and a member of the professional hobby-game community.

    All of these things intersect in some fashion, of course–they all involve publishing, more specifically writing and editing. And I suppose that proves your point about presenting a focus.

    Thanks for the opportunity to think this through a bit.

    Cheers!

  • Leah

    Great advice–thanks! I need this reminder–frequently. I’m a writer–have always been a writer, in one way or another. But then there are bills to pay and so many interesting things to do and pressure from other people or what I think I should be doing or the advantages of something else calls me. I am a Jane of all trades and almost a master of quite a few, but the time is now to stop the crap and FOCUS and become a master of one big thing.

    What is my passion? What am I most qualified to write about that will be helpful to people? How do I most enjoy doing that? New blog is under development 🙂

    Thanks much for the reminder!

    Leah

  • Eric C

    Writer. My focus is launching a writing career, and blogging is the medium you have to start at now, in today’s world. Someone else designed our blog, and I wouldn’t know how to consult if someone asked me to. But that’s not what I want to do, I want to write, and have my work get read.

    The cool thing is that it is actually happening now.

    I loved this post. Really funny way to pick out somethign people are doing.

  • Pascal

    I just want to be an entrepreneur. Not as business man, rich. But I just now start with learning things to become an entrepreneur. I chose blogging to know how online things work, how we can convince people, how to build trust, how to think out-of-the-box etc. Still now, in my 2 months experience of blogging, i have learned so much about what i want to become. Hope i will make it soon.

  • Chris Rodgers

    This is a challenge though. So many employers have a laundry list a mile long of skills they want you to know for a potential job. How do you stay focused on one specific thing while still being viable in the marketplace?

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Andrew,

    I know it is not easy to pin down what you want to do, but that is a question you got answer alone.

    Helping other people make an income via blogging seems focused enough to me.

  • Andrew @ Blogging Guide

    Took me ages to decide ‘what I was’ and even now I think it could still be more ‘deeper’.

    I help people make an income via blogging but that covers a wide range of subjects…so I struggle with this.

    It’s got me thinking…which is good I suppose.

    Anyone..any thoughts?

    Thanks.

    Andrew

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