Sunday, January 9, 2000 (SF Examiner)
"Jack of all trades" should be a mark of distinction
Kathleen Mitchell, SPECIAL TO THE EXAMINER

When people self-describe their experience as "Jack of all trades and master of none," they appear to recognize their range of interests and abilities, but they feel ashamed that they lack specialization. Many people have incorrectly used this phrase to demote their experience and to promote a false belief that mastery precedes action.

The expression "Jack of all trades" was first cited in the 1600s as a complimentary description of people who had the talent, creativity and motivation to perform a vast range of work. They were admired for their flexibility and not bound by narrow job descriptions. They were eager to learn and to acquire numerous skills. Their experience taught them to work with a wide range of people and to perform a variety of job duties.

In the late 1800s, "master of none" was added to the expression, making it a negative label. America was becoming increasingly industrialized, with people moving from home-based businesses to factories, where work became more and more specialized. People had set job duties and working with repetition was a valued skill. Predictability and working within boundaries formed the work culture.

In today's work force, especially in technology, goals and job descriptions are often created through immediate motion rather than distant and linear planning. Workers are asked to be generalized specialists. Employers abhor the expression "it's not my job" and seek workers who are flexible and willing to learn.

Expressions like multitask, multiservice and cross-functional have replaced strict job descriptions. The walls separating quality control from manufacturing are crumbling as companies recognize that success builds as input broadens. Custom-built orders are replacing large inventories. In other words, we appear to be returning to a work world that values "Jack of all trades and master of none."

In a recent interview, the retiring chief of Hewlett-Packard, Lewis Platt, remarked that although he did not always have the skills of those he was managing, he was able to "learn to work through people, listen and appreciate their opinion." Throughout his career, he did not need to be a specialist to make decisions or to understand and manage those who where.

For individuals considering a career change, the expression "Jack of all trades and master of none" has particular importance. So often we delay trying something new until we can be absolutely certain that we can master all required tasks. Consequently, we take no action to learn something new.

It is not always necessary to be a master to learn or to build a career. The story of Sam's career is a good example of a generalist who became a generalized specialist.

Sam decided to come to the United States to begin a new life. He arrived in San Francisco with no job and no friends. He obtained a job at a hardware store, where he was assigned to sell plumbing parts.

One day, a customer approached Sam and asked, "Hey, do you know how to solder?"

"Sure," Sam responded, "why are you asking?"

"Well, I have a big job starting tomorrow, and I need some people who know how to solder."

"Yeah, sure, I can solder. Where do I meet you tomorrow?"

The customer told Sam when and where to meet.

After the customer left, Sam approached his co-worker and said, "How long will it take you to teach me to solder?" In a matter of hours, Sam became an expert in soldering.

The next day, Sam did very well on the job. He was asked back and soon became the assistant to the plumber. Sam learned plumbing and eventually started his own business.

Sam began his business the same way he learned to solder - he asked a lot of questions, and was willing to learn from whoever would teach him. Sam was not blocked by the erroneous belief, "I must be perfect at something before I can try it." He believed in his ability to learn. He asked for guidance, and he continued to learn from others and from his experiences.

Sometimes mastery and expertise can deny us an opportunity to try something new. If we wait to be perfect before we try, we will create few opportunities.

All careers have a beginning step. The first step is not always connected to the next. Our work experience need not always follow a linear plan. Sometimes the actions we take generate opportunities that we could not possibly predict.

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Copyright 2000 SF Examiner