In Praise Of The Jack Of All Trades

A third attempt at a single 260 penguin, with a beak, two little flippers, a fat belly, that stands up. Interpretations vary widely, but kids don't quibble about such details. Photo and balloon by Don Tai

A third attempt at a single 260 penguin, with a beak, two little flippers, a fat belly, that stands up. Interpretations vary widely, but kids don’t quibble about such details. Photo and balloon by Don Tai

I am who I am, and that is a “Jack of all trades” and master of none. Not that I’m complaining, because I’ve been this way all my life. While it has often been to my disadvantage in certain situations, after trying to specialize I naturally revert to muddling through, good enough, then after seeing the shiny new penny, I get distracted and move in a different direction. Do this enough times and you’ll not convince yourself you can stay on the single path and go deep.

Don’t get me wrong, as there’s nothing wrong with the diversification of knowledge. The more you know about everything, or so I think, the better. This is a typical “Jack” viewpoint. As I’m working on specific knowledge acquisition I often turn up a couple more areas to explore. You then need to prioritize the numerous permutations of pathways and decide which path to go down and for how long. You then do a tree branch traversing of sorts. I am loath to cut a pathway off until I am sure it will lead nowhere. This can be a difficult decision because a lack of knowledge will lead to hesitation.

I’d rather be wide than deep in most subjects, but often I get mired down into both wide and deep. As you dig down into the deep, the innate researcher in me takes over and, before you know it, you’ve spent countless hours digging and learning knowledge that in hindsight you really don’t need. Oh, please, I have yet to really learn how not to go down so deep.

Wide knowledge is important to me. If you were to ever get stuck on a desert island and needed to survive, a person who is a “Jack”” would become very handy. He’ll know to pitch shelter first, then look for wood for the fire, and then a water source, etc. A specialized person would retort “But I only know Pascal…” What will the knowledge of Pascal help you on a desert island? And which Pascal, the scientist or the computer language?

Being wide allows you to pull knowledge from a wide variety of sources and come up with a new solution, one that others have never thought of before. Often times nature has beat us to a truly splendid solution that we cannot see but is right before our eyes. Do you think these novel solutions simply appear out of the ether? no, they percolate up from various stores of knowledge that happen to make themselves useful at the right time and the right place.

“Jacks” do have an issue with the specialist community. The specialist is looking for another specialist, someone who is narrow and deep, one that says “yes, I know any and everything about Pascal going back to, well, the time of Pascal”. As a result, “Jacks” get viewed as incompetent and lacking in deep knowledge, and this would be true if it wasn’t for a “Jack”s ability to learn and become specialist enough. Enough knowledge, learnable given some time. Yet often the specialist passed the “Jack” on by, in their continued search for yet another specialist.

This is unfortunate, because you really should have a mix of a few “Jacks” and a lot of specialists on a team. With diversity comes novel solutions and flexibility of thought. With only specialists there is somewhat more rigidity. If every member on a team is narrow and deep, do you think there will be much of a wide view? Narrow knowledge leads to narrow solutions.

Life goes on. It is not that I will ever change. Maybe because of impatience, or that I get distracted so easily, but I’ll always naturally gravitate to the wide and good enough depth, or sometimes the wide and deeper depth, but never the narrow and very deep.

When you’re next alone on a desert island, remember me.

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