Jack of all trades?

Whether a person is a “jack of all trades and a master of none” depends on how you define trades. The same person could be a dilettante or a specialist depending on your mental categories.

Take an expert programmer back in time 100 years. What are his skills? Maybe he’s pretty good at math. He has good general problem solving skills, especially logic. He has dabbled a little in linguistics, physics, psychology, business, and art. He has an interesting assortment of knowledge, but he’s not a master of any recognized trade.

Is a manager a master of one trade or a jack of several trades? Obviously if you recognize management as a profession, then someone who is good at it is a master of that trade. But if you don’t have the mental category of manager, what is a manager good at? She knows a little psychology, a little sociology, a little math, she has good communication skills, etc. But she’s a jack of all trades and master of none unless you have a name for her trade.

Calling someone a jack of all trades could be a way of saying that you don’t have a mental category to hold what they do.

Related post: Too much time on their hands

9 thoughts on “Jack of all trades?

  1. I call myself a jack of many trades, and a master of none. I am young for one thing (25) and have done a variety of things, but no one thing long enough yet to be considered a master. Perhaps also I have just not found or created my master trade? For example I am having a really hard time finding a graduate program that I want to attend, not because I cannot find ones that I could do, but because I cannot find one I would really enjoy.

    I have done and enjoy History, Math, Science, Programming, Design, Drama, etc… But I am no master at any and although good in all the areas not any one in particular to focus on nor would I want to. (nor currently have any prospects of getting an MA in one either.)

    Anyway all that to say I like the term jack of all/most trades and master of none and like that that is me, but at the same time it makes it difficult to get a descent paying enjoyable job.

  2. I understand that the added, usually derisive “master of none” was not in the thought of the original phrase (origin attrib. to the 1610s).

  3. Interesting point. Maybe this is why the term “Data Scientist” is so popular: it creates a new category to describe the skill set of people who are a hybrid of programmer and statistician.

  4. This line struck me:

    Calling someone a jack of all trades could be a way of saying that you don’t have a mental category to hold what they do.

    Too often in society today we seek ways to categorize people; a programmer, a writer, a musician, etc. I think it stems from the industrial revolution and the increased focus on specialization and division of labor. People were reduced to cogs in a machine that could be easily replaced so long as their skill profile was narrow.

    To succeed nowadays you need to be well-versed in a variety of disciplines: business, design, maths, sociology. A way around this is to form teams where each person is good at one of those things and you collaborate. That is still the preferred method of operation for corporations. But I have noticed a trend emerging. Increasingly people have cross-disciplinary interests. College grads no longer want to be pigeon-holed into a single-function role. To borrow from the above quote, there is no category to put these young people in. Perhaps the best description out there now is ‘entrepreneur’ as it covers anything and everything required to fulfill the entrepreneur’s vision.

    The jack of all trades is here to stay and being able to cross disciplines and fuse concepts from different areas will lead to new and better ways of looking at things. We need to embrace this and reward people who try. Being happy in your isolated world, doing one thing without seeing the big picture isn’t going to help humanity. We need a new mental category.

  5. human mathematics

    To say that a manager is a combination of psychology, sociology, math, and communication is itself a categorisation: the categories are academic departments.

    Regarding sending the CS’tist back 100 years: did you read the Wilmott piece “A Quant in King Arthur’s Court”?

  6. human mathematics

    Your point about joat & categories is great to keep in mind when asking someone what they do for a living, or what their life objectives are. What would a truly original person tell you s/he was creating, if s/he were being honest? “What I’m building, you don’t have words for.”

  7. Venkat Rao has a recent post (much longer) on similar themes.

    I don’t know whether either of you knows the other’s blog yet, but I think you would like each other. I’m leaving the same comment on his.

  8. I think Douglas Hofstadter is a great for-instance here. Who had heard of “cognitive science” (computer science + psychology + philosophy) before G.E.B.?

    I’m also reminded of an advert I saw in “Entrepreneur” magazine for a franchise called SportsCuts. Byline: “We invented the mens’ and boys’ sports haircut category.”

    Doug also invented his own category.

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