Have you ever worked with someone who seems to be capable of doing everything, even the tasks outside of their expertise?
They are often known as the Jack of all trades.
Meet John, he’s a talented graphic designer and he wants to open his own art studio. He then learned how to manage the studio’s financial performance, how to promote his service through marketing and advertising, and how to close deals with potential clients. John was expected to be a Jack of all trades the moment he turned into an entrepreneur.
What about a corporate professional who doesn’t quite have a primary skill? Does being a Jack of all trades work in favor of their employer?
Some people label these generalists as “master of none”. But there are always two sides to a coin, so let’s explore the pros and cons of being the Jack of all trades.
Deep knowledge vs. broad knowledge: Which is better?
Before we could give either side its evaluation, we must first ask: “Which field requires learners to master only a specific skill set and which field allows them to pick up several different skills that complement one another?”
John, the graphic designer from the previous scenario, decided to learn everything about entrepreneurship because he believed that it made sense to know how to run his own business single-handedly.
Now meet Emma, she’s a mass communication graduate who’s in search for her first job. She landed a position of junior writer at a small agency. After working for a while, she had a chance to pick up additional experience that was related to her major, for example, social media marketing. While brushing up on her writing styles, Emma has also acquired a handful of other skills that later got her a promotion to become a senior marketer. In this case, Emma chose to gain a broad understanding of smaller branches of her field to become a well-rounded professional.
From the two scenarios, we can see that those who want to know a little about things beyond their expertise have clearly identified their end-goals and how they can utilise the knowledge to their advantage.
Except for some distinct fields of study, such as doctoral specialist or linguistic, there are many sectors within an industry that you can (and should) learn about. It also helps to familiarise yourself with various areas to assist you to fulfil your career goals.
In brief, there is no single way of acquiring knowledge that is more beneficial than the other. It’s really up to you to choose what area(s) that you wish to specialise in and how in depth your focus is.
For those who believe that being a Jack of all trades will hinder your growth in a specific professional area, the truth is you can still master a particular subject while developing extensive skills in addition to what you already use in your line of work because the human learning capacity is boundless.
Here are three questions to help you decide if being a multifaceted employee will warrant career advancement:
- What skills or knowledge do I want to pick up?
- How will they complement my current job?
- What do I expect to gain (or do) from learning those skills?
The pros and cons of being a Jack of all trades
Cons: You may lose the opportunity to become a developed talent if you aimlessly jump into various other fields. The only desirable Jack of all trades is someone who can combine all of his expertise to achieve the optimum result for a business.
When considering the “opportunity cost” of doing something, it is agreeable that mastering the tasks that we’ve set out to do will bring more value.
Bonus: Investopedia’s explanation of opportunity cost.
Since you can’t be certain about how fast will it take to learn new skills, you are essentially sacrificing the time that you could use to polish those that you have already obtained. In that sense, you need to evaluate the weight of every area that you want to focus on. Such an assessment will enable you to determine whether or not a single skill is sufficient for your (career) needs.
Let’s bring back John the designer. Had John decided to find a business partner to help handle the logistic and financial aspects of his new art studio, he would’ve had more time to perfect his artwork.
Intuitively, we think that it makes more sense for John to level up his designing skills to sell more artwork. So being a Jack of all trades could eventually backfire on his art-entrepreneurial dreams. Perhaps, John should have approached learning business skills on an operative level, rather than getting his hands dirty with everything.
From an employer’s point of view, it may be more cost-effective to find a candidate who is capable of multitasking. However, there’s still a need to justify that person’s ability to deliver the results that are expected of them.
While the debate over the practicality of learning about everything is subjective, in some cases, being a generalist is a job itself.
Pros: Having experiences in different fields help you discover your true passion. The more you know, the better you’ll understand how the specialists work, which is essential if you aim to become the manager or even to run your own business.
Some of the occupations that require a general knowledge of various subjects are office administrators, operation executives, office managers, marketing professionals, you name it, and they all have something in common: overseeing every aspect that contributes to the organisation’s end goals.
In fact, being a Jack of all trades during an early stage of your career will allow you to explore different functions in the industry. From there, you can decide which career path to take based on the hands-on experience that you are armed with from the beginning.
So embrace every learning opportunity that comes your way, it is always good to expand your horizon in any way possible. Whether you become an expert at everything doesn’t matter, the prize is the knowledge itself.