Jack of all trades…master of none?

You’ve probably heard the saying, “jack of all trades, master of none.” It suggests that if you diversify your skill set, you’ll never develop expertise in anything. What if this conventional wisdom — which has guided the education and career decisions of so many — is actually flat out wrong? Are we selling ourselves short in our business and personal lives by exalting the goal of becoming an expert?

These questions hit home for me. You probably know me as a lawyer, but I also develop iOS applications, write original music, geek out over digital marketing strategy, and get into random DIY projects like building guitars from scratch. Sometimes I get the vibe that people take me less seriously when I tell them about these unrelated interests. It’s made me wonder, is a jack of all trades really a master of nothing?

I think the answer is no, and here are a few reasons why.

Mastery has diminishing returns.
There’s been plenty of discussion in recent years, be it the 10,000 hours principle or the 80/20 rule, that reaching the absolute top of your field requires a huge time investment. In contrast, you can become pretty darn good at something — perhaps even a “master” — in a much shorter timeframe.  As one author put it, “you can always develop a deeper familiarity with the minutiae, asymptotically approaching mastery. But this is a process with diminishing returns. Would you rather carve a door 1% better than you did last year, or learn how to build the rest of the house in the same amount of time?”  The jacks of all trades can have their cake and eat it too: on the one hand, developing a set of abilities that is both deep and wide; on the other hand, avoiding the diminishing returns that come with perfecting a single art.

Speaking multiple languages is useful.
Experts speak fluently in their own professional language, but often lack even a basic vocabulary outside their field. What happens, then, when an expert needs to explain something to a non-expert?

The jack of all trades can overcome the language barrier and help experts in different fields work together effectively.  Bridging the gap between subjects is a skill itself that can make jacks of all trades indispensable to their colleagues.

A jack of all trades finds creative solutions.
While experts may lack the nimbleness to reach outside their toolboxes when solving a problem, jacks of all trades can think outside the bounds of a single field. They can even spot when the question being asked isn’t the right question. And best of all, they can pull in all the experts they need to implement their solution.

Jacks of all trades…at law.
There’s no doubt that my legal career has benefited from my experiences in other fields. As an example, I’ve been able to facilitate projects between lawyers and IT professionals because I speak geek. My background working in marketing helps me give holistic advice to trademark clients that accounts for both legal and branding issues. And my love of learning motivates me when I’m poring through long, tedious statutes.

Lawyers love to ask other lawyers, “what kind of law do you practice?” Behind that question lies a bias toward specialization. No doubt there’s value in specialization. No doubt that lawyers will keep asking each other that question. But I hope that in our field, we don’t encourage specialization to the detriment of curiosity and well-roundedness. Those traits make us better at serving our clients, and they also make us more interesting people.

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