Jack of all Trades

This week I’ll be changing the oil in my car. Together with changing a tire, that’s about the extent of my knowledge of car maintenance. But I bring it up as evidence for an attitude that I’ve built my life around, for better or worse, which is the attitude that I can do just about everything myself.

But sometimes I find myself questioning the goal of being a Jack of all trades. For the most part it works out well. I like knowing a little bit about everything, I like being able to contribute to the conversation no matter what that conversation is about. I like being at least reasonably capable, which means I don’t have to pay somebody to change my oil or swap out a light fixture.

From time to time, though, I feel the weight of what I don’t know. Being good at everything but great at nothing is useful, but it’s also a crutch. Instead of competing directly with people, I am willing to give ground in one area knowing I can potentially outshine them in another. It also makes it really hard to delegate tasks to others because a lot of the time I feel like I can do just as good of a job myself.

Luckily, I can take comfort in knowing that if there is a field that rewards generalists, it’s design. I’ve read interviews with many admired designers, and many advise to take on different hobbies because that’s where the “outside the box” thinking comes from. It’s tough to stay motivated, though, because the advantages of being a specialist are so clear cut. Being a specialist is hard work, but it earns you a precise skill set and a defined role on a team. To be a generalist is to perpetually invest in potential and sometimes intangible utility.

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