Jack of All Trades
Learned Vol. 2, Issue 1
"What kind of writing do you want to do?"
I had just joined the creative writing club and didn't have an answer. I just wanted to write. I hadn’t thought beyond that. I finally blurted out that I wanted to write short stories and novels and non-fiction books and...
"So, you're like a jack-of-all-trades, then?"
Right. Wait, what? Usually, when we call someone a jack-of-all-trades we mean that they are good at a lot of different things. There’s a second half to the phrase though - master of none - which implies that because the “jack” in question has worked at so many different things, they’re not exceptional at anything.
Take, for example, these two t.v. shows: In the early 2000s, Bruce Campbell starred in a t.v. show called "Jack of All Trades." Campbell played Jack, a spy who could blend in seamlessly just about anywhere because he was, well, a jack-of-all-trades - someone who could do anything well enough to get by. In contrast, the 2015 Aziz Ansari's show "Master of None" takes the opposite tack - Ansari's character is a struggling actor and comedian, someone who hasn't quite mastered any one discipline and is therefore struggling to be good enough to do anything.
Which one had my teacher meant? That I would be able to do many things well? Or that I wouldn’t be able to do anything really well?
When I asked, Mr. K told me of Lazarus Long and this quote:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
In other words, there’s nothing at all wrong with being a jack-of-all-trades. What a relief. I like being a jack-of-all-trades. After all, the entire point of this newsletter was to allow me to keep experimenting and learning new things. And I'm good at, or at least competent at, lots of things. But I wouldn’t call myself an expert at anything…
Two things appear a lot when you start to dive into the idea behind this idiom - the 10,000 hour rule and imposter syndrome.
The 10,000 rule was coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and it suggests that the time needed to become a master, or expert, at any given thing is around 10,000 hours, or roughly three hours of practice a day for ten years. When put in perspective like that, it makes sense. Imagine a mechanic who’s on the job for a decade or so. By the end of that time, you’d expect them to be an expert mechanic.
Here’s the trouble - define expert. If our mechanic has spent all those years repairing lots of different types of cars, does that make them an expert in car repair or a “master of none” because they haven’t specialized in one particular make? Or how about this idea: who do you want repairing your car - the amateur who’s not so experienced but has done nothing but work on this model, or the professional who’s worked with lots of types of cars?
It might be better to look at a tangentially related word: masterpiece. Taken literally, a master's piece was the work an apprentice completed to be considered a master at their craft. How long would it take an apprentice to be able to do this? The answer, of course, is completely variable, but that's one place from which we get the 10,000 hour rule - the idea that we put in time every day over years and get better and better.
Imposter syndrome is what’s being referenced in all those memes and jokes wherein someone, presumably an adult, is looking around for a “better” adult. It’s the idea that, even with training and experience, you don’t feel as though you belong and that you don’t know what you’re doing. Paradoxically, this feeling occurs more often in people who are experts than in people who don’t because experts are often aware of how much they have yet to learn or experience about their field. Given this, many people who might be perceived by others as a master will often downplay their expertise.
Being a jack-of-all-trades is the default mode for most of us, especially in modern times. Whether that's because we need more skills in more areas to get through daily life or because we, as a species, have so much knowledge available to us that knowing any one field to any depth is to acknowledge how much we don't yet know, I'm not sure. I would like to be a master and to that end, I study and I take courses and I write newsletters about it all. The trouble, for me, comes in trying to decide which one thing to become a master in, and so I remain a jack-of-all-trades, but hopefully, also, a master of some.
“Jack of all trades, master of none, but oftentimes better than master of one.”
Jack of All Trades
Definition: a person who is skilled in many different areas
Coined in 1612 by Geffray Mynshul in “Essays and Characters of a Prison”
Derived from Johannes Factotum, or Johnny-do-it-all.
Master of None
Definition: a person who can do many things but is not an expert in any of them
Appended to the previous phrase at a later date (possibly 1785)
Notable Events of the year 1612
Many people are hanged as witches in Northampton and Lancashire, England
The Ottoman and Safavid Empires sign the Treaty of Nasuh Pasha
Thomas Shelton completes his translation of Don Quixote into English
Miyamoto Musashi defeats Sasaki Kojiro in a duel at Ganryujima
You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:
More information can be found on the About page, or by contacting me through email, twitter, or instagram. Thank you for reading.
All About Jack
One question that came up repeatedly in all my reading about “Jack of All Trades” was, why Jack? The most common explanations seemed to be that jack often just meant man or person and that, over time, the phrase became degraded so that man became man with low status. Eventually, man with low status became equated to thing, so that jack was now a catch-all word for small, unimportant item.
This kind of linguistic entropy fascinates me. We see this all over the place in English so that something that once had a common, everyday meaning has become something uglier or more spiteful. Bitch, for example, has gone from a basic term of animal husbandry to, well, you know.
This isn’t unique to English, either. In Japanese, the word kisama has changed from you to you son of a bitch. Written with the characters for lord (as in, person ranking higher than oneself) and the polite suffix (often translated as honored as in honored customer, etc.), the meaning has changed from being a very polite way of addressing someone to, well, the exact opposite.
And, speaking of opposites, we see a lot of that in English as well - words that used to be offensive and are now everything from silly to inane to positive. Golly, for example, used to be blasphemous, scumbag used to mean a used condom, and wicked used to mean, er, wicked.
Next Time: Small town life in a one horse town. That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.