Jack of All Trades or Master of One?

We all know the saying: jack of all trades, master of none. For those who don’t know, the phrase refers to someone who dabbles in many areas but does not master any. The saying makes sense overall; the more we spread our focus and talents, the less energy we have to put into any one task. Hence, we know a lot of trades but we master none of them. But is that truly the case nowadays, especially for writers? Do we really have to choose between being a jack of all trades or mastering one?

I’m sure that, by now, you’ve read some variation of the article on Business Insider which lists the fifteen habits of self-made millionaires. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. Even if those habits won’t work for you, it makes for a fascinating read.

These habits include developing multiple sources of income.

This concept is not exactly the same as dabbling in multiple trades–after all, investing in stocks can be considered a source of income but not necessarily a “trade” like we are discussing here–but some of the reasoning can apply to both. In earning money, the wider you cast your net, the more you’re likely to bring in. The same is true with trades and hobbies. The more we do, the more experiences and skills we gather.

Does that mean it’s better to be a jack of all trades than a master of one? Not necessarily.

Can you be a success AND a value in multiple areas at once?

Image retrieved from LinkedIn

If we spread ourselves too thin, we will have neither the energy nor the focus to really complete any task competently. Let’s say that you’re trying to write a novel, edit a project for a client, write a blog review of the latest episode of American Horror Story, and dabble in a traditional 9-to-5 job at Barnes and Noble. I’m guessing you’re exhausted just thinking about it; I know I am. Odds are that you won’t get all of this done in the same week. Heck, balancing it all within the same month plus your daily social and familial obligations would be a stretch. We can’t do it all without burning ourselves out.

I learned this lesson early on, although I probably haven’t heeded it too well since my first experience. In high school, I tried to do it all: zero-period Physics, AP Calculus, Yearbook, leadership (a class, basically a form of student government with volunteering mixed in), student representative to the school staff, school liaison to the school board and city council, and a weekend volunteer at a local museum. I was incredibly overwhelmed, and it was this period in my life which really sparked my anxiety and stomach problems. (There were issues at home which made it worse, too.) I don’t like looking back at that time out of embarrassment and a feeling of failure. Frankly, I’m not sure how I made valedictorian.

In addition to causing us to explore things superficially, too much dabbling and multitasking can kill us inside. As I said in my workaholics post, writers tend to work too hard because we’re a bit addicted to it. Still, that habit of being a jack of all trades can wear us down.

Does that mean that we should only master one trade? Again, not necessarily.

The experiences and skills which we gather from our other trades and hobbies feed into the trades we master. For me, the trades I am attempting to master are writing and literature. In particular, I focus on fiction and academic creative writing. However, I have other hobbies and trades which fuel these two. I workshop and proofread other writers’ manuscripts, which helps me to strengthen my self-critiquing skills. I review published books, which forces me to see books simultaneously as a reader and a writer. Oddly enough, I also dabble into business concepts. I don’t try to master business or anything like that; I’m just fascinated by everything behind it, from finding the break-even point to marketing and promotion. This interest makes me better prepared to promote my own work, as well as the work of those I review and critique.

Being a jack of all trades does not always mean you’re a master of none, not in this day and age. You have to tread lightly and balance every aspect of your life very carefully, but you can still dabble in multiple areas and master one or two. As with reading and writing diversely, sharpening your skills with multiple trades and hobbies can teach you lessons which you then bring back to your main focus. Rather than one or the other, I think that all well-rounded people, writers especially, must be both a jack of all trades and a master of one (or some).


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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