Update concerning COVID-19 – Distance Learning (home study) courses are still available. Find out more about distance learning at Pitman Training

Update concerning COVID-19 – Distance Learning (home study) courses are still available. Find out more about distance learning at Pitman Training

A Jack of All Trades

03/12/18

If somebody came up to you and asked whether you were a Swiss army knife, I’m sure you’d be left bemused and unsure about the relevance of the question. However, in this article I’m going to outline why being a metaphoric Swiss army knife isn’t so bad. As you probably know, the appliance in question contains many tools that come in handy if you were to find yourself in a difficult situation. As a result, no one instrument is at its full size, as it shares a space with many other utensils. Despite this, the Swiss army knife can boast about how many functions it has. This analogy can be applied to people too. We all have areas that we excel in and ones we don’t do quite so well in. Some of us are better at focusing on one specific thing but others can spread themselves over a variety of different areas. We all know that old saying: ‘a Jack of all trades and a master of none’, but is it actually a bad thing?

                The phrase comes from as early as the 14th century, where the name ‘Jack’ would be used for the common man, and the first publication to have included the phrase, ‘Jack of all trades’ came in a series of Geffray Minshull’s essays. Since then, the phrase has gone through significant change, beginning as a colloquialism that simply described a tradesman, to it then becoming derogatory in its connotation, implying that this type of person could never be an expert in a specific field. For centuries, this has been the case and it’s only been up until now that the associations have started to change.

In today’s climate, we see no reason why this phrase can’t be taken positively rather than it being used for highlighting somebody’s flaws. There are many advantages to being a generalist, or a ‘Jack of all trades.’ First of all, you’re able to spread yourself across multiple platforms, still be good at them and can be relied upon to do them right. Secondly, you become a ringmaster of sorts, taking a lead role in what is presented to be at the company.  So being a ‘Jack of all trades’ isn’t so bad, right?

As a whole, leaders in society tend to be the ones that associate themselves with the description of a generalist as they’re the type of person most suited to looking over a variety of things. Equally, being a generalist doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a specialist in anything, it just means you’re more rounded than anyone else! In fact, some would say that to be a generalist, you had to start out as a specialist in something.

It is said that in a fairly small organisation, bosses and senior employees prefer employing generalists. Having generalists in your workforce suggests that they can swap and change between different jobs and are able to do them quickly, making them a good fit for a smaller business with limited resources. For example, the head office team here at Pitman Training has members of staff that do a variety of jobs and can do them very well. Sometimes it’s not the most ideal situation to be in but the jobs still get done. Big businesses tend to recruit specialist employees as they have the scope to do so. However, knowing that you’re a generalist puts you in an advantageous position.

For one, to make a great leader, you often need to be a generalist rather than a master of just one skill. In order to be best placed to manage a full team of people, you need to know a lot about everything rather than be an expert on one thing. So, that leads us on to our first positive aspect of being a generalist:

Leadership

Many generalists fit into a leadership role well because their skills span over a variety of areas and their knowledge of people and tasks are extensive. Rather than focusing their energy on one thing, they’re more likely to divide their strengths to stop them from getting bored. Becoming a manager, senior member of staff, or a general leader suggests that you prefer dealing with an abundance of tasks and issues that arise on a daily basis, as well as managing a group of people (which brings with it its own challenges!) So, having dabbled in various occupations or situations previously, you’ve gained a vast amount of experience which is useful when taking on a leadership role. As a result, you can rely on the experience you have to problem solve and get a range of jobs done.    

Learning

The more things you learn, the better and more open you are at being taught things in the long-run. As a generalist, your craving for knowledge and the want to learn never really stops. Therefore, it’s a time-saver and more efficient to train up existing generalists as they’re more accustomed to taking in information than most people. They’re quick to pick up on things and understand what to do and when. Efficient staff members that are able to take information on board quickly are a dream to have within a team.

Adaptability & Confidence

Much like a chameleon, you can change your colours to suit your surroundings and the situation you’re in. This is much the same with our ‘Jack-of-all-trades’; they can switch their mind-sets to suit the job they’re about to complete. Similarly, the length and breadth of their knowledge suggests they can go into a job or a task with confidence, knowing that they have the scope to complete something to a high standard. Usually, a generalist will jump at any opportunity, making them a valuable member of the team as they can cover many bases and are trusted to complete tasks to a high standard. No matter what field you’re in, or how high up the career ladder you are, it’s always good to be considered a valuable member of staff.

Consequently, it pays to be relatively good at a few things because you can walk into any job or situation with confidence. Knowing you have an arsenal of skills that are required to complete a job can give you an air of self-assurance which is a quality that employers really like to know their employees have. Confidence in abundance!

Job Satisfaction & Variety

Some people would argue that that being a generalist is more fun because of the volatile nature of their responsibilities. You never know what you’re going to do next so every day can be quite the surprise in terms of what you’re meant to be doing. Likewise, you’re constantly doing or learning new things, so there’s never time for you to get bored. Preoccupying yourself with different tasks and new things to learn leaves very little time to think about filling any free time that you may come across. As a generalist, your time is largely taken up by the want and need to learn and participate in new things or by people needing your assistance in something. As a result, this is more likely to give you job satisfaction. However, remain wary. If you’re keen to get involved in a lot of things, and put yourself at the forefront of new projects, you may soon find yourself overloaded with commitments and tasks to complete. Too many responsibilities can lead to a quick burnout with stress becoming a major factor in your working life. Similarly, your focus can shift rapidly form one thing to another when really, it should stay on one thing. For example, if you have a deadline that is pressing, it does no good to take on another time constrained task just because you’re experienced in tackling a particular problem. So, if you know you’ve got a lot of things to be completing, you’re better off trying to maintain your focus on one thing even if it isn’t in your nature to do so.  

Despite this, having interests spanning across multiple specialities suggests that you’re keen to expand your knowledge on many things. You’ll feel fulfilled knowing that you’re doing everything you can to better yourself, your knowledge, and will have the assurance that you have many career paths available to you. Variety really is the spice of life! 

Advantageous

 

Being a generalist brings many more pros than cons to the table. As a specialist, you’re limiting yourself to one thing that may be dependent on that period in time. As a result, the specialist skill may become obsolete. On the other hand, being a generalist leaves you open to the demands of the market and suggests that you can slot into a job role if you’ve got knowledge and have experience in it. Therefore, a generalist is not restricted to one skill and can be safe in the knowledge that they can jump into a role when skills start to become outdated. Don’t worry, a generalist is someone that has an abundance of great working qualities and doesn’t have to rely on the ever-changing nature of time.

 

So, if you’re aspiring to be someone who leads, has knowledge in multiple areas of training and office skills, and is never bored at work then call yourself a Jack of all trades and be proud! You’re more than likely someone who is multi-talented, great with people, and are reliable when a job needs to be done. Additionally, you’re able to see the bigger picture in regards to opportunity, strategy and connecting different parts of the business. Similarly, you’re a non-seasonal employee that is useful no matter what is happening.

Whatever you call yourself; a ‘Jack of all trades, a generalist, or even a Swiss army knife, it makes little difference to the skills you have in your armoury. Own that title and remember this, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none, but oftentimes better than master of one.’

 

A smaller version of this article first appeared in Executive Secretary Magazine, a global training publication and must read for any administrative professional. You can get a 30% discount when you subscribe through us. Visit the website at www.executivesecretary.com to find out more or to get your 30% discount email [email protected] and tell them we sent you.

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