The old saying “jack of all trades, master of none,” is almost always used with negative connotations. It usually means a person lacks the focus needed to stick with anything long enough to become truly good at it, but many folks chastise a person with this saying before seeing see how their work actually comes to fruition.
Being a “jack of all trades” can actually be a good thing. It gives us the unique ability to learn about different working practices and corners of our world; if we’re smart, we’ll figure out how to orchestrate what we’ve learned into a much bigger business and become the “masters” of our own creation.
It’s important to note that everyone has their different gifts. The trick is knowing where we truly excel. I remember a certain brilliant CEO I used to work with who was always under constant, quiet ridicule by her junior staff members. She was older and not exactly savvy when it came to computers… despite running an internet business. “How did her business ever take off?” people would scoff. “She only types with two fingers!” They’d go on about all the stuff she didn’t know. And yet, none of them were big picture thinkers able to dream up and execute in the way this woman had. She thought big and put the right pieces together.
When we take the time to learn what’s out there, whether we stick to it or not, it informs our creativity, fuels our innovation, and heightens our ability to use cross functional thinking to our advantage.
According to Bruna Martinuzzi, President of Clarion Enterprises, the key thing that sets one business leader apart from another is their willingness to learn and keep learning. Not only about their business and its different areas, but diverse skills, such as studying a language, playing an instrument, taking up psychology, or developing unusual hobbies. Every string we add to our bow serves to make us deeper, more rounded people capable of tackling challenging situations.
Focusing on just one niche area can be detrimental to big-picture thinking. We’ve all met someone who is super smart in their area of expertise, but can’t hold a normal conversation at dinner about politics, human habits, technology, or any other area. These people are at a significant disadvantage for innovation’s sake because oftentimes they can’t think outside their bubble or empathize with their target customers. They can’t predict trends, pain points or needs and don’t have the necessary tools to motivate their workforce.
Joe McCann, CEO of NodeSource, took an unconventional road to get where he is today. He was 15 years old when the only other pizza cook at his Mississippi restaurant broke his arm, and he had to work double shifts… 38 days in a row. He says: “It taught me a lot about hard work, working hard and working smart. I do believe working the dredges of the service industry is something almost everyone should do. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat those who are serving them.”
After working around the clock dishing up pizza, Joe dropped out of Reed college (the same one that Steve Jobs left) and starting working as a shoe salesperson for Nordstrom. The very definition of a jack of all trades, Joe began to diversify his skills and use what he learned in the service industry to start a production company, throwing raves at a local speakeasy. He went on to teach himself equity, options and forex trading and start investing in real estate before finally graduating from Portland State University with a BS in Philosophy.
Unsure of how to fit so many pieces of the puzzle together, Joe decided to take a leap of faith and become a fulltime DJ in New York. It was short-lived, and it wasn’t long before he began working on Wall Street as a trader, only to leave after six months to become a web developer. Joe was garnering skills in all different industries, from entertainment and event management, to entrepreneurship, design and finance. Add a dash of philanthropy, helping blind and dexterity impaired individuals to navigate the web, and wrap everything up in one package as the CEO of a bootstrap startup, NodeSource. A self-funded company now used by some of the world’s largest brands, including Uber, PayPal and Netflix.
Joe attributes his success to his cross functional thinking and life experiences. Learning about the world and different areas, building his cultural intelligence and ability to read and react to people. One of the main requirements for joining the NodeSource crew isn’t how impressive your resume is, but how curious and open your mind. “I try to evaluate whether someone is curious about the world. If they are not, that is okay but unlikely they will be successful at NodeSource. We try to solve difficult technical and business problems, like, how do you make money off of something that is free? This is not for everyone and if you are not curious as to how to solve these issues, you will struggle at a place like NodeSource.”
So, next time you hear “jack of all trades” being tossed around in conversation in a negative way, think about the rich life experiences these adventurers are accruing. Someone who has traveled, seen the world, worked in different industries, learned languages, dabbled in arts, tried different careers, quit, failed, and changed direction doesn’t mean that they are fickel. They have an inquiring mind. And inquiring minds are the very driver of innovation and the types of technologies that will meet our needs as we move into the future.