Jack of all trades, master of none.
In my life, I’ve heard this numerous times. And I want to share why it’s bullshit.
In Tarot of the Spirit, Pamela Eakins uses the metaphor a Tree of Knowledge to describe how we come into wholeness.
In contemporary culture, this tree is frequently equated with “science.” Each branch on the tree can be viewed as a “field.” Those working at the forefront of each “field” are as a new growth, new twigs, at the end of these branches. Sometimes these scientists are so far “out on a limb” that they lose sight of the rest of the tree, the basic overview of the Tree of Knowledge. Being highly specialized — with no time to understand or view the processes as a whole — one may easily come to feel cut off, as if one has no control over what is happening.
I love this metaphor not only for its application to us as individuals, but also for how it applies to our view of business.
There is so much pressure to specialize. “The riches are in the niches,” as the saying goes. Aim to cultivate mastery. Become an expert.
The trend to high specialization puts a specialist out on a limb. As Eakins mentions, the limbs carry two great risks.
The Risks of Specialization
(1) The Limbs Are Most Vulnerable
The limbs of a tree are most vulnerable to storms, high winds, and the weight of winter snow. They are easily snapped off the tree. In the same way, a specialist who is too specialized runs the risk of being snapped off.
Consider this in the context of the new crop of specialists that has evolved with the digital economy. In the beginning of the digital revolution, marketing gave way to “internet marketing.” But then “internet marketing” is viewed as too broad. People specialized from there to be “experts” in “Facebook marketing” or “Instagram marketing” or “search engine optimization” and so on.
When Facebook changes its policies, or when Google changes its algorithm, those “experts” are suddenly not experts anymore. They retrench to figure out the new system. When people stop spending as much time on Facebook, or move on to the next thing, it won’t make sense to run Facebook ads anymore (or at least in the same way), and the branch for Facebook Ads experts will be cut off from the tree.
(Yes, these people can pivot to something else, but that’s another topic.)
(2) On the Limb, You Lose Connection to the Roots
Even in a situation where highly specialized expertise is helpful and necessary, the bigger risk of specialization is that on the limb, you lose connection to the trunk and the roots of the tree.
To stick with the example of marketing, the purpose of running Facebook ads is not to run Facebook ads. SEO is not an outcome, it’s a process that is intended to lead to an outcome.
In any organization or endeavor, if one group doesn’t know what the others are doing or if the specialists don’t see how they fit into the bigger picture, you run the risk of different specialists working at cross purposes to each other. We can become so specialized that we barely perceive our connection to the whole.
The Undervaluing of Generalists
In our culture of extreme specialization, the view from afar is not always respected or rewarded. Generalists get a bad rap. This is shortsighted. In the long term, the ability to view from afar will take on considerable importance, even as demand for specialists increases.
As Eakins writes,
It is a great advantage to be able to stand back and view the whole branching tree of experience.
In Praise of Generalists
Here are three ways that generalists add value to an organization.
Understanding the context of what one is trying to accomplish is essential to meeting any outcome. Out on the limb, the specialist loses sight of context. He knows only his part, but not how his part fits into the whole.
The generalist helps ensure that everyone understands the bigger context: what’s the end result we are aiming for?
The one constant in life is change. As things change, we must be able to adapt and shift. Those who can see the forest can better spot patterns, anticipate and navigate those shifts.
Specialists exist within silos of knowledge and experience. Often, within an organization, there are gaps between these silos. Without someone to bridge those gaps, your Facebook ads specialist may end up working at cross purposes with your SEO specialist. A generalist can see the gaps and bridge them.
The Generalist is a Master
The saying that the “jack of all trades” is a master at none is a limiting belief. The ability to step back and see the big picture, to look at the whole and its moving parts, and to understand the processes in relation to the outcome, is itself a skill worthy of mastery.
Any organization needs the people who can view the whole tree, and even the forest, while still understanding how the various branches fit into the landscape. This is where the generalist cultivates mastery.
A master generalist is one who not only cultivates skills and knowledge across multiple areas, but has access to the tools. She can draw on those resources in the moment, providing her clients and organization what is needed in the moment that it is needed.
In a culture of specialists, we need generalists more than ever.
- Pamela Eakins, Ph.D. Tarot of the Spirit, p. 209 ↩