Jack of All Trades, Master of None

1*3YaCOImYwSA4XTQS5nF5bQSometime in my formative years, someone used this expression around me. It probably wasn’t AT me, but somehow it got encompassed in my brain cellular DNA and I hear the phrase every time I try to do something lately.

Primarily because I don’t seem to be master of much lately – I can’t help but see myself as a dilettante who throws herself at a wall only to slide muddily off into a heap after yet another abortive try. Perhaps it’s because I sit often amongst several piles of unfinished projects? Typical of the crafty among us…but always familiar to me. I’ve always been exemplary at INITIATING things – less often am I persistent enough to complete them!

It’s a common expression, that Jack of All Trades. Look it up in Wikipedia and you’ll see it in use in virtually every country/language in the world, sometimes positively, more often not.

A couple I quite like:

Portuguese: O pato anda, nada e voa, mas não faz nada direito (“The duck walks, swims and flies, but does nothing right”).

Spanish: Un océano de conocimiento de una pulgada de profundidad (“An ocean of knowledge of an inch deep”)

Icelandic: Þúsundþjalasmiður (“A craftsman of a thousand rasps”).

Vietnamese: Một nghề cho chín, còn hơn chín nghề (“Being master in one job is better than being average in nine jobs”)

But wait, I cry, waving my arms and legs–what about my love for the polymaths amongst us, my striving to be one, the messy nature of creativity that requires dabbling in many ponds? Doesn’t that count for anything?

Again, citing Wikipedia (and I did donate to them, so there), polymaths embody “a basic tenet of Renaissance humanism that humans are limitless in their capacity for development, the concept led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible.”


Which has been my lifelong style. That said, given my apparent lack of ability to focus, I’ve not necessarily benefitted from the scatter gun approach. I now have a terrifically long list of things I do well enough to be embarrassed by, but am no where near competent at. You know that level? Where you know enough about something that you could reasonably be expected to have some expertise therein, only to disappoint anyone who views what you do. I fear I have spent my time learning just enough to be annoying.

One example – I play ukulele. For years I’ve played. I have stopped progressing because my attention has slipped elsewhere, and now I am shy to get back into it because I feel I SHOULD be better by nowPolymath-4-The-Great-Everything-600x424

YOU know. It’s like taking drawing classes for years, only to realize you will never ever ever get perspectives right…Or knitting for years but still being only able to make scarves…Or throwing yourself into research about religion, only to give everyone the impression that it is your only interest while you do…

Still, it may all work out for the best. Maybe I am keeping those brain synapses in snapping fresh form?

Health benefits of a polymath lifestyle

There’s this neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. It mainly pops up in your basal lobe (specifically the cluster of neurons known as the nucleus basalis) and it controls new connections between your brain cells. Basically, it regulates how we make and retain new memories, including learning new stuffs.

When we’re learning something genuinely new (as opposed say, to just adding to prior knowledge on a favourite topic), our nucleus basalis is firing on all cylinders, with acetylcholine spraying all over the place like an over-excited 14 year old.

But if we stop stretching ourselves and fixate on our current interests and activities (even if we’re upgrading our expertise in those fields), our nucleus basalis dries up. We stop producing acetylcholine. In fact, we see low levels of acetylcholine in most cases of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. In its early stages, Alzheimer’s is actually treated by artificially raising acetylcholine levels.

At the start of this 2020 year (I love that date, so rounded, so perfect), like everyone else I am examining my entrails, trying to forge a plan for the year ahead. What dilettantism shall I focus on now, I wonder. How should I combine the hodge podge of my experiences into some cohesive accomplishment? How can I specialize?

And then I run across this lass, talking about multipotentiallites.

Superpowers of we eclectic folks, according to Emilie Wapnick:

  1. Idea Synthesis
  2. Rapid Learning
  3. Adaptability

She also urges us to embrace our inner wiring – specialize if we want, multi focus if that’s your way.

But there’s a part of me that just wishes I knew how to catch my dropped stitches in a knitting project. Except that I am in the middle of stitching a cover for my book. Which needs editing.

Might as well give in…and synthesize…



3 thoughts on “Jack of All Trades, Master of None

  1. Gregg Norman

    Wow – and double Wow! You really nailed this topic in a way that truly resonated with me. I’ve struggled with some of these issues my whole life. It’s great to hear someone say that I’m not crazy, in fact that I might be onto a good thing.


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