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Jerk of All Trades, Master of More Than You Think

multi-tasking catI’ve spent my entire professional life multitasking. Even though my job title has always hovered somewhere around “copy editor,” reading words and catching errors is usually only part of what I do.

I move between a lot of different tasks, on most days — editing, writing, layout, tracking time and work. But sometimes it’s easy to let doubt take over. We all know the saying, and I’ve heard it so many times I want to stab whoever coined it: Jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

It’s a phrase that can paralyze even the most adept task-juggler with existential dread.

And it always makes me wonder: Does versatility breed mediocrity? Are Jacks-of-all-trades, or generalists, as valuable as hardcore specialists?

I think a strong team needs both. But because I hate that stupid cliché, here are three advantages of being a multitasker:

  1. Jacks-of-all-trades aren’t afraid of the unknown. Just being competent at a task can be enough to complete a project that might have otherwise sat around until the expert could get to it. Generalists understand the difference between mastery and perfection. Because generalists’ reputation or self-worth isn’t riding on one skill, they’re less afraid to step outside their wheelhouse and try something new.
  2. Their versatility and flexibility make them survivors. Things change. Companies get acquired, merged or gutted. It’s survival of the fittest sometimes, and if the company changes and you’re willing and able to adapt to new roles and processes, you’re more likely to stick around and thrive.
  3. They can see the big picture. Specialists are often so close to their work that they can’t see the forest for the trees. Someone who knows how multiple parts of a project work, however, understands how they work together. For example, a writer or editor who is also trained in layout might know to look for certain quirks or errors caused by the layout software that others may overlook because they are only reading the words.

Jack-of-all-trades, master of none, my ass. Just like we need peas and carrots, right-brained and left-brained people, yin and yang to keep the universe balanced — the world needs generalists and specialists. If you want to have a robust team that can get shit done and do it well, combine the “big picture” perspective and flexibility of generalists with the deep expertise of specialists and watch the magic happen.