Today I want to celebrate the Jacks and Jills of all trades; the generalists, the multi-talented1. The hybrids, if you will. There used to be a time when a broad set of skills was an absolute necessity to survive, to live well, and to prosper. It wasn’t just about practical things such as sewing, hunting, building, foraging, or making a fire. It was also about skills in science (astronavigation for example), communication, negotiation (bartering doesn’t sound nearly as nice), group dynamics, leadership, and many other topics that are very relevant also in a contemporary corporate setting. Back then, Jack of all trades was a true compliment. Over time, the world changed.
The specialists came into fashion when society evolved far enough to sustain itself with distribution of services and goods. It’s a fascinating ecosystem that created the blacksmith as well as the poet, the scientist as well as the artist. Increased specialization in organizations continued to accelerate as a result of the industrial revolution. The bigger organization you had, the more you could gain from producing specialists (performing better because of their depth of expertise and focus, costing less because others could be trained to do the same specialized tasks, and exposing companies to less risk because they could more easily be replaced). If that sounds mechanistic and boring, that’s just because I think it is. I’ll talk more about that another day, because I want to highlight some wonderful specializations, too. But as the specialist flag was raised, down came the generalist. And so it was that the extended expression “Jack of all trades, master of none” marked the end of an era for the Jills and Jacks. Fast-forward to present time.
Look at start-up companies. A single person or a rather small group of people. They need to develop their products or services, market them, support them, sell them, deploy them, do the company finances, build an organization, and a thousand other things. That necessitates a broad set of skills. And it requires something else that often goes hand in hand; the ability and willingness to learn new skills. They are not specialists in any area – they are hybrids who can and will do it all.
Look at agile software development. A few people in each team, working towards a common goal. No hierarchical models to claim or relinquish ownership of a certain item; those best suited – which usually means those with some time to spend – take on the tasks. Those teams do not accept specialization as a wall to hide behind. They do whatever it takes to get the job they’ve committed to done.
Look at the best marketers, farmers, programmers, nurses, designers, CFOs, restaurant owners, testers, managers, truck drivers, software companies, non-profit organizations – there’s a wind of change blowing in our world, and it brings with it whispers of autonomy, self-organization, and a massive need for multi-talented people. It is the rebirth of renaissance women and men. Perhaps they never really went out of style?
So, tonight I’ll raise my glass and salute you, Jills and Jacks. I believe you have the potential to be masters of anything.
Bjorn “The Mayor” Karlsson
1. I don’t mean talent in the “I got this for free by magic or chance” sense, but as in “I’m really good at it because I work hard to be good”.[twitter-follow screen_name=’CortexCity’]