Out of all the terms used to refer to multipotentialites, the one I like least is “jack-of-all-trades.”
With the exception of someone choosing to self-identify as a jack/jill-of-all-trades, the term always appears to me to be dripping with condescension. “You are a little good at many things, but not great at any of them,” “You have a superficial knowledge of many areas,” “You don’t take anything seriously,” it seems to scream.
Well, here’s an interesting fact. Did you know that the term jack-of-all-trades, did not always have a negative connotation? In fact, it wasn’t until recently (my guess is post-industrial revolution) that the second part– “master of none,” was added.
According to Wikipedia:
“The earliest recorded versions of the phrase do not contain the second part. Indeed they are broadly positive in tone. Such a Jack of all trades may be a master of integration, as such an individual knows enough from many learned trades and skills to be able to bring his or her disciplines together in a practical manner.”
Sounds like a fairly accurate description of a multipotentialite, right? But add on that second part “master of none,” and it completely changes the meaning to a point where we now no longer remember the positive connotation it once held.
There is some funny history surrounding this term. Apparently, Robert Green used it to dismissively refer to William Shakespeare in 1592. Pff, that Shakespeare, what a dilettante! ;)
The term is sometimes extended into a rhyming couplet which restores the earlier positive meaning,
“Jack of all trades, master of none,
Certainly better than a master of one”
The Wikipedia page lists related expressions translated from other languages. Some of them are amusing, but most are pretty offensive and outright declare a person like this to be ineffective, sometimes even saying that this person will starve or go broke. For instance, the Korean expression goes, “A man of twelve talents has nothing to eat for dinner.” And the Polish one, “Seven trades, the eighth one — poverty.”
Yeesh. Such cultural baggage. No wonder so many multipotentialites grow up feeling bad about themselves and have so many fears associated with their plurality.
Could specialism via a catchy expression serve to keep the masses ignorant?
This might be cynical of me, but it seems as though propagating a cultural norm like specialization through a catchy saying, could be a really effective way of maintaining the status quo and preventing the masses from knowing too much about how things work. Everybody get in line, learn your craft and keep your head down, this way no one starts asking questions about things they don’t understand. This way no outsiders sneak their way into anyone else’s domain.
Well, those days are over. We are now a culture of multi-everything and cross-disciplined individuals who NEED to understand many facets of life in order to be effective. Yet, unfortunately this expression and the cultural myths associated with it linger on. This was part of the reason I felt we needed a new, empowering term. We are not jack-of-all-trades, we are multipotentialites.
What if we called specialists “one trick ponies” rather than experts or masters?
Wouldn’t that be something.
We could do this. But I think it would be more helpful for us to all stop calling each other names and stop prescribing ways in which to live. Do what works for you and leave everyone else alone.
What do you think of the term “jack-of-all-trades”? How do you respond when you hear someone use it?
Emilie Wapnick is the Founder and Creative Director at Puttylike, where she helps multipotentialites integrate ALL of their interests into their lives. Unable to settle on one path herself, Emilie studied music, art, film production and law, graduating from the Law Faculty at McGill University. She is an occasional rock star, a paleo-friendly eater and a wannabe scientist. Learn more about Emilie here.