Who Else Hates the Term “Jack-of-All-Trades”?
Photo courtesy of Chris Penny

Who Else Hates the Term “Jack-of-All-Trades”?

Written by Emilie

Topics: History

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.

Your Turn

What do you think of the term “jack-of-all-trades”? How do you respond when you hear someone use it?

em_authorbioEmilie 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.

49 Comments

  1. Katja says:

    The German term would be “Tausendsassa”, which could be explained with “does a thousand things”. Since high-level education and specialization is a really big deal hereabouts it has a mildly negative connotation.

    Nevertheless, I use it proudly to describe myself. I’m rather confident in my skills within my rather diverse portfolio, so it does not bother me, if people think that i’m not able to “finish anything”. We know better, don’t we?

    Mind, this attitude came on gradually, partly due to more maturity and partly due to a lot of success in my endeavors. In my early twenties it DID bother me, but no longer.

    • Jo Moore says:

      That’s interesting. It would be interesting to compare the terms for it in different languages to see what literal meaning they have and what that could imply about that society’s attitude towards multipods.

      My Master’s dissertation was on something similar. I looked at sexuality labels (like homo, faggot, dyke, lesbian, etc.) in German and Slovene. Often there’s a literal meaning built into the phrases. For example ‘vom anderen Ufer sein’ (‘to come from the other bank’) and ‘anders(he)rum’ (‘the other way round’) suggest an otherness, which suggests that German speakers who use this term might see gay people as different to straight people. ‘Falsch (rum)gepolt’ (‘with the wrong polarity’) implies there’s something wrong with it.

      It’d be interesting to see if different languages have different ways of describing multipotentialites, to see what these phrases imply about that culture’s attitudes towards them.

      • Emilie says:

        Very interesting! I would also be interested to know whether these terms changed post-industrialization. Time for a new research paper? :P

    • Emilie says:

      That’s awesome, Katja. I think it’s totally cool for someone to self-identify as a “jack-of-all-trades.” It’s kind of empowering and takes the meaning back.

      Also, I agree with you. Confidence around your multipotentiality is a wonderful thing, and people usually back off when they see how comfortable and happy you are with it. But it definitely takes some time to get there.

  2. Ben says:

    Maybe this is a regional thing, but here in the Mountain West I rarely hear “master of none”, and the first part of the expression is meant … well, 1/3 the time it’s a complement, but more often it’s a non-judgmental description. Sort of a “to each his/her own” sort of thing.

    But now, every time I’m feeling defensive I’m going to be tempted to describe myself as “Jack of all trades, master of … one or two.” ;)

  3. Lizzie says:

    Interesting article. I have actually used that term to describe myself, before I came across ‘multipotentialite’, which I have now replaced it with. Although, I have to explain the latter rather more than the former…
    Looking back, I suppose I did use ‘Jack of all trades’ somewhat self-deprecatingly…multipod is a much better word for it.

  4. Siggy says:

    Who cares what ‘they’ call us, who makes ‘them’ into the boss to tell us what and how we should be living our lives? Stop that!
    Anyone heard of Leonardo Da Vinci?
    Some multipotentiality there!

    Be all the greatness you can be!

    • Emilie says:

      I totally agree, Siggy. However, I think terms like this can be discouraging to young multipotentialites and others who maybe don’t have people in their lives who are encouraging them to go out and be the biggest, best multipods they can be.

      • Joanie Higgs says:

        And I couldn’t agree with you more, Emilie.

        This was your most powerful post for me, to date. That saying has had a huge impact on my life and I think contributed to the shame I’ve felt over never having found that one lasting “career”.

        I’m 62 this month, and finally about to launch my website (“Bliss or Bust” inner peace coaching). But I’m going to print this article and keep it where I can see it, as the legacy of “failure” still wants to haunt at times.

        Shine on, dear girl!

  5. Paula Prober says:

    I wonder what people would say if they knew multipotentiality was associated with giftedness. Multipotentialites (I love that word, Emilie) are actually very smart. They love learning (not necessarily schooling) and are highly capable in many areas. I call them people with “rainforest minds.” Like the rain forest, they’re highly sensitive, colorful, creative, intense, complex and prolific!

  6. Nela Dunato says:

    I agree with your point on “one trick ponies”. I think it’s rude to assume that a Jack-of-all-trades is necessarily not a master at anything. We may not be equally good at all the things we do, but most of us have been doing at least one thing long enough to have mastered it.

    It’s interesting that we don’t have a name for that in my language (Croatian).
    The only words I’ve been called was a “Renaissance woman” and “multi-talented”, which I both like very much :)

  7. Dreama says:

    I live in the midwest and I also hear the “master of none” term a lot. Usually it’s people talking about themselves. I say it all the time about me. I am a nurse so it’s kind of true. My friend calls me “the queen of useless information.” and they can’t believe I can remember every extension to every department in the whole hospital. And results of a long list of labs and tests on my patients without looking. Even patients I had 10 years ago. Not all of them of course, but some just stick in my brain forever…

    • Emilie says:

      That doesn’t bother you? I think I would feel rather annoyed if people called me the queen of useless information, but I guess if you have a sense of humour about it… Anyway, I’m sure your patients really appreciate that quality, so I doubt it’s useless at all.

  8. Margaux says:

    I think parts of the world are coming around to:

    1. it being okay to do a lot of things well at the same time;
    2. what “it” is that one does.

    In the first case, plenty of entrepreneurs and other celebrities are making a name for themselves in being good at more than one thing.

    In the second case, many people are redefining the “it” that they do really well. It doesn’t have to be the case that the “it” is a traditional career field or endeavour, such as medicine, engineering, baking, basketball. “It” can now be “developing new online markets for start-ups” or “relaying context in a simple but fun way.” When the “it” is about a process, then it doesn’t matter what field you do it in — you could do it in all of them!

    So for me, the jack-of-all-trades label is a misunderstanding of what the person is good at. Describing someone as a Jack-of-all-trades puts the area of interest ahead of what the person is actually doing within that interest—which is often quite specific and often fundamentally very similar for that person across all her interests.

    If you think about Da Vinci and compare him with Murray Gell-Mann, you’ll probably find that the driving “It” is different for each, but each was driven the same across their interests. Just a theory of mine. I have no facts to support this. :)

  9. It does have a negative connotation to it; however, I wear the first part of this phrase with pride. The “master of none” is just not true. There are some people whom it holds true for, who thrive in linear focus, but that’s not me.
    Of course when we first try something we’re not masters. With determination and persistence there are those of us that master many things. I like to refer to we folks as Renaissance Folk.

    :) Jill-of-all-Trades. Master of mucho.

  10. Jen says:

    I’m not a fan of it either. So next time someone calls me that, I intend to follow with, “master of ALL.” ;)

  11. Ian Anderson says:

    I think that “jack of all trades” is a positive thing, it’s only the “master of none” part that’s negative.

    Fortunately, I don’t hear the second part very often, but if I do it’s real easy to respond with the third line which really takes the sting out of this much misused phrase!

    Plus, almost no one has heard of the final part of the saying, so it’s an interesting ice breaking point.

  12. The closest I ever got to having my multipotentiality being a ‘good thing’ was when I was considered a triple threat in musical theater.

    As soon as I got out into the ‘real world’, it was back to flakiness and dilettante. *sigh*

    I love the idea of calling specialists ‘one-trick-ponies’ but I know that’s not the way to live and let live.

    I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have found you, Emilie … thanks to you, I’ve revised and revisioned my whole business to celebrate every bit of me. Waaaay more than a triple threat now!!

    Bliss-ings
    the goddess known as Jacqui

    • Emilie says:

      Someone I interviewed recently told me the same thing. She had gone to a performing arts high school and the idea of only doing one thing well would have been preposterous. Gotta love musical theater…

      Thanks Jacqui for the kind words. :)

  13. Jay says:

    How about jack-of-all-trades,
    master of innovation?
    master of understanding?
    master of context?

  14. I like “deep generalist”. I think of it as having a broad awareness, like seeing with peripheral vision rather than just a narrow scope of focus. I think being self-employed it really helps, and a lot of people who are specialists find it hard to be in business, because they don’t want to “wear all the different hats”. I love it. I’m not that excited by the idea or challenge of mastery…I’m excited by learning new things. There is a diminished return thing that happens for me in learning more and more about the same thing.

    I think when I have heard the “master of none” comment, it was when I was younger…and it seemed to come from a fear on the other person’s part that I wouldn’t be able to be successful at anything. (i.e. have the financial rewards of expertise in a field). I think it is true that it’s easier (or simpler) to be successful as a specialist. It’s easier to tell people what you do, you can concentrate all your energy on a single thing, you make sense to other people…it is easier in a lot of ways. That doesn’t make it better…but I understand why people would worry. It’s a projected worry, because the reality of a multipod is that being financially comfortable but miserable trying to be a specialist isn’t really success, it’s conformity.

    I think now that I have a successful business and have created the lifestyle I want, and have a lot of freedom and can pursue what interests me, I get more people saying, “I wish I could do that”. Maybe people don’t have enough examples of successful multipods to understand what it looks like and that it’s possible.

    • Emilie says:

      Beautifully put, Emma. I think you’re right. Multipotentialites really thrive in the business world. And it just so happens that with the state of the economy and technology right now, things are really shifting in favour of an entrepreneurial approach to work. I think we’ll see this particular brand of conformity (traditional employment, specialization, etc.) begin to decline pretty quickly in the upcoming decades.

  15. rakesh poddar says:

    I think being a multipotential is good as sometimes there is some situation which is out of your reach like bad weather the reason why i say this if i cant play golf i would like to play squash

  16. Cheryl says:

    I’ve have always viewed the phrase “Jack of all Trades” as a positive thing and most often hear it used in a positive way. An acknowledgement that someone is skilled at a variety of different things.

  17. AthensWalker says:

    The Greek expression for this would be (using latin alphabet): “Polytechnitis ki erimospitis”, which would literally translate as… “multi-craftsman and desert-houser”. The meaning would be that someone who knows many trades (therefore, none of them deeply) has ended up (because of this) unmarried / without a relationship (in an empty house). “Obviously” because they have not managed to settle down and / or acquired the means necessary to be in a long-term relationship…
    Really old-fashioned sh@t!

    The funny part of course is that this is the same root for the term “polytechnic”, as in a Polytechnic School, which I suppose everyone sees as something neutral or positive.

  18. Berit says:

    In Denmark we use the word “tusindkunstner” which means “artist of a thousand things”. From the dictionary: “A person that can do many different tasks, crafts or is knowledgeable in a lot of different areas. He was a tusindkunster because everything he saw with his eyes, he could make with his hands.” Pictures associated with the word tusindkunstner have mostly positive connotations.

    Searching for the word I came across Peter Ustinov and an entrepreneur, who could solve problems in his line of production, that no-one else could solve. He had an unbelievable broad base of customers, took orders that were challenging even if they didn’t pay well. And in his spare time he was a runner and a marine archelogist. Another tusindkunstner had used his life making High End art, playgrounds, ergonomic and colorfull furniture, decorating offices and hospitals. And he cofounded a wellknown childrens theater.

    The Tusindkunstners I have met had very special houses and gardens filled with funny projects, paintings or books all over the place. Not perfectly cleaned though :) Too busy for that.

  19. Jon says:

    Brilliant article! I don’t personally think “jack of all trades” by itself is positive, I guess because of the word “jack” – in a saying like “you don’t know jack” (jack, as in, you don’t know anything). I’m not a fan of multipotentialite either (no offense, Emilie) – it’s just a bit jargony, it has to be explained for anyone to get it.

    But yeah, being called a jack of all trades, still licking my wounds from those years when literally everyone I ever knew called me that. Ho hum.

  20. Hemant says:

    As far as my little knowledge is concern i’ve seen this phrase “jack..
    …none” on many astrology sites.

    To some extent I believe in astrology. I’am a Gemini and if you type “gemini description” over google you will definitely find this line in almost every astrology site.

    It was also written why this kind of trait occur.
    What I have learnt is it occurs because of two factors
    Curiosity and Satisfaction

    Every human is curious by nature, in fact it is necessary for development, but Satisfaction is a choice.
    ok let me ask you a question, “Have you ever been satisfied with the norms and conducts of society, or Don’t you find an urge to see the hidden truth behind what is seen to you.”

    Actually we are the Finders, Explorers , we just can’t settle down for a single thing. This hunt of Exploring and Analyzing things to get the ultimate truth ever goes on in us.

    We never leave the things(before getting mastery over them) due to lack of potential, we quit because we found there was nothing left to revealed there, and instead of repeating the same thing to become a Master we would like to spent our energy on some thing.

    Practical reason behind that is we are not like those typical person. We have a wide range of thought and dimensions of our mind are very vast. This allow us to capture ans synthesize all this information.

  21. Beneden Dickt Danglespan says:

    What about: “In times of war, none specialist is useful.” (hmmm…)

  22. BDD says:

    This being labeled multipotentialite or multivirtuose comes to one when being complimented multiple times on multiple disciplines in one lifetime.

  23. BDD says:

    You saved my resumé ;)) thanks!

  24. Em says:

    I’m trying to think what we say in Czech… I’m thinking “všeználek” (knows-it-all) or “kutil” (kinda builder, person able to fix things). The first one might be meant as a bit of negative thing as, the other is better but implies actual technical skills and handiness, so neither seems to be the perfect. We also say rennaisance person but to me that was always someone who is extremely talented in many areas. I certainly wouldn’t call myself that :D I know many different things but usually on a not so amaizing level, or at least I don’t feel that the level is amaizing but what do I know, I might be underestimating myself :)

    I personally call myself as a person “a bit into this, a bit into that…” but I wish there was more official term for it. When I’m trying multipotentialite, people don’t seem to be getting it, noone really knows what it means and I have to explain. It’s quite frustrating :D You’re looking for a label and when you find one, noone knows what the heck it means.

    But in English, I’m quite happy to use “jack of all trades”, followed by “I sort of do many different things, I have many hobbies and so…” :)

    Well, now reading the comments above, I think we also do say “a man of hundred crafts” but it’s not something you would use in a common speech, it’s more suitable into literature and fancy old school speeches.

    It’s not just the language, I think the whole Czech Republic is not very open to multipods yet. There are probably few opportunities but compared with England where I am now, it sucks so bad and there is nothing to do. In England, I can easily get any simple house job that I want, cleaning, housekeeping, gardening, carwashing, babysitting, dogwalking… little gigs of any kind really, you just need two hands, to be responsible and a bit handy and maybe a car to some. In CR, noone would let you walk their dogs or watch over their kids unless they totally know you, have hundreds of references and you have five years of practise and a university certificate :D

    I’m so glad I live in a world where I can move somewhere else when homeland is not working out.

  25. Cynthia says:

    In Spanish, at least in Mexico, we use the word “todólogo” – could be translated as “everythingologist”. It’s someone who knows about everything and has done all kinds of jobs. There’s also the phrase “mil usos” (“thousand uses”), but it’s more for technical and restoration services: someone who is a plumber, carpenter, electrician, driver, plasterer, builder, and can do everything and anything. While todólogo is more stereotyped as a middle-class know-it-all who just likes the recognition, mil usos is more a matter of survival and doing several jobs to make ends meet. However, they are seen as something common and even a source of respect. My grandpa used to be a mil usos/todólogo (plumber, carpenter, electrician) and ended up working at the largest steel corporation of its time AND co-founding their union. He even got to meet a US president and go to all the important meetings! So much for being a “jack of all trades”!

    As it’s culturally more accepted in Mexico, I’m fine (and even get several compliments) with being a todóloga and involved in several skills and industries. Unfortunately, I live in Britain now and it’s not really seen as good as. I get stares of confusion and questions about “my area of expertise” (what?), hear a lot about “niches” and focusing as much as you can.

    Maybe here it’s OK if you are as specific as “a biologist expert in shrubberies from the front left window of one single house in Halifax, England” or something like that – and you are even encouraged to be as specific as possible whether you’re writing a Master’s dissertation or being a contestant on Mastermind -, as you may be able to get a decent income or be seen as a figure of authority. But in Mexico, if you just know about one thing and one thing only, you may likely starve to death.

    Thanks for this article, Emilie. Will remember it next time someone asks me “but WHAT do you DO?”

  26. Kevin says:

    Tim Ferriss just wrote a similar article advocating being a jack of all trades. He has been the master of this since the 4HWW and brings some great perspective to it.

  27. Vanessa says:

    I choose to view it as a positive and not a negative. I do think it’s used to keep people “in their place”. I will choose what I am interested in, no one else.

  28. Slam dunk! The master minds from the Renaissance era didn’t seem to have a hard time earning respect for knowing a multiplicity of trades.

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