When I was growing up I heard the phrase, “Jack of All Trades, Master of None.”
Idioms have always held a particular fascination for me, so I had to investigate
further. The phrase ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ originates from Elizabethan
English. It was coined by Robert Greene in his 1592 booklet ‘Greene’s Groats-
Worth of Witte.’ The author referenced that ‘Shakespeare was an actor as well as
a playwright who ‘did not attend university’ to receive formal training. Greene’s
thin, yet controversial, booklet supposedly included public criticism of his various
enemies, including Shakespeare, whom he called ‘an absolute Johannes fac
totum’ (or Jack-of- all-trades). Greene goes on to write about ‘the folly of youth,
the falsehood of make-shift flatterers, and the misery of negligent mischief’.
Idioms like this come and go, but can directly influence our thinking, which can,
ultimately, influences our identity, especially in our impressionable years. What
does this phrase mean to you? Have you ever stopped to consider what it means
to be a “jack” or a “master” of something? In hearing this idiom, do you find
yourself preferring one style over the other? It’s also a great chance to explore
how such beliefs shape our past, present and future-- consciously and
As a young girl, I was strongly encouraged to develop many skills. It didn’t take
long to see how the world responds positively to “jacks.” I excelled at my jobs and
schooling and friendships through my developing “jack-ness.” I also noticed that
employers, partners, and professors, alike, expect us to have (and maintain) a
broad range of talents to better equip us for life. Intuitively, I knew that by
concentrating on becoming a “jack,” my varying abilities would impact my
communication, problem-solving, and strategies too.
I began to test my ‘jack theory’ by applying for jobs. I quickly learned that
employers capitalize on broad skillsets and reward them well. For that reason, I
cultivated opportunities to ‘wear a variety of hats’ as a: waitress, salesclerk,
teacher, non-profit executive director, church senior minister, writer, hospital
chaplain, or becoming a four-time business owner. Reflecting back, every job I’ve held has required me to: ‘shift gears,’ ‘pivot on a dime,’ ‘dance on the head of a
pin,’ or ‘quickly think outside the box.’ Each position demanded that I rely on
versatile capabilities daily. (Unknowingly, I also began embracing another idiom
associating “jacks” with “street smarts,” and “masters” with “book smarts.”
Decades later, I recognize that was limited thinking.)
For me, being a “jack” bled into other parts of my work ethic when I realized how
much I couldn’t stand monotony/routine in a work place because I love
stimulation and challenge. I sought out jobs grooming me to become a “Jack of All
Trades” to avoid stagnation and boredom. If stagnation occurs in experiences and
lives, our creativity dries up, and we die. Instead, I thrive on variety!
This all ‘got into my face’ recently after reading an article addressing the very
phrase about “jacks” and “masters”. The article proposed that being
a “jack” has derogatory implications. It refers to “a person who is competent in
many skills/things, but is not outstanding in any of them.” It gave me pause to
really evaluate and re-evaluate my sought-after philosophy. Since perceptions
affect how we think about things/people/experiences, could I have been
operating under a misperception that being a “jack” was the best (and only) way?
I feel my broad-based foundation formed me into becoming a vital, versatile
employee and dynamic, discerning employer.
Maybe I had dismissed the inherent value of mastery due to short-sighted
judgment. And, ironically, I watched how my judgments drove my choices to
become who I am today (i.e., “jacks” are better-suited to handle life, streets
smarts are easier to promote), but did not hold others to the same exhaustive
standard. Considering this idiom from many angles became a thought-provoking
exercise. I dare you to try it.
In fact, I’d venture to say I love the word “mastery” now…
Mastery is a word that demands we hone our skills, thoughts and abilities to
‘bring about our best.’ Mastery is defined, in the Oxford Dictionary as,
“Comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment; proficiency;
ability or capability.” For example, we can become a master carpenter, doctor,
fisherman, or gardener. Who among us would not want to hire ‘the best’ doctor
if our loved one was diagnosed with an illness? Would you hire a ‘rough-in’ carpenter to put finishing touches on your new kitchen cabinets versus a ‘master
carpenter’? For example, becoming an expert wordsmith encourages greater
clarity and brilliant articulation of our human language. Dog or cat whisperers’
(especially televised) would instantly become unemployed if they weren’t
“masters” in their field. Trained educators for ‘functional needs’ folks would not
feel fully prepared to assist others—nor would other helping professionals/clergy
for that matter.
Mastering virtues drive us to be better people! Seeking to achieve wisdom or
spiritual mastery is what many people dedicate their entire lives to (e.g., Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodren, Dalai Lama, etc.). The
point is that we rely heavily on masters to offer us in order to give us in offering
greater peace of mind.
After all this introspection then, does this idiom leave me? Becoming a “jack-of-
all-trades” has been powerfully transformative. Gratefully, it shaped me into who
I am. Ultimately, I feel my thinking has honed me into becoming a versatile
employee and discerning employer.
And now, I’ve shifted priorities in my life seeking to gain greater “mastery” with
different emphasis now. I recognize that I possess both “jack” and “master” skill
sets and talents. Ironically, I have possessed both outlooks all along, but my self-
awareness, values and judgments needed to shift. There is absolutely nothing
wrong with either label. It’s neither black or white. It’s neither good nor bad,
better or worst. Idioms like this one help us navigate more easily through life in a
multitude of ways, as well as challenge us to think multi-dimensionally. It never
occurred to me, until the writing of this article, my earlier perceptions/
experiences contribute towards becoming a ‘master of jackery’ currently. (Lol.)
We possess both “jack” and “master.”
Don’t take my word for it though…what do you think?