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Being a jack of all trades promotes innovative thinking, should be embraced

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I am a dabbler—a jack of all trades, master of none. I’ve played violin and cello and taken hip-hop dance and art classes. I wanted to be an actress for the longest time, so I joined an acting summer camp. During my freshman year, I became obsessed with grocery stores and thought I’d be a businesswoman. It’s funny, though. I no longer play an instrument, I don’t dance competitively, and I don’t plan to major in drama or business. You are just so-so in everything you do, I’d tell myself. 

In today’s society, we’re geared to be specialists. Being a jack of all trades has a negative connotation, associated with shallowness and incompetency. Employers want to gather people who are experts in a particular field. We’re supposed to have an idea of what we want to do and what exactly we want to major in as 17- or 18-year-olds applying to college. We’re asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” from as young as 5 years old, expected to have one answer. My answers always rotated between princess, actress and teacher. Never both. You can’t be a teacher and an actress. 

Enter Angelina Jolie. She appears in movies and TV shows and also lectures at the London School of Economics. Taylor Swift is a singer-songwriter and businesswoman. Meghan Markle was a calligrapher before she became an actress. So, why is being a jack of all trades considered bad? 

In fact, a study from the University of Southern California found that generalists had more impact than specialists when engaging with new knowledge. Having a broader range of interests, generalists were quicker to capitalize on that new knowledge. Being a jack of all trades, they found, was often key to innovation. In a TedTalk, Emilie Wapnick describes three superpowers of a jack-of-all-trades: idea synthesis, rapid learning and adaptability. Wapnick also coined the term “multipotentialite”—someone with multiple interests and passions—to replace the negative connotation of “jack of all trades.”

With Who Shall I Be Day on Feb. 17, I’m not saying we should all become generalists. It’s that we need to encourage multipotentialites and jack of all trades to embrace their multi-dimensionality. The world’s complex issues require curious and innovative people. It’s OK if you don’t know what you want to be. It’s OK to explore a wide range of interests in high school even if you’re not good at everything you do. Isn’t that what high school is for anyway? It’s OK if you want to be a doctor and singer. (Dr. Suzie Brown is both!)

I used to be embarrassed about having so many interests. But, I’ve found that picking up new hobbies and trying new things is what makes my life fulfilling. And while scholars have debated the exact origins of the quote, the original saying is, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

The views in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of the HiLite staff. Reach Lorna Ding at [email protected].

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