A “jack of all trades, master of none” is often used as a derogatory phrase to describe someone who has no specialised ability and lacks direction and focus. In recent times, however, there has been a renewed interest in the idea of the ‘polymath’ or ‘Renaissance man’–a Leonardo da Vinci-type character who has knowledge of a number of disciplines and can learn quickly and synthesise information to come up with solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately, in our capitalistic era where everything, including people, is measured by output, productivity and monetary value, the polymath or jack of all trades can be seen as having impressive breadth but lacking the depth and practical experience required to solve complex problems. Obviously, there are, and needs to be, generalists and specialists, but what if there was a third way?
Polymath – “a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymath
Generalists are often excellent networkers and connectors, able to bring people together in interdisciplinary teams to tackle wicked problems. Notwithstanding the sometimes-negative perception of polymaths, there is a possible downside for generalists themselves: the feeling of purpose gained from being an expert and personally applying expert knowledge and skills to overcome difficult problems can be beyond reach for someone who is a ‘master of none’.
On the other hand, specialists are often respected for their deep understanding of their specific field and their ability to apply this understanding to solve specific problems. However, specialists may lack awareness of the broader context and can become a ‘gun for hire’, proposing the same solutions to the same kinds of problems.
Tiago Forte draws on the term ‘full-stack developer’ to propose a new kind of worker: the ‘full-stack freelancer’. The concept of a ‘full-stack developer’ has been around for a while now and describes a web developer who can work on both the front-end and back-end of an application. Building on this, Tiago maps the evolution of freelancers from specialists to ‘portfolio thinkers’:
“Portfolio thinking recognizes that having multiple parallel projects provides many opportunities for synergy. They don’t have to interfere with and impede each other — they can actually combine into something greater than the sum of its parts. Each one can make the others easier, more fun, and more profitable.” – Tiago Forte https://praxis.fortelabs.co/the-rise-of-the-full-stack-freelancer-c14a375445d9
Full-stack freelancers embody the original phrase, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” To interpret this for modern times, being a jack of all trades and master of the one you are working on is the key to success in the new world of work. In this context, ‘freelancer’ has also been given an upgrade, describing the mindset of viewing work as a series of projects or “gigs” rather than one linear term of employment.
As the world transitions from the majority of work being conducted in secure, long-term, full-time employment to contingent workers engaged in ‘atomised’ projects broken into pieces of work, conducted anywhere in the world, the most important skill is a meta-specialisation in how and what you need to learn. People should be focused on the task at hand but also need to have an eye on what they need to do next to learn or develop the required skills for the next project.
Last year I was accepted into a Master of Creative Industries at QUT, with a research proposal about the power of students and teachers co-creating learning. While I’m sure the research would have been interesting, I decided not to pursue academic study in favour of learning by doing. I don’t have the time to invest in studying a particular area of interest only to become more specialised and further down the path of academia. I may return to study, just as I may return to more conventional employment, but, in the spirit of the full-stack freelancer, I will make these choices based on what will return the most value for me, my family and the world, not on outdated notions of career or obligation.
Of course, it is easy to attach meaning to choices after they’ve occurred and to project how you will behave in the future based on retrospective coherence. However, humans are complex systems and as Chris Corrigan points out, “Complex systems are emergent, so we can never be sure what the future holds, regardless of how well we can trace how we got here.” One thing is certain though, the focus of education needs to shift from content to skills, mindset, and metacognition.
Content is king in marketing land but we’ve made content king in schools and universities. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, information is abundantly available. Sadly, the skills to navigate, manipulate and deploy this content are sorely lacking. Young people need to learn to think critically and creatively about content, to connect ideas together, collaborate with others and communicate with impact. They also need help to cultivate a learner mindset – one that encourages curiosity, empathy, gratitude and resilience. And above all, they need to understand themselves as learners and doers and how they fit into the rest of the universe.
Daniel Schmatenburger talks about mitigating risks. Not the small kind like, “if I change the curriculum, will my students be ok?” but the large, existential, universal kind like, “will the emergence of replicator technology through nanotech and biotech lead to the destruction of mankind?” As Schmatenburger argues, “The real existential risk is a loss of the ability to make sense of the world around us: what is worth doing, and what the likely effects of things will be.” In order to create coherence and purpose amongst the maelstrom of content, information and fake news, and be able to solve global problems, we need to embrace the idea of the full-stack freelancer. And instead of continuing to work, learn, and teach while ruled by a monarchy of content, we need to empower ourselves and our young people with the tools to be jacks of all trades, masters of the one we are focusing on in this moment.
Anything less and we’re knowingly setting ourselves up for personal and planetary failure.
This blog was first published at https://medium.com/@rhyscass
Image via Adobe Stock