Why Being A “Jack Of All Trades” Works


In the workplace of yesterday, most jobs existed as a fixed set of clear-cut, unchanging duties. Rarely did the nature of the work vary, and in many cases a worker’s ability to repeat the same exact process and produce identical results was commended. Just ask an assembly-line worker or a railroad builder if “outside-the-box thinking,” or “creative innovating” was welcome in their workplace. They’d probably tell you that “thinking outside the box” is more likely to result in a factory-wide meltdown or a train wreck than a pat on the back or a promotion.

As a result, job candidates of the past were evaluated on specific skills that they already know. For example, if a hiring manager were filling a position for a bricklayer, they would only care about how well you can lay bricks. None of your other accomplishments matter; if you lay the best bricks, you’ll likely get the job. It sounds so delightfully simple, doesn’t it? Well… tough luck, because as we both know, your job is quite the opposite of simple and straightforward.

Job Description: Bricklayer

  • Spread one half-inch of cement.
  • Place brick, straighten and align.
  • Repeat ad infinitum.
  • Retire.

Being a Jack of All Trades

Today’s jobs, unlike the bricklaying positions of the past, are ever changing, and unpredictable. On any given day, the nature of your work could change drastically. Each new project reshapes your responsibilities, and you may eventually find yourself with a job that is completely different from the one described in your interview. To make matters worse, it has probably strayed from your areas of expertise as well.

This is a common occurrence recognized by entry-level workers and executives alike. In fact, today’s job interviewers frequently glaze over the unpredictable demands of their open position with generalities and trite clichés: Have you been told that your job will require you to “wear many hats?” Does your job description have a long, exhaustive list of specific duties capped off with an ironic “other duties as assigned?” If so, you must know exactly what I’m talking about. Despite all of our different titles, departments and specialties, it seems that we’re all destined to be “Jacks-(and Jills)-of-all trades,” whether we like it or not.

Job Description: You

  • Wear many hats.
  • Be a ‘Jack of all trades.’
  • Other duties as assigned.

Unfortunately, our specialties and backgrounds will never change as quickly as our work does. This is how an engineer finds them self marketing new products instead of building them, or how a writer ends up managing a publishing company instead of crafting their own work. While they may prefer staying within their expertise, the reality may be that they’re the best marketer or publishing manager that the company has, even if it’s not their forte.

It’s certainly not easy working outside of your comfort zone: Lack of experience can cause needless frustration, and you might worry that everyone will forget what you are really good at. All the while, you watch your peers doing what they do best, and reaping all kinds of rewards from it.

The situation may look grim, but there is hope: You may not realize it, but you weren’t chosen for this unfamiliar work solely to cause you aggravation or to make you look bad. You also weren’t randomly picked by drawing the unlucky short straw. You were chosen because you have transferable skills, and unlike some of your coworkers, you can adapt to the unfamiliar, and do the atypical work quicker and better than they could.

Transferable Skills

Transferable skills are the skills that you’ve learned and applied throughout your education and work experience. Things like communication, time management, creativity, problem solving, and expression of ideas. Sure, they’re somewhat intangible, but trust me, you’ve had plenty of practice. After all, we didn’t memorize the Pythagorean Theorem or read The Odyssey in school just in case our future work involved geometry or literature. It was mostly just practicing the same general skills that any professional uses. We may have doubted the validity of these studies in high school, but the purpose of all that busywork was clearly to hone our transferable skills for future use. I trust you were paying attention.

Transferable skills may seem boring and insignificant compared to a degree from a top university or an impressive work history, but they are your best assets in the workplace. Wouldn’t you rather be known as “a great communicator,” “a problem solver,” or “very organized” instead of “has a master’s degree” or “came from a big law firm?” Those résumé items are only as good as the transferable skills that came out of them.

Suddenly, those co-workers breezing through the usual work while you struggled with the harder projects no longer seem lucky or favored. It may be that they can only do the usual routine, and you can do more thanks to your transferable skills.

So, next time you find yourself banging your head against the wall, and struggling through yet another peculiar project, remember that you do have the right tools for the job. Besides, you don’t want to do the same familiar, comfortable work every day. You don’t want to be the bricklayer. You’re better than that, and you’ve got the skills to prove it.


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Peter is Vice President of Digital Marketing at an investment holdings company in Washington DC and Co-Founder at True North.

Discussion

  1. John Downey on the 14th May

    This is spot on. Two years ago I switched from a job that was 50/50 graphic design and web design/development because I was given the same tasks over and over again and it was all getting a bit stale. My new job has me designing, coding, marketing, managing a team of developers, designing user interfaces, writing funding applications, making site architecture decisions, managing the database, etc. All thanks to the fact that it’s a small start-up and I have a great boss who saw the potential in me I didn’t necessarily see myself. I don’t regret it one bit.

  2. Carl Natale on the 14th May

    Good points. I’ve encountered too many coworkers who used ignorance as a buffer against getting more work. Versatility is a long-term strategy that will reward you.

  3. Conrad Borba on the 14th May

    Great article! I like to consider myself a “Jack of All Trades” and I feel like I always have been ever since my first job. I enjoy that it keeps me on my toes and makes me look good to the higher ups. Don’t get me wrong, I love to design but sometimes a little problem solving or something is a nice break.

  4. Kristin Wemmer on the 14th May

    I would never want to do the same thing routinely! I think the best part of my job is that I have the opportunity to learn something new daily. Being a “Jack/Jill of all trades” is a great tool to have in your belt.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. jiewmeng on the 15th May

    very well said, in the real world, whats discussed in the interview is likely just the tip of the iceberg and very likely to change into something entirely different in no time. i think the best is to invest in Transferable Skills and foundations in your industry then specialize

  6. Bruce on the 19th May

    Good points. I’ve encountered too many coworkers who used ignorance as a buffer against getting more work. Versatility is a long-term strategy that will reward you.

  7. Michael Kieloch on the 23rd May

    Where the versatility of the jack-of-all-trades really shines, and really comes in handy, is in the non-profit sector. I’ve found that in the non-profits I’ve worked for, their support staff isn’t usually as robust, as limited resources are typically directed to the mission. Because of the particularly tight resources many non-profits face, their limited staff *have* to be jack-of-all-trade superstars.

    You can gain a lot of experience wearing many different hats working in a non-profit PR department, whereas in a corporate PR department, you might be *just* the graphics designer, or *just* the copy writer and never work outside that narrow lane of responsibility.

    Likewise, being able to show multifaceted talent is a big plus when interviewing for non-profit jobs. They will see your variety of talents as a value-adder to the organization.

  8. Omar Abid on the 24th May

    Great article and good points. Unlikely, the market still evaluate you upon your degree level. That being said, if you want a job in this market, you should get the best marks and not the best skills or diversity of skills.

  9. David on the 8th October

    Great article Tina, it is so very important to have the flexibility to meet the demands of an evolving market / workplace. I consider my Jack of all trades skills as my most valuable skills set. Much appreciated input.

  10. Ian Erickson on the 29th December

    I love being a Jack of All Trades, and that is what I prefer about working for a small firm rather than a large one. However, I have encountered one really large frustration: title.
    Is there a title, similar to ‘Accountant’, ‘Inventory Manager’, or ‘Marketing Manager’ that is popularly understood to be a professional term for ‘Jack of All Trades?

    Thank you!!!!!!

    Ian

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