Jack of all trades, master of none... valuing the "Generalist"
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
I've had that phrase "Jack of all trades" levelled at me for many years. (So I'm a psychologist who's also trained in Law, History, Teaching, Business, Aerobics, Drama, Acting, Lifeguarding...and my career has taken me from a village primary school (which was probably my toughest gig) to the set of Bond, and now currently the UCKG TV studio with The Chrissy B Show and my own Leadership Training programmes...via Advertising, PR...oh and authoring a couple of books!) I am hugely lucky to have had so many opportunities to learn, and working through a number of job roles has meant I have a wide understanding of organisational styles - what works, what doesn't and where I fit in (...even if "List your previous employment" makes my heart race) and I've never regretted having an eclectic background. Producing theatre means I can manage projects, and manage different skills sets - plus it has given me insights into nuance and body language that cannot be taught; I credit Law for my ability to write - whether that's articles, books...or even letters of complaints and reviews(!); and psychology is my passion and the fact I get to talk about it on TV too is just brilliant!
Plus, you do know that the phrase is only the first half right?
Here's my case:
Yes, I do sometimes stop for a moment and think, if I'd channelled my energy into one field for 20 years I could be really good at it right now. I have some incredibly high flying friends - people right at the top of their game and I do feel a moment of envy not at their success (I'm hugely proud of them - they've earned every moment, and I'm simply grateful they are part of my life) - but of their "security". They know their job. They are really REALLY good at it. They have so much recognition from those with whom they work. ...and they enjoy a number of perks that come with being at (or near) the top of the chain...and I'm honoured when they invite me to share on occasion!
However, when they pick up their next award, I'm still looking for my next contract. They get headhunted while I hope that someone's team extends enough to recognise my skills can offer them an edge (I'm very good at what I do, but I don't have anything other than my "self" to offer).
But just my "self" isn't all that bad...
As an avid co-operative board game player, I adore Pandemic, the game where you in a team of 4 take on the containment and erradication of a deadly virus, and Pandemic Legacy (Season 1) allows you to mount a single campaign over a series of 12 games where the board throws in extra twists and turns along the way.
Playing Pandemic, we have always chosen specialist characters - you've got roles like "The Medic", "The Quarantine Expert", "The Researcher", "Dispatcher"...all of whom have "special abilities" that can specifically help you achieve your goals eg. the Medic can "treat" disease more efficiently, the "Dispatcher" can move your character places and so on. In Legacy Season 1 we were given the option of a more unusual role "The Generalist". Her only power "one extra turn".
Of course we didn't play her. The specialists were far more useful. ...and at the end of every game we lost we said "If only we'd had that extra turn". Every single time.
The thing about "Legacy" is that it is ongoing which means your characters, should you wish, can be "upgraded". They can be given extra abilities, extra skills, extra advantages...and it was after the 4th game we lost, taking us mid-way into the campaign when we collectively realised "We should have played The Generalist from the start and upgraded her."
Of course it was a bit too late in our Pandemic campaign by that point.
But it's not too late for organisations.
We always teach that having transferrable skills is essential. It means you can turn your hand to anything - as long as you recognise the essence of the skill which is needed. If, on top of that, you have (like my husband) an innate ability to learn and be at about 70% profficiency at the start of picking something up compared with some who takes longer, but can then achieve 99%, you are extremely valuable. Your "Generalist" ability can be deployed wherever there is an up to 70% gap in the chain.
It is perhaps possible to learn from Pandemic Legacy too. While it is wonderful to have someone who can fill that gap and then be redeployed, it is also helpful to keep upgrading the role. Whether this entails asking the Generalist what they want and enabling them to develop a 99% proficiency in one area (while maybe dropping to 65% in others), or if more appropriate to the person giving them the opportunity for more and more work within a narrower field so they can target their own professional development appropriately.
A simple example of the latter is my own career. My first vocational qualification was in teaching, but over the years I focused on developing my writing, my presenting and now my expertise in psychology. I still teach very well, but I have a personal preference for the written word and one-to-one/small team psychological consultancy, and this is where I continue to focus my CPD. While I do sometimes look at my bank balance and think...just as well I've got a second stream of income (property management - family business), I am always grateful for the multitude of opportunities that being a "Generalist" has afforded me. This week alone I am writing articles, prepping my Chrissy B guest slot this week on "Parent-Child discord", delivering a management seminar for the ILM, running coaching sessions and appearing on BBC Radio's "The Scene" to discuss Love Island and Mental Health. AND, I can now sometimes introduce those very friends to my world knowing that I can make their experience a positive one - and maybe a "different" one. I love that when someone says "jump" I CAN say "how high" - and any spring I'm lacking, I know I can learn - and then see if that learning will be long term in that field, or if I need to refocus elsewhere.
...so as to the phrase: Jack of all trades, master of none...
The second part reads: Is oftimes better than master of one.
For the other Generalists out there - dare to play your card...and upgrade.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt