When a jack of all trades wins

Everyone knows the expression “jack of all trades, master of none”. I remember a talk by Adam Savage of Mythbusters, where he brings that phrase up, and says that the real phrase is “jack of all trades, master of none, though often better than a master of one”.

During the 90s, the term “T-shaped individual” became popular, and the tech industry fell in love with the concept. The idea there is that while a person might have a wide breadth of skills in many areas (the horizontal part of the T), there is one area that they have deep knowledge of (the vertical part of the T).

Technology and business are areas where I think being aware of (and respecting) other areas of expertise is important, because it’s possible to go very, very deep. It’s impossible for one person to be really deeply aware of all areas. To me, the solution is to cultivate a respect for other domains. A sign of someone who deeply respects other domains is that they try to build relationships with experts in those other areas.

This came to mind the other day, when two different articles popped up on my radar. One was about integrating salespeople into the rest of the business, and the other was about how designers need to understand the full depth of a business, and not just make nice looking pictures.

It’s all too easy to shoehorn a business function into “just do your task and don’t worry about the rest”. Unless you’re exceptionally world-class at one skill (and even then!), it’s worth being mindful of the others.

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