“Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one”
This is not, as many have suggested, the original saying. It started with the first couplet, a positive description of a talented generalist. This was then turned into a criticism of those without focus with the addition of the second couplet. Most recently, in a move very appropriate to our times, the last addition of the last couplet turned it into a criticism of experts.
Across a series of conversations this week, this phrase kept coming to mind. I think it says a lot about our confusion around what mix of skills is important for the future. And where those skills ought to be learned. Do we need to be Jacks of all trades in the future? Or do we want instead deep expertise. Is there even a conflict between these goals?
Master of one?
On Monday, I recorded a conversation with Carl Wiese, Executive Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer for Poly. I collaborated with Poly recently on a report on the future of work and particularly hybrid working.
Carl and I discussed skills for the future. We talked about the relative merits of deep expertise vs what are perceived as more generalist skills, particularly communication. Carl made the point that it is possible to be an expert in communication. And he’s right. Even just within the relatively narrow realm of public speaking, there is a lot to learn about the differences between a good after-dinner talk, and a good conference speech. This is a skill that can be endlessly honed, and those that do it well are readily identifiable from those who don’t.
On Wednesday I had a live-streamed chat with Simon Squibb, who is on a mission to help a million people start their own business. Again, we talked about skills and particularly the critical skills of entrepreneurship. I referred Simon to my idea of the ‘Three Cs’ – curation, creation, and communication, all of which are highly relevant when starting your own business. But I also realised that being generally good at these things is only going to get you so far. One of my big lessons from my current business is just how powerful it is when you can engage experts whose ability goes well beyond your own. I outsource everything I can now to people who can do it better than I can. Or at least, I usually do…
Competence is a preference
The exception to this rule recently has been the audio version of High Frequency Change. The production of this got held up due to various publishing wrangles, but eventually my publisher and I agreed that I would record and produce it and they would release it. My plan originally had been to record it in a studio, but COVID-19 put paid to all that. So instead I decided to do it at home, converting my wardrobe (clothes are good for sound deadening) into a temporary recording studio. “How hard could it be?” I thought, somewhat naively.
The answer is ‘hard’. Between finding times to record when the house is quiet and your neighbour isn’t having building work done, and learning about the mastering requirements for audible, this process has taken much longer than I hoped or expected. Having started months ago, albeit with a lot of distractions in between, I might finally finish it this week. It has been a painful process. But, the end result I am pretty happy with. And I have learned some new skills.
Am I now good at audio editing and mastering? No. Certainly a long, long way from expert. But am I competent enough to produce something that sounds good to the untrained ear? I think so. And while it feels like it has taken a very long time to me, in reality, three months is not a long time to learn a new competency.
Ts, Os, and charms
With the right foundation in learning, it is easy these days to rapidly acquire competencies. The best courses on the online learning platforms like Skillshare are truly brilliant, and there is a wealth of guidance out there on blog posts and forums (on which I am heavily reliant for my EV project). Collect a few of these competencies and it starts to feel like the popular ‘T-shaped’ model for skills doesn’t fit so well anymore.
The T-shaped employee is an idea originally from the 1980s, where it was used to describe people (still then ‘men’) with a single deep expertise but strong supporting skills that made them good collaborators. I wonder if a different shape isn’t now a more appropriate model. The O of the ‘charm bracelet’ is possibly most appropriate.
Back when these were all the rage, you would typically buy someone the charm bracelet with a few charms on it that you thought best represented them. Over time they could add more charms.
Think of skills in the same way. There are undoubtedly some core competencies that are critical for future success. I would argue those are the Three Cs that I laid out here, and in High Frequency Change. Everyone should leave school with these charms on their skill bracelet. But everyone will have others, based on their own interests and passions or upbringing.
Over time we all add more charms. Some of them might be big and expensive. A trade, a degree, or a depth of experience. Some of them might be small and cheap: basic competencies collected through online courses to allow you to complete a particular task, or just because you wanted to learn.
The people we want for a particular role or task might need to have collected particular charms, as well as having kept those core charms polished. But perhaps the most important thing we will be looking for is not what charms are on their bracelet, but whether they are keen to add more.