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Should You be a "Jack of all trades" or a Specialist?
By Stephen Bucaro
A "jack of all trades" is an individual who is capable of accomplishing tasks in a wide range of disciplines. For example, when I was an Electronics Engineer, I would design electronics, lay out printed circuit board, design mechanical components, and launch product into production. I envied specialists because they just did their one little thing, but they were highly paid and respected as experts.
In your own career, which is best way to go? Should you be a "jack of all trades" or a specialist? In this article, you'll learn advantages and disadvantages of each approach, and techniques to help you succeed in whichever path you take.
What Employers Want
Employers don't want a "jack of all trades" or a specialist, they want a "specialist of all trades". They want someone who is expert in everything. Some companies will run same job ad, seeking this super-human, for years. If they could find this "specialist of all trades", no matter how high salary, they would save a ton of money by firing rest of their staff.
Employers may use phrase "jack of all trades" in job ad, but human resources department will filter applications based on specialist keywords, like "tax accountant" or "database programmer". If your resume mentions too many different specialties, it will filtered out as being not focused enough. It's a lot easier to get a job if you're a specialist than it is if you're a generalist.
But when economy starts to tank, a company can't afford to have an expensive specialist sitting at their desk playing solitaire. While at same time, lower cost "jack of all trades" appears to be busy solving all kinds of critical problems. That's advantage of being a generalist, no matter how slow things are, there's always problems to solve. Specialists are first to be fired when economy slows.
- Immediately after a specialist gets fired, they will be replaced by a contractor, often same individual.
The Stress of Being a "Jack of all trades"
Over last several decades, business and industry have become highly technical. In order to survive, a generalist must maintain a nominal level of proficiency in a wide range of technologies. This requires a heavy sacrifice in their personal life. They keep up on their own time, without pay. That's not to say that a specialist doesn't need to spend time keeping up with latest advances in their specialty. Companies understand a specialist's need to keep up and will often pay for specialist's training.
Companies expect same quality of work from generalist as they expect from specialist. But a generalist doesn't have same depth of knowledge in any single discipline as a specialist. That's why phrase is usually stated: "Jack of all trades, master of none".
This can result in generalist making more mistakes and producing a lower quality of work. This explains why, although "jack of all trades" may have vastly more overall skill and knowledge, they receive lower pay than specialist.
How to Succeed as a "Jack of All Trades"
The secret to being a successful "jack of all trades" is to know your limitations. Recognize when you are capable of performimg a task good enough, and when you must call upon a specialist. There is a symbiotic relationship between generalists and specialists. Specialists often make mistakes because they don't understand how other areas effect their work.
For example, an Electronics Engineer may not understand impact that physical environment has on an electronic design. A design that would work perfectly in a desktop computer will fail in dirty, humid, vibrating, electrically noisy environment of an earthmoving machine. Or Electronics Engineer might confidently add all kinds of extra features to a product. The generalist knows product's consumers don't need and won't pay for those extra features.