The Jack of All Trades: Why It’s Valuable, and How You Can Become One

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

The best single coworker I ever had was a fellow named Darwin. Darwin was one of those “jack of all trades” types – he simply seemed to have some insight about everything – and the actual ability to back it up. He knew how to program computers and manage large database systems. He could make a mean strawberry rhubarb cobbler. He could repair his own truck. He could provide good conversation on almost any topic.

In short, he was one of those people that was almost always useful to know or have around. His skill set may not have made him a master in any particular area, but he had skills in almost every area. And, most of the time, it was those basic skills that were needed to get the job done. Unsurprisingly, Darwin’s social network was enormous. You could hardly go anywhere with him without Darwin bumping into someone he knew. His weekends were almost always filled with projects, where he would help someone out with some sort of project or invite others to help him with something.

All of these factors came together when Darwin tackled his largest project: building his own house. Yes, you read that right. He served as his own general contractor on his house. He had the skills necessary to do this thanks to many years of working on a wide variety of projects. He also had a huge network of people to call on to provide the manual labor needed. Thanks to these things, he was able to turn a pile of dirt into an amazing home in a year, saving himself more than a hundred thousand dollars in the process. That doesn’t even include all of the money saved by spending weekends hanging out with friends working on projects instead of out on the town spending money.

That, my friends, is the value of being a jack of all trades.

Of course, it’s a very sharp example of it – most people are never going to build their own home, nor will they ever acquire a skill set as well-rounded and diverse as Darwin’s. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t become something of a jack of all trades of your own. Here are ten steps you can take to developing a large, diverse skill set – and a nice social network to go along with it.

1. Define what you actually want to achieve – and the skills you will need to achieve it.
When you close your eyes and imagine the types of things you’d like to be able to do, what do you imagine? Perhaps you envision being able to do home repair, or maintenance on your car. Maybe you’d like to learn some carpentry in order to eventually build a shed. Maybe you’d like to learn a musical instrument. One friend of mine actually dreams of opening a small catering business, cooking good food at a large scale.

Figure out a large goal or two that you’d like to achieve, then break this goal down into some basic skills. Let’s say, for example, that you wanted to learn how to do basic home repair and also learn how to cater food for a large group. You could easily extract a long list of home repair skills, as well as a sizable list of culinary and kitchen techniques. In short, you’re crafting lists of the things you want to learn – a checklist for your near future.

Another good exercise is to figure out the skills you already have. What do you know how to do that many others do not? Is this something that’s useful to others? Perhaps you’re good at computer repair, or maybe you already can bake quite well. Quite often, the skills you already have can be bartered to learn new skills.

2. Start with the people already around you.
The people already in your social network are the best people to start with in your endeavors. Look for the friends and family you already have that have skills you’d like to learn, and simply ask to learn from them. In exchange, you should offer them something as well – one of your skills might be put to use in their life, or you might be able to simply serve as a helping hand for one of their projects.

As you get more comfortable with sharing your skills and with the process of picking up new ones, expand your horizons a bit. Look for people further and further out on your social network to trade skills with. Not only does this provide an opportunity to learn new skills, it also gives you a chance to forge new relationships with people.

3. Keep your ears and eyes open.
If you pay attention, almost every day gives us opportunities to share our skills and abilities as well as learn from others. Keep your ears and eyes open and see what’s available around you.

Perhaps a neighbor is working on a project in the yard. Why not ask if he or she could use a hand? Maybe someone will mention that their brother is adept at exactly the thing you’re yearning to learn. Step up and ask if you can give that person a ring. It might even be as simple as offering to help someone fix their car in a parking lot – it gives you an opportunity to learn, after all.

Just look for every opportunity that life reveals to you to pick up a skill you’d like to have. Those opportunities come more often than you might think.

4. Volunteer.
Another great avenue for picking up skills is through volunteer projects. Groups like Habitat for Humanity are constantly engaged in projects where you can not only learn a useful skill, but you can spend your time in a way that provides for others at no direct cost for yourself. Browse through the charities on Volunteer Match and see what charities are available in your local area.

Be aware, though, that volunteer work isn’t strictly an excuse to learn new skills. Most of the time, you will be engaged in activities that utilize the skills and talents you bring to the table. Stick with it, though – volunteer opportunities can teach you a lot of skills if you give them time to flourish.

5. Share what you know.
Many people often feel that they don’t have something of value to share. Very rarely is that actually true – all of us have something valuable to share right in between our ears. Share what you know freely and widely. Often, people have valuable information and insights in areas that they never expect until others ask about it.

Never fail to share with others. Why? When an opportunity comes around and you want or need something, if you’ve shared with someone in the past, they’re much more likely to help you when you need it. The best place to start is with what you know, so get sharing.

6. When learning, master the basics first.
When my three year old is learning about something new, he asks “Why?” over and over again, even if he already knows why. Why does he do this? It’s not to annoy us – it’s to reinforce basic principles. Over time, he begins to tie things together – the numbers on the clock are the same as the numbers in his counting song, for example. When you have the basic principles behind things down cold, it becomes much easier to build more complex ideas on top.

I find that, when I’m learning a new skill, it’s often valuable to continually work on the basics as I go along, even if they seem familiar. For example, whenever I’m preparing a dish with vegetables, I often quite enjoy the chopping of the vegetables, even though it’s the most basic of steps. It’s a technique that, when well-practiced, makes the entire process of preparing a meal much easier. If I really focus on mastering technique when chopping vegetables, I get better and better and better at it, so that when the time comes that I need to chop very quickly, I have the skills in place to do it.

Master the basics and the advanced techniques will seem much more attainable.

7. Read something new every day.
Each day, make an effort to read something new related to your interests. Read a chapter in a book, a magazine article, or some blog entries on that topic.

This helps in two ways. First, it keeps your mind focused on the skills you’re trying to learn. If those skills are constantly present in your mind, you’ll find yourself drawn to practice them and grow them naturally. Second, it exposes you to new ideas and thoughts and facets related to that skill. Reading what others have written on the topic constantly exposes your mind to new angles on what might seem like a familiar area.

Whenever I’m interested in a topic, I usually start by following a few blogs on it. I do some Googling for blogs on my topic of interest, follow some links, and find a well-written one or two, then I follow them in Google Reader. This is a great, inexpensive way to get my feet wet and my mind working.

8. Try something new every day.
There’s no better way to master a new skill than by simply doing it. Dive in and get your hands dirty as often as you reasonably can.

Again, there are two ways to do this. On one hand, you can tackle a small project each day – cooking your own supper from scratch, for example, is a great way to get up to speed in the kitchen. On the other hand, you can also keep a larger project and contribute to it each day. Perhaps you’re trying to become better as a writer – you can start a novel and add a certain number of words each day. Let your imagination run with this – but make sure you’re doing at least a little something each day as you build your new skill.

9. Share the things you produce.
If you begin to produce quality items from your practice, share the things you produce with others. Invite people over for dinner and cook something stunning. Build a jewelry box for the daughter of a friend. Give away some of the vegetables from your garden.

What you’ll find is that if you start sharing what you know, they’ll share what they know. You’ll find someone that can help you fix your toilet (and probably teach you how to do it yourself). You’ll start getting dinner invitations – and some delicious meals.

Most of all, you’ll receive friendship, upon which so much can grow.

10. Apply the skills you’re learning in your own life.
Best of all, as you acquire these new skills, you can apply them in your own life. The better you become at cooking, the better your diet becomes and the less expensive your food becomes. The better you become at home repair tasks, the more likely it is that you can handle things that break down in your home without calling the repairman. The better you become at writing, the more likely it is you can sell a piece or you can start a successful blog that can earn you a bit of money.

All of this comes back to two things: building skills and building relationships. The more you do of both, the better off you are.

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36 thoughts on “The Jack of All Trades: Why It’s Valuable, and How You Can Become One

  1. guinness416 says:

    I agree, but also know several people who THINK they’re a jack of all trades, but are decidedly not. Sorry lads, but in my experience this is a particularly male trait :)

  2. codekitchen says:

    You hooked me by opening with my favorite Heinlein qoute. Thanks for the writeup, Trent. There’s some great ideas here.

  3. The jack of all trades types are usually the invaluable employees in an organization. They can usually fall into a variety of roles, and are usually the “go-to” individuals for any project since they have such a broad background of information. Definitely try to become one, but you gotta work at it!

  4. One snag is that most people don’t want to be a jack of all trades or have the skills or desire to be a jack of all trades.

    Personally, I would rather focus on the projects and skills that I have true passion about. I will be more motivated, more energized, and much more effecient. It is much more valuable to me to hire out my mechanic work and spend my time helping a friend set up a website, rather than spending a weekend figuring out how to change a pair of brakes.

    Just my thoughts.

  5. Candi says:

    Go Trent! I am just happy to see a Heinlen quote. I thought I recognized it as I was reading it, lol. And I happen to feel it’s pretty accurate. A person needs to be able to do a variety of things.

  6. Seth Dent says:

    The problem with this is that most people only dip their toes into different things & do not fully experience them. I don’t like the term “jack of all trades”, I prefer “Renaissance Man”.

    As long as you are actually LEARNING how to do these varied things, then it is a valuable life skill. You cannot pursue the basics of everything collectively, but one thing at a time. Once you have learned the basics of something well, you can pursue it in combination with other things.

    Just remember: learn the basics & learn them well.
    With that said, my hobbies/interests are sea kayaking, tea drinking, photography, writing, trail running, blogging, inbound marketing, music, German (culture, food, language), road & mountain cycling, snowboarding, graphic design, reading, film, & the list just continues on.

  7. chris says:

    If you want to make big time money you need dnafxtrading. These guys made 1,000% return last year in the recession!! I am up $1,500 over the last 2 weeks.

    http://www.dnafxtrading.com

  8. Joey says:

    This is a 180 degree turnaround from the entries you often make decrying multitasking and urging honing one’s skills.

  9. Ben says:

    @ Joey

    There is a HUGE difference between developing a large skill set and multitasking. The difference, quite frankly, is between knowing how to do many things well, and attempting to do them all at once.

    For instance, it would be a good thing to know how to change your oil and make a good meal, though doing them both at the same time would result in a less than satisfying experience.

    In a less stark example (from my own experience) I am quite good at watching TV and reading papers for work, but when I try to do both, I find that I cannot follow the intricacies of Firefly and the latest chemical research as well as I should like. This is despite the fact that knowing how to do both is actually quite enjoyable.

    Perhaps that make the difference between ‘Jack of all trades’ and multi-tasking?

  10. Alice says:

    I don’t understand why people so often argue about the value of these posts. If you don’t like the post, go read a different blog.

    That being said, I like this advice. Any tips on getting the habits set? I always start projects but get sidetracked before I get routines underway. I’d love some practical motivational advice.

  11. Karen says:

    Oh, I’m such a “jane” of all trades, it’s not even funny… Spanish, web design, photography, desktop publishing, etc.

  12. Tara says:

    I see your site made All My Faves – good for you!

  13. George says:

    > This is a 180 degree turnaround from the
    > entries you often make decrying
    > multitasking and urging honing one’s skills.

    I don’t think so. Just because one has a large number of skills doesn’t mean that one is using them simultaneously. And honing the skills has little to do with how many skills one has… practice one, practice the next, etc. Not having a basket of skills is like a tennis player only being able to serve the ball — what are they going to do when the opponent hits it back?

  14. Jules says:

    Heh, I always get weird looks at work when the conversation around the coffee table turns to an area that I know a lot about, because it’s not an area I’m “supposed” to know anything at all about: movie trivia, food, photography, the finance mess (I guess nobody thinks a woman’s supposed to know what a subprime mortgage is), art and art techniques, birds, horses, etc etc etc.

  15. I think the most important tip here is to read something everyday. Little by little, you will become knowledgeable on many subjects doing this, and it doesn’t take much effort.

  16. Shevy says:

    My favorite RAH quote! The funny thing is, if you read it through carefully you’ll realize that 100 years ago the majority of people *did* know how to do the majority of the items on that list!

    Okay, they couldn’t program a computer and they may or may not have been able to write a sonnet or conn a ship but they were better “general specialists” than we are. They had to be. Their survival depended on it.

  17. Great post! You should have basic skills and knowledge. I have come to the conclusion we can all learn to do just about anything . . .

    There is one thing to keep in mind, we need to know our limitations. For example, we can all learn to play golf, but most of us (99%+) won’t play at Tiger’s level.

    If you are unsure about something– get some help . . .

  18. I think it’s a romantic notion to know and do a little bit of everything, but speaking as a small business owner, trying to be a “jack of all trades” is one of the WORST mistakes I made. Rather than specialize in a few key areas and get help with the rest, I spent a lot of time trying to be able to do everything. The result – a lot of mediocre work that I’m not particularly proud of and missed opportunities.

    My advice – forget the idea that you can know (and do) everything. Assess your strengths, improve your skills in those areas, and get help with the rest. The net result is more profitable, and the task is much more realistic.

  19. Jerry says:

    While I’m not a Jack of all, I find it necessary to be at least somewhat knowledgeable about many things.
    As a home owner, knowing basic plumbing, painting and carpentry is needed to keep from busting your budget. I wouldn’t try to re-plumb my entire house, but being able to fix a leaky faucet will save money not only in water bills but from the professional plumber that will seriously impact your budget.
    Having the skill set to do something doesn’t automatically mean I’m going to do it. Even thought I can tune up my car and could replace the brakes if needed, I leave those tasks to the expert.

  20. Heather says:

    Good stuff! I love these kind of people and happen to be one myself. In my short life span, I’ve done things from theater to housekeeping, teaching to laying tile floors. Each one had it’s rewards. Hence, I sometimes laugh at myself as I am now in medical school. Everyone asks, “What are you going to specialize in?” My reply, “Graduation!” Why? Because I have no clue what specialty (residency) to pick; of course, the idea is that you choose based on prior knowledge and clinical rotations. Anywho! Jack/ie of all trades are a great find and serve you well no matter where you go. For me, I’ve found that it especially helps me to relate to patients and non-clinical staff.

  21. Esther says:

    My husband is definately a jack of all trades, and is smarter than anyone else I know. But, here’s the real conundrum: he doesn’t have a college degree (he probably has enough credits) and the businesses that could really use his talents won’t hire him for that reason. So now, he has started his own business. When will people get a clue that a college degree doesn’t always give one the skills needed to do a job?

  22. Aaron says:

    I definitely fit this description — knowledgeable about a wide variety of things, substantial network of people, etc.

    The biggest problem I have is that most employers want people that have expertise in one area; at least those employers that pay well.

    At times, it’s nice being a little knowledgeable about a lot of different things, but there are many times when I feel that it’s a curse that results in me being universally mediocre.

    I’ve found that the jobs where I’m best suited are those that require abstract thinking; I can often apply knowledge I’ve garnered from other areas in unexpected ways, by finding connections and homologies.

    For those others of you out there like us, check out Barbara Sher’s “Refuse to Choose” — my wife bought it for me for Solstice one year and I’ve found it a little helpful at times.

  23. steve in W MA says:

    The older I get, the more I realize that my ability to learn is limited and it’s difficult to be truly knowledgeable or competent outside of a single area. Also, I’ve lost a lot of my interest in expanding my knowledge outside of certain areas–realizing that the field of knowledge is limitless.

    It is true that having wide general knowledge is useful. I do think there is danger in overspreading one’s energy.

  24. Christy says:

    My husband too is a jack of all trades – it is amazing the things he is able to do. He doesn’t have any college but because he is willing to try and to learn he owns not 1 but 2 businesses. I especially like that you suggest that you read something everyday , try something new everyday and share the things you produce. Ideas to live by.
    thanks.

  25. partgypsy says:

    My husband sounds like your friend Darwin (except my husband doesn’t know much about cars!). My husband’s maternal grandfather was an incredibly industrious man. In addition to being scout leader and founding a hospital (he was a country doctor) he for fun deconstructed, moved and re- put-together an old log cabin. He also (with the help of his close friends built a cabin together, everything from cutting down the trees for logs to getting the river rocks for the chimney to pouring the concrete. What am I getting at? My husband when he was a boy was dropped off at “cobweb camp” every summer where he was conscripted for various tasks. He hated it at the time but now appreciates the experience. He has worked as a roofer, painter, mover, and rehabber. The vast majority of the work done on our house has been done with his hands. If he doesn’t know something he’ll hang out with someone who does. My husband has a large circle of friends. He will never be rich but he has huge human capital. If he doesn’t know something he knows who can, and exchanges what he can do for their help.

    I do have to say Trent that some people are just built this way. However I’m not built this way so this is not good advice for me. You have to have a lot of interest, time, and motivation to make this pay off and the pay off is not immediate but over a lifetime.

  26. Bill in Houston says:

    I fit this description to an extent. I’m also one of those people who remembers all kinds of trivial things (to the point where friends and family call me to ask questions about stuff). What made me this way? That same Heinlein quote for one. I read it as a teen. Also coming from an industrious family is another.

  27. Love the Heinlein quote! I think #7 and #8 are key: you need to keep an open mind, and be willing to learn. I learned basic electrical wiring a few years ago when I turned 40, and I have an MBA. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, but I like learning new things on the computer, like WordPress code. I think it keeps things interesting, and keeps my brain young.

  28. scott says:

    What about the old adage. Jack of all trades, master of none. Why hire a jack of all trades, when an expert can be easily found for less?

    I debate this often, on what I want be when I grow up.

  29. AnnJo says:

    For years, I envied the people who had one of those handymen Dads or Grandads, and was resigned to paying exorbitant fees for basically simple but to me mysterious services. But in the last few years (and especially with the rise of YouTube), a Jack or Jill of All Trades mentor is just a few clicks away.

    In the last couple of years I’ve learned off the Internet how to field strip and clean my new handgun, take off and clean out the clogged trap under the sink, repair my Foodsaver, repair my refrigerator, drain the sediment from my water heater, figure out what was wrong with a leaking dishwasher and fix it, figure out why my washing machine was leaving white scum on my clothes and fix it, properly prune a rose bush, and more.

    Granted there’s a lot of junk to wade through, there are also surprisingly clear, detailed and comprehensive instructions available for many things that formerly would have left me at the mercy of expensive tradespeople visits or appliance replacements.

    I’m not much inclined to “warm and fuzzy” feelings, but the generosity of people (like Trent and my YouTube skills mentors) who take the time and trouble to share their skills freely with total strangers gives me one.

  30. Lokate says:

    i would love to be known as a this type of girl. These are great tips for honing your skills (i’m already muling over goals i can set…) I try to keep me skills catalogued at my website (shameless plug, http://laurelkate.com). It sort of came from a joke my roommates and i had about becoming professional freelancers… but I would love it if someone actually wanted me to make a cake for them!

    thanks for yet another great post.

  31. My husband is like Darwin. It has saved us lots of money. It has also meant that we could help lots of family and friends with projects as well.

    I think that it’s a requirement for frugal living as well!

  32. The main benefit to a wide range of skills is synergy and opportunism and the resulting efficiency (most specialists and enormously inefficient in all other areas than their speciality.

    The business owner essentially outsources to his employers and so does the consumer, but there is value in doing things yourself simply because the price for the other methods are too high compared to the value you get.

    Anyway, one thing you’ll discover as your range of skills get wider and wider is that everything is based on the same basics. This is pretty much impossible to realize from the outset when the focus is more in the technicalities (you don’t know what the basics are yet). Even later when the focus is on implementation, it is not obvious.

  33. Georgia says:

    One of those jill-of-all-trades could be my daughter. When she & her brother were young, I continually told them that, if they could read, there was no excuse for not being able to cook. Recipes are so precise now and heat is so much more constant.

    However, when she was a nanny is St. Louis, I discovered she had carried my admonition a big step further. She felt that if she could read it she could do it. I even have trouble with that concept, and my comprehension is very good.

    She has fixed gates, rewired electrical outlets, used a chain saw for her crafts, taken Accounting courses and been a whiz at them, is now working putting computer boards together, is good with behind the scenes work in drama, excellent seamstress, writes poems and stories, been a paid housekeeper/companion, and is a great children’s person. She has been a nanny, a Sunday School/Children’s Church leader, and worked in day care. She completely blows my mind. I have trouble believing she is mine. How did my husband and I create such an accomplished person?

    One time, working in a day care center, they decided to stencil all the woodwork. Daughter went out and bought the supplies and, by the time the professional got there, had one doorway stenciled. The lady asked her where she trained and daughter said, “I read the directions on the back of the package.” The lady replied, “There goes 2 years training down the drain.”

    And my husband was the same – was a mechanic, farmer, plumber, carpenter, tiler, roofer, welder, electritian, etc. I think that came from growing up on a farm where you had to make do and make your own. No money to do otherwise.

  34. Alex says:

    Oh yeah! I feel the same way. I’ve developing skillsets in everything: stock/bond/option/future/fund investing,medical treatment, nutritional health, clothing fibres, woodworking, metalworking, trading online, cycling, chemical storage…

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