Jack of All Trades: 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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