“Jack of all trades, master of none…”
This is a figure of speech meant to reflect two types of thought that quite honestly have completely opposing meanings. The key to understanding which philosophy to live by greatly depends on which end of the phrase you put emphasis on.
Jack of All Trades
When one considers being a Jack of all trades, they are pursuing an idea wherein no matter what they do, they will undoubtedly obtain some amount of skill and proficiency in it. This is done not to be the best at that particular task or ability, but to simply use that skill to be as practical and efficient as possible. Imagine an individual that could do well in mathematics competitions and has great skill in playing piano while also being an effective martial artist. These people are powerful not because they can juggle all of the practice of all of these activities but because they have both the mental fortitude and the physical endurance to do so.
Take a look at some of the most prominent figures in history and you have clear examples of these “Jacks and Jills”. In ancient Spartan society, it was expected that all Spartans, men and women, be not only physical fit and battle-ready but also skilled in music, dance, politics, literacy, and the known sciences. Another culture that demanded diversity of skill was that of the samurai, who sought spiritual perfection through art, poetry, and warfare. A more philosophical example would be the modern ideal that a college-worthy individual that excels in academia but also found the time for sports, helping the community, and have strong moral aptitude.
Master of None
Of course if one considers the other end of the spectrum of thought, a Jack of all trades would be lacking in each of their disciplines because they could not focus all of the energies on it. These individuals would rarely if ever know the glory that is being the greatest in their respective specialty. A master of none has no place among the elite of each skill or discipline; never will they be able to excel so efficiently as the powerhouses, the ones that have pursued the top more diligently.
A master of none can also be seen in the rather negative light of never having the attention span to stick with one practice, always seeking to improve in other realms before ever truly pushing in the current one. These individuals lack the motivation or the passion to try and be the best there ever was. Take a chess grandmaster going up against a novice chess player for example, it seems almost impossible for the novice to win if the grandmaster plays their heart out. Just as a world class boxer would dance circles around a junior boxing for exercise rather than the gold.
But Better Than a Master of One
Now we reach the true end of the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none, but better than a master of one.” While it is true a Jack of all trades may never taste the sweet glory of being the best ever, they will know that regardless of their proficiency in one area, they will still fair far better than the best in other areas. Consider this, a world class boxer may dominate in the ring with boxing rules alone, but they could hardly last in a cage with a world class mixed martial artist. Just as a biology master would most likely crush a Jeopardy veteran in biology-based exams, so shall the biologist probably fail to the veteran in a few rounds of trivia based around all academic categories.
So it is true, a master of one is deserving of praise and admiration for their passion and their skill. But a jack of all trades, master of none, is deserving of just as much praise and admiration for their incredible ability to be capable in all of their own disciplines. Because these people are far more practical, being able to adapt their skills as necessary to any given situation. It is the concept of interdisciplinary practice that separates the practical from the professional. It is the idea that if one works hard enough on multiple skill sets and knows just enough of multiple sciences, they will be capable of so much more than specialists.
However, while I would encourage all to pursue as many different practices as they can, I also insist on being capable in each as well. Personally, I have lived by this philosophy for quite a long time. I train hard to be a versatile martial artist and combatant but I also work to be knowledgeable in various academic subjects and have solid understanding of practical disciplines as well. I am always striving not to be the best, but to be the best I can be. This is what I want to preach to any willing to listen, to become a true Jack or Jill of all trades. But here is the kicker, while I encourage being as practically diverse as possible, I also encourage being a master of each as well. Perhaps that could be a new figure of speech, a more motivating one…
“Jack of all trades, master of each”