Kill the Jack of All Trades

Jack of all trades, king of none. I hate that saying because I used to believe it, and it was a curse on my self-perception for years. I seriously thought, that because I love writing, making music, taking pictures and pretty much anything else that involves creative thinking, and am completely incapable of limiting myself to one, that I was doomed to fail in all of them. Now, I declare war on this antiquated saying and way of thinking.

The saying implies that you have to specialize in something, or you will never find your full potential. It’s the hidden threat and slight air of superiority that appeals to my never-sleeping inner rebel. Who says you have to even think in terms of kings and jacks? I think that’s too limited, to be honest. If you really want to go with the playing card metaphor, why not go for being an ace? Or a joker? Or how about a whole hand – like a royal flush?

Being creative, no matter your field, is all about breaking down barriers, mixing up elements of the world around us and creating something new from it. If you’re good, you can capture people’s imagination with the result of your work. If you’re lucky, you might even invent something completely new. Leonardo da Vinci is arguably one of the greatest artists in history. He was also a noted inventor and scientist. No single card could possibly represent his work, and why should you and I be any different?

You might simply compare the Jack of All Trades label to that of finding a niche. A niche is a specialty. Mine, in the case of photography, is a certain type of portrait. It’s easier to get commercial success if you have a niche, that is no secret, but does that mean that you should limit yourself to that niche only and become its king? I think not. I think that if you do limit yourself like that, you will either burn out or become a one-trick pony. Like a band pumping out albums that all sound the same, even if they’re well played, written and produced. I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples. Instead, I suggest we all have many niches; maybe even one for everything we love to do.

In the age of social media and self-branding, if I was forced to choose, I’d rather be a jack of all trades than a king of one. Just like the saying implies that the jack will never be as good at that one thing as the king is, the reverse is also true: The king has a limited perspective and is bound to become more narrow-minded. However, I argue that the entire metaphor is outdated, and suggest that we outright kill the jack as well as his king. If you, like me, find that you are a set of jack, queen, king and ace on some days, and a mismatched five, two, eight and seven on others; invent your own game where all the cards are equally important. Solitaire, anyone?

I constantly look for ways to make a buck off of combining my many passions. Every time I succeed, I have discovered something uniquely mine and very fulfilling, and why shouldn’t we all do this as many times in our lives as possible? Trying to become a ‘king’ of only one field might build a better retirement fund, but I’d rather work hard till I drop than be a retiree who never explored life’s possibilities. The way I look at it, jacks and kings are all fine, but if life is a deck of cards, then it has 50 more facets, none of which should be easily discarded.

This post was inspired by a 3-year old kvetch of mine, Michael Nobbs’ recent post on a similar note, and the post by Seth Godin that inspired him.

Death to the jack and his king cohort, the world will be a better place to create in without them.

11 Replies to “Kill the Jack of All Trades”

  1. Great post man. I have been juggling so many different things my whole life and always heard that saying. I was just talking about it today with a friend and it’s funny I stumbled upon your post.

    Thanks for the inspiration!


  2. Hey, it beats being a one trick pony, right? I think if you try and juggle a variety of different things you become more well rounded, but the more time invested into each obviously helps you to grow in that area. Balance is key, I guess.

  3. Mike: Glad it helped. :)

    Todd: Balance is indeed key. Or at least one of them. The old “everything in moderation” applies here too.

    Andrew: Anybody can be a master of every single one of them. That’s the whole point of my post. :)

  4. it’s funny that i always happen across something just when i need it most. someone said this to me at work recently, i can’t think i’d ever heard the whole thing… jack of all trades, yes, king of none- ouch.

    i’ve pondered it several times over the last couple of weeks and although i somehow got downhearted about the whole thing… i never considered giving up all my little bits of this and that. i basically resigned myself to not fit in the mold and keep persevering. it warms my heart to see the sentiment isn’t only my own, and bolsters my courage to keep being creative in all the ways i know how. it benefits ME. and that’s the most important bit in there. if some company wants conformity, they’re missing my scope. their loss.

    thank you thank you thank you.

  5. Totally agree. It was good to read this! Over the years, I switched back and forth between photography and music as my main passion (outside of my 9-5 gig), following the just do one thing mindset. I went so far as to selling all my camera gear, then buying it back when I got the itch again. I did that a couple of times! I’ve just started to get my blog together, and while it will focus on a couple of my main interests, it will by no means be limited to them. I’ve finally realized I have, and need, more than one creative outlet. I’m fine with that!

  6. I spent 30mins making this post and can’t think of anything better then people should experience live to the fullest.

    I’m a master at something and I can say it took years and I’m glad I have that under my belt, but I have emptiness. I aspire to do more, to be more.

    Perhaps this is the human condition.

    My mother told my whole life that I could be anything I wanted to be. I still believe that. It might just be a mother’s dream, but I can see it in everyone now.

    You can do anything you want to.

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