GIVE DUE: The dilemma of being Jack of all trades, master of none
THE aphorism, "jack of all trades, master of none", has a negative connotation. It refers to one who is competent in many areas but does not excel in one.
Many, however, will testify that Jack has been a saviour in critical situations when ideas and feedback are needed to project a holistic picture of a venture.
Jack is skilful in bringing ideas into fruition. He is a master of integration as he knows more than enough in theory and practice to amalgamate disciplines and knowledge into a whole.
It is right, therefore, that you credit him for his many learned trades and skills.
Rather than referring to Jack as "master of none", he should be acknowledged as an exceptional individual whose expertise and knowledge span a significant number of subjects.
He should be recognised as a polymath.
Science fiction writer Robert Anson Heinlein, who was among the most influential and controversial authors of the genre in his time, had this to say about specialisation: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects."
In academia, a specialist wants to be in a field where his opinion is sought.
Specialisation creeps in whenever an academic submits an application for promotion, especially for professorship.
He has to prove his specialisation in the discipline associated with the professorship title. Being a Jack of all trades will not help him get the coveted post.
Many people put focus on a single area to be more marketable. Without doubt, specialists will always be in demand in any industry.
Unlike the corporate world where generalists will take over the upper positions of the hierarchy, in academia, you need to be a specialist as you rise through the ranks. In all probability, Jack may regret his all-round contribution to many fields through research, opinions, writings and organising students' and employees' activities.
It may be too late for him to specialise as his application for professorship comes late in his academic career. Besides, he has many fields to choose from.
Academics who are generalists are useful when there are classes left unattended by those running to greener pastures or on sabbatical and replacements are hard to come by.
Many gain knowledge in several fields before entering academia. Their proactive initiative stems from the need to be well-prepared in areas that are indirectly related to their disciplines. Their all-round learning allows them to be at ease from start to finish in projects.
A jack of all trades implies you do not have the expertise of specialisation required of a professorship.
The strong contributions by generalists should be considered for a reward alongside specialists. And the best honour is a promotion which denotes recognition.
Specialists say that the days of generalists are long gone or never existed; generalists are amateurs, specialists survive and thrive.
Have the critics of generalists not heard of Zhang Heng, Omar Khayyam, Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and Rabindranath Tagore?
While generalists are not on the same level as polymaths, being Jack has worked well for many. Their flexibility and willingness to learn is an asset.
They make valuable team members because they know more than a fair bit about many fields.
Curiosity gets the better of generalists. Their interests in something new may not be skin-deep.
They love learning new things. Though they may not like all of the disciplines, nevertheless, they enjoy the process of learning.
Many subjects interest them so they have trouble concentrating on one. The skills garnered over the years help to solve many problems.
Generalists are, in many ways, in control of their destiny. They are independent when seeking answers. They seldom rely on others for solutions. They follow the adage of doing it themselves if they want something done right.
Even if they are constrained by time and cost, they know a job can be done.
Their curiosity leads them from one subject to another in search of the best answers. Unlike generalists, specialists enjoy trying to perfect their skills.
Many generalists have a primary passion in which they spend the most energy practising and perfecting.
Perhaps they are better off striking a balance between being a generalist and a specialist.
Their secondary knowledge may help their primary work. They are valuable resource people. There is no reason for generalists to feel inferior.Arzmi Yaacob New Straits Times Online Learning Curve 16 December 2012