A Jack of All Trades
– a person who can do many different types of work but who is not necessarily very competent at any of them.
The name ‘Jack’ was used in English to refer to ‘the common man’. You can find it all the way back in 1390, in Confession Amantis, by John Gower:
Therwhile he hath his fulle packe,
They seie, ‘A good felawe is Jacke’.
In the 1592, the English writer Robert Greene used the Latin term Johannes factotum (‘Johnny do-it-all’) in a pamphlet titled Groats-worth of Witte:
An upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you. Beeing an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.
He wanted to express his opinion of a new writer on the scene. The name of this “upstart crow” was William Shakespeare. Makes you wonder what effect that had on Mr. Green’s reputation later on.
The expression entered the English language in 1612 via Geffray Minshull, who wrote about his experiences in prison in Essayes and characters of a prison and prisoners:
Some broken Cittizen, who hath plaid Jack of all trades.
In the late 18th century, the part ‘master of none’ was added and the label started being used in a derogatory way.
There are many famous “Jacks-of-all-trades”, like Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Tim Ferriss, David Bowie and Maya Angelou, to name just a few.
Personally, I was never really a master of any one skill. In elementary school they used to call me a “geek” or “nerd” because I was a straight-A student and paid attention in every class. I wanted to know everything about everything! I was hungry for knowledge about all sort of topics. In high school we got flat rate internet and my interests diverged into six million directions.
It took me seven years to earn a five-year degree in Computer Science. I just couldn’t focus on specializing in one skill or even a single domain of knowledge. I would constantly procrastinate on studying and follow one of my other interests/hobbies. I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up.
Enter Emilie Wapnick. She’s here to dispel the myth of the One True Calling. In my case, her TED Talk was followed by a slap on the forehead and a OF COURSE!” It would be an understatement to say I was relieved to find that other people have the same issues. In her book — How to Be Everything — she writes about the tools and strategies people can use to create careers out of ALL their hobbies and interests.
Good-bye impostor syndrome, you little shit.
The term used to describe a person with many interests and creative pursuits, who thrives on learning, exploring, mastering new skills and bringing disparate ideas together in creative ways is multipotentialite.
“An educational and psychological term referring to a pattern found among intellectually gifted individuals. [Multipotentialites] generally have diverse interests across numerous domains and may be capable of success in many endeavors or professions, they are confronted with unique decisions as a result of these choices.”
Other common names are polymath, multipod, generalist, scanner and Renaissance person.
Steve Pavlina wrote that he used to set goals for every area of life, like Career, Relationships, Health etc. It wasn’t something he devised, but rather picked up from other authors. After trying to achieve goals like that and changing/tweaking categories, he still felt like something was missing.
Instead of thinking of goals as specific accomplishments I want to rack up in each part of my life, I began thinking of goals as a means of self-expression. Some part of my personality wants to be expressed, and a strong goal can help me focus that desire for self-expression. As this expression manifests in reality, the result is a feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment.
― Steve Pavlina
He then proceeded to label different aspects of his personality where he seemed to have a strong need for expression. The Explorer loved to learn, grow, explore and travel. The Guide loved writing, public speaking, teaching and helping others grow. And so on for other aspects as well. You can check the details here.
He wrote a follow-up post where he described the exact process of creating your personality list, what mistakes to avoid and how to respect the desires of all aspects of him/herself and make them work together, instead of pushing one aspect to the front and suppressing the others.
This approach resonates with me and I strongly encourage anyone who recognizes him/herself as a multipod to read it.
When wearable technology and the human desire for self-tracking have sex, you get a movement dedicated to increasing self-knowledge and improving daily functioning/performance, called Quantified Self.
You don’t need to use wearable electronics for tracking. Logging can be done just by using spreadsheets or calendars or notebooks. The point is to gain insight and meaning from your data or make data-driven decisions to improve your life.
It’s a bit difficult to measure how much time and attention you are (or should be) giving to your various personalities and interests. For that purpose, I’ll use a neat little metric invented by Buster Benson.
The Slog Metric
1 metric slog is a small thing you do (that doesn’t yet come naturally) that is essentially practice wearing a new identity.
1,000 slogs is a kiloslog. A kiloslog is my best guess for the approximate weight of a single change in behavior/identity that will stick around. Depending on how big the identity shift is, a change may weigh more or less than one kiloslog, but it’s a good starting point to aim for. [emphasis mine]
― Buster Benson
So, a slog is anything you consider practice in wearing a new identity. That can be a basic action like “go for a run” as well as something that will push you in the direction of change, such as “register for a marathon”, since that will push you to train more.
Other examples Buster mentioned:
- Reading a book on a topic of your interest
- Meditating 7 days in a row
- Eating a salad when I didn’t want to in the moment (Love this one!)
- Buying a bike etc.
Each of those is one slog. I hope you understand that it’s not just practice that counts as a slog, but everything you did that took some effort or investment in your future behavior or identity.
You can use the slog metric to track your involvement with a certain interest, its progress, discover or limit where you tend to invest the most effort, plan ahead etc.
Whether or not you consider yourself a multipod/generalist, I think you could benefit from looking at yourself as a collection of personalities that each have their own needs and desires. If you liked my previous post, this will be right up your alley.
Use It to Track and Discover
There are a lot of self-tracking apps for smartphones for you to try. Or just use a regular old journal. The process would roughly look like this:
- Write a list of your interests or personality aspects (I’ll call them subselves).
- Every time you do an activity related to an interest/subself, add +1 slog to that category on your list.
- Pay special attention when you do something for a hobby, but you’re “not supposed” to. For example reading an article on cooking while at work, or going for another jog when you should be studying. Put +1 to the activity you were doing and mention the activity you should be doing.
- Bonus points if you count how many times you distracted yourself with something like mindless web-surfing or TV shows instead of something productive. Investing attention to distraction is also slogging, since you’re shaping your identity (which trickles down to behavior).
- Tally the slogs up at the end of the day/week/month.
- Be surprised by how much attention you pay to certain activities.
You’ll probably notice some disparity between what you want to be doing and what you “should” or think you want to be doing. Sometimes our goals and desires can be socially conditioned and not our own. It takes a bit of introspection to realize which of your desires are yours and which just sound like a good idea because everyone says so.
Tracking data can require a lot of willpower. Sometimes you just forget. You can do a quick review of your day and note the approximate number of slogs you spent on something. Be honest. Don’t pretend you were working when you were actually doing something else.
Use It to Plan or Limit
Tracking is not a necessary prerequisite for this part, but it’s useful to make decisions and tweaks when you have some hard data behind your choices.
Plan your next day, week or month with this concept in mind. If you really should be studying or doing something for your business, decide in advance how many slogs you’ll give to certain activities and stick with it. Remind yourself that you’ll give more slogs to that interest later.
If you really can’t stop yourself from procrastinating on your main goals or obligations, head over to Zenhabits. Leo Babauta is a master of changing habits, overcoming procrastination, dealing with stress/anxiety, simplicity and mindfulness.
Give Slogs Where Slogs are Due
Maybe you’ll notice that some of your many subselves have been starving for attention. And you realize that, if you ignore them for too long, you’ll start procrastinating on everything else. Like an unstoppable, god-damned procrastination machine.
Sometimes the only antidote is to honor that aspect or interest. Start by giving it a slog or two, just so it can breathe. If it’s not enough, increase carefully but deliberately. Small steps. Don’t overdo it. With just a bit of experience, you’ll get better at allocating your mental and temporal resources to things that really matter and things that are urgent.
Don’t beat yourself up if you slip. So you made a mistake. Big deal. Happens to all of us. Get up and try again.
Leave Room to Explore
I always leave time for myself just to read or watch random interesting stuff or scratch various itches in my brain. I noticed that I’m unhappy when I don’t give myself the pleasure of discovering something new and exciting. Whenever I have a super busy week, I make sure to allocate some slogs for some unplanned me time.
Consuming, Connecting, Creating
If you don’t find value in looking at your personality as multifaceted or tracking specific interests, I have another idea.
Split your slogs between three different types of activities:
- Consuming – Receiving input you consider meaningful, like reading (news, books, blogs, articles), watching (movies, TV shows, documentaries, YouTube), listening (music, podcasts, public speaking) etc.
- Connecting – Communicating and spending time with romantic friends, family, lovers or pets.
- Creating – Producing content like writing, coding, building or any form of art.
I read somewhere that you can combine consuming and connecting, but shouldn’t combine creating with the other two modes for maximum effect. This appears to be true for me.
I’ve noticed that I devote a lot more slogs to consuming and connecting than creating. I have a personal minimum requirement for connecting with others, or I risk going crazy for human contact. I also have a tendency for overconsumption, as a way of procrastinating. That’s a signal that I need to change something.
A cool idea I want to try is limiting consumption to an absolute minimum (like 1-2 slogs per day), and see what happens with my connections and creativity. I’m not sure I’m ready for a total content fast, but I’ll definitely try it at some point.
Don’t spend your life slogging on something meaningless. If you feel empty, give your other subselves some love and attention. It’s okay to be everything at once. Figure out all the things you want to do or be at this moment, and don’t be afraid to change along the way. For people like us, having the same shape all the time isn’t healthy or fun. Be like water.
You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water, my friend. ― Bruce Lee
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