“What do you do?”
We all know this question. It’s one of those conversation starting points. By determining someone’s occupation, we can make a few assumptions about them and we gain a starting point for other conversation topics.
For some people, however, this question is difficult to answer without sounding like a complete flake. What if you “do” many things? What if you don’t have one definite career path?
When asked this question at one of my early get-togethers with my posse of Nelson girlfriends, someone else provided what I now consider the ultimate reply.
“It’s easier to ask her what she doesn’t do.”
These days, when asked that question, I say that I’m a writer. Because I now have a published novel, something concrete and tangible I can point to, I can avoid the lengthy and embarrassing explanations about how I have published work, but not a book, yet, and I don’t make much money, but it is my career, and blah blah blahity blah. Before the book, however, my answer would have generally contained a grocery list of jobs.
I am a Jill of All Trades. And I love it. I can give your cat an injection, tile your floor, edit your website, and take you on an educational tour of a coral reef. I also know how to disarm you if you attack me with a knife. Which, for the record, I hope you don’t do. My resume reads like a list of career options for highschool students and if you think mine is bad, you should see Prez’s.
This career and hobby potpourri is not a result of laziness, indecisiveness, or stupidity, and I don’t think either Prez or I have ever been fired from a job. The reason for the variety is a combination of burning curiosity, nomadic tendencies, spirited independence, and a highly developed ability to adapt. When we want to move to a new city, country, or continent, we simply find a way to make a job for ourselves in the new environment. What the life of a Jack and Jill of All Trades lacks in stability, it more than makes up for in adventure.
But there is a dark side. Jacks and Jills in North America face an unusual prejudice. Our society has become one that increasingly equates success and respectability with specialization. Do one thing, do only one thing, do it well, do it for decades, and you’re a person worth admiring. Do lots of things? Even if you do them well? You’re a dabbler and a loser.
I have nothing against specialization. Believe me, if I go in for knee surgery I want my surgeon to have done thousands of knee surgeries, I want her to be able to do a knee surgery in her sleep, I want to see a “I heart knee surgery!” bumper sticker on her car, I want her to live and breathe knee surgeries! I’m simply saying that specialization isn’t the only model we should admire or aspire to, in fact, I think this trend of pushing toward more and more specialization as a societal goal is unhealthy.
With this opinion, I am in the minority.
The Look. I know it so well, I’ve seen it so often. It happens in conversations, most often with Prez, because he’s the more talkative (loud) of the two of us. The person(s) he’s talking to have heard him describe an incident from his stunt career, then maybe he mentions that he can fix their dishwasher, and then maybe he’ll sidetrack into website design and SEO, or any of a dozen of his areas of experience. The Look begins as amusement but soon morphs into derision. They think he’s boasting, they think he’s full of shit. He couldn’t possibly know how to do that, and that, AND that.
There it is: the prejudice.
Why? This is what intrigues me. History books are full of people (okay, mostly men), whose careers and fields of study spanned the spectrum. Benjamin Franklin was an author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. Sir Francis Bacon was a philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator and author. Da Vinci, Copernicus, Newton, and many more famous names fall under the designation of “polymath”.
Polymath: (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”), is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable.
Or the less-flattering modern version: Know-it-all.
Don’t worry, I am not going to compare myself or Prez to Benjamin Franklin. I’m simply pointing out that there was a time when it wasn’t considered absurd to follow many different paths of knowledge and interest.
I adore polymaths. What most people fail to understand is that polymaths, know-it-alls, Jacks and Jills of All Trades, whatever you choose to call them, love to learn. They may not learn in the traditional forms set by our society, but they live for learning. They’re individualists. They love to solve problems and figure things out on their own. They’re generally not content to accept things at face value. They’re not always right but that’s not the point for a Jack or Jill; the goal is to acquire knowledge and skills. And the most fascinating thing about Jacks and Jills is that their “big picture” thinking allows them to see connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and problems.
Hide not your talents, they for use were made. What’s a sundial in the shade? ~ Ben Franklin
I have this thing I love to do with Prez. I present him with a challenge: “I need X to do Y and I need it to look like Z.” He may shake his head and bemoan the impossibility of my request, but you can practically hear the wheels in his head turning. Challenge! Problem! Must figure out! It might take him a day, a week, or a month, but 99% of the time, he gives me exactly what I asked for, and often with a few extras and improvements.
Yes, some people do talk a big talk and pretend they know everything about everything simply to stoke their own ego. But, likewise, some doctors are quacks, a whole host of financial specialists routinely lose their client’s investments, and a long list of publishers turned down Harry Potter. Yet we don’t assume all specialists are inept, do we?
I say our society’s push toward greater specialization is unhealthy for two big reasons. First, humans have evolved so far, so fast because we are innately curious and to limit that curiosity is to limit evolution, (in my oh-so-very-humble opinion). Second, we’re creating a scenario where students view a university education solely as a means to get a high paying job and make money. I fully endorse post secondary education, but tying a degree with a paycheque is dangerous thinking. Young people, take note: Life comes with no guarantees.
“Not only is focusing on money the wrong basis on which to make a decision about attending university, it sheds light on a serious weakness in the rationale: the idea that most worthwhile jobs require a university degree.” – Maclean’s Magazine article The Graduate’s Million Dollar Promise
Knowing how to swing a hammer, fix a clogged toilet, or catch a fish may never make you rich, but if the economy tanks, (again), those simple skills might help pay your rent and buy groceries. The world is becoming more competitive and volatile by the day. These are times when being a Jack or Jill is not such a bad idea.
Survival and economics aside, the heart of this issue is the need for humans to have meaningful work. Whether that work is in a highly specialized field requiring an alphabet of letters after your name, or whether it involves jumping around from job to job and place to place, if you love what you do, you’re a success. Jacks and Jills of the world hold your heads and your ten-page resumes high, and when someone asks you what you do, tell them: “Everything.”
By the way, the Women of Character series on the Warpworld blog has wrapped up. If you haven’t had a chance to read about these amazing women–including our own Miz Liz Meyer, former mayor and current dog-training specialist; mechanical engineer Amy Stevenson; and stunt woman Laura Lee Connery–I suggest you get your virtual butt over there!
Until next week, I hope this finds you healthy, happy, and lovin’ life!