Jack of All Trades, Master of None

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

by Kiley Miller-Dickerson

Misery loves company, and sometimes its name is mastery. Sacrifices and eliminating options are part and parcel of specializing and favoring one pursuit, or The Thing, at the expense of other possibilities. There are conflicting clichés about dedicating yourself to one task, and they’re not without merit. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” hints at risk and the potential for disaster should The Thing not work out. “Stay in your lane” discourages competition and warns of collisions with someone else. The consequences of counting on just one Thing to come through seem dire, but so does branching out.

I propose a more generalist approach. Survey. Dabble. Dip a toe in the waters of A Thing that piques your curiosity. As a self-proclaimed jack of all trades, master of none, I’ve come to prefer it that way.

I was inadvertently primed for this growing up in the over-scheduled way of a middle-class 90s kid. I was a good athlete, so I tried swimming, diving, soccer, basketball, volleyball, one tennis summer camp, water polo, ultimate frisbee, softball, cross-country, and a handful of other sports. Unfortunately, my coordination did not lend itself to rhythm, so my tryst with dance was brief; to this day, my favorite and best dance move is jumping.

I also enjoyed every art class I tried at school and the local rec center. In elementary school, I started viola as part of our music curriculum, and I walked to a neighbor’s house for a year’s worth of weekly piano lessons. As a high school freshman, I took ceramics and was enamored with bringing clay forms to life. For fine arts credit in college, I took Intro to Drawing for Non-Majors, which became my favorite college class. But these music and art classes merely checked a box. At the time, art didn’t serve a purpose beyond making me eligible to graduate. The rest of my time in high school and college was filled with honors classes and extra sciences to look better on transcripts.

Eventually, as for many kids, I was encouraged to specialize. Music and art fell by the wayside, and the fallacy of mastery began to infect me. After delivering one passable piano recital where I played The Entertainer, I let go of the stuffy living room encounters and insufferable metronome. I let go of viola, too, as orchestra was more of a social hour, and the instrument lived in my locker when I wasn’t in class. Art was the most painful to relinquish, but letting go of so many Things felt invigorating and seemed like a healthy choice when soccer became The Thing that would put me through college. 

Every long weekend led my family to a different soccer complex, often in a new city. Holidays didn’t mean cookouts or camping trips but another tournament. We forewent weeknight family dinners to get to practice on time, and my little sister became a seasoned car-reader. This all led to a DI scholarship. Though I loved the sport and the lifelong friends I made, I quit soccer after a semester of college and felt utterly burnt out before I turned 19. But quitting The Thing I chose as my one pursuit made me question everything: who was I, if not a soccer player? Did quitting make me a failure? Would I ever want to play soccer again or go kick around just for fun? I’d developed a singular identity and was floundering without the foothold that had rooted my sense of self for so long.

I rediscovered my love of the game through coaching in my twenties, but the middle schoolers I worked with faced similar pressure to choose soccer above all else. Watching them grapple with that inner conflict to choose between multiple things they loved, I saw myself as a problematic cog in the bigger machine, pushing them to specialize and excel and, consequently, forego other joys.

The decision to do A Thing and do it well plagues us, but to do so also eliminates options, dialing in the focus to laser-specific levels at the expense of the next great adventure. We ward off the potential of a new love affair with a different skill set, and it’s a risk I’m no longer willing to take.

In the past few years, especially during the pandemic, I’ve gotten back to my dabbling roots. Dabbling teaches us what we don’t like and what we can pursue adjacent to the things we already love. So, at the expense of spreading myself too thin, I’ve lately elected to indulge curiosity.

Exhibits A-E: my boxes of yarn and bursting craft boxes of printable vinyl and paper crafts, kitchen cupboards nearly bursting with small appliances and sourdough accessories, and all the accompanying how-to books. This literal baggage is a testament to the generalist approach. As objects, the clutter can make the house seem overfull and chaotic; but I see an ineffable power of possibility. Each drawer holds more than just push pins and old photographs. The counter isn’t simply covered in scrap paper and five different kinds of glue. It’s all a blend of memories and potential, a myriad of stories and relationships.

I picked up knitting thanks to a Latin professor who visited my French class as a guest lecturer. Between defining “declension” and identifying false cognates, Judy mentioned that she was hosting her knitting club at a local café. All my family and friends got lumpy, oblong scarves for Christmas that year. I’ve upgraded to hats and baby blankets since then, and there’s a shimmer of connection when I see a loved one use something I’ve fabricated from an unruly ball of string.

My then-fiancé gifted me a Cricut during our first pandemic Christmas. It was a lifeline through isolated months and offered a productive outlet for festering creative energy. Hope for our postponed weddings manifested in each book page flower and wonky boutonniere.

The kitchen has been a respite, between bread-making and experimenting with new recipes. I share my love through everyday sourdough and special occasions. I’m proud to be known for over-plying friends with goodies whenever we host a game night. These memories are warm and fuzzy, borne of familiarity and proximity when my now-husband and I cook together. Still, others are hilariously painful; one features a disastrous Christmas dinner of Yorkshire pudding that came out more chewy-omelet than puff pastry and accompanied a beef stew too tough for the Jaws of Life. But we laughed and learned in both cases, and I remember each escapade fondly.

Discipline, passion, and persistence each have a place, but I’m not convinced we should all find The Thing, or even if The Thing exists at all. Would it be so bad if that’s the case? What if we could all find pursuits that invigorate and challenge us? Could we give ourselves permission to try but not force ourselves to keep on when it no longer serves us? There’s a difference between acquiring a knack and self-imposed torture, and it would serve us to know the difference.

I guess, if I’m picking a cliché, I like “cover your bases.” I believe in being ready for anything. I think you can only do that successfully as a competent generalist, a jack of all trades. If you find something you love, it’ll hold your attention and pique your curiosity day after day. Maybe it should have been a sign that I cried so many times to get out of soccer or swim practice and faked being sick for more than one piano lesson. Through dabbling, I’ve learned my joy lies in creation and physical exertion. I’ve found those pursuits to be the most rewarding of all.

Learning A Thing and Another Thing and Yet Another Thing tests our limits in more ways than we can imagine, and each Thing still comes with its small victories and the opportunity to level up. Just this week, I tinkered with my grandma’s banana bread recipe, resulting in my favorite batch of muffins. I enjoyed the process—it reinforced my connection with a loved, and never truly lost, family member—and I look forward to the next batch that I may or may not adjust again. Plus, now I have breakfast for the week. I’m not entering baking competitions or aspiring to launch a viral baking TikTok, and I don’t need to. But I could try it if I want to.

Possibility and opportunity are powerful concepts when nurtured. Exploration is a valuable move toward self-discovery, but may be best realized when the pressures of limitation and expectation of mastery are removed.

Cheers to the professional surveyor, to the endlessly curious master of none.


Featured in our April 2023 issue, "Curiosity"