Jill of all trades

Trying hard to do well at multiple things has become the norm, but what does it take to get so much done

By: Thrive Global




If it can be done by Jack, well then, it can surely be done by Jill too. But equality—for Jack and Jill—is not what this (piece) is about. What I have been thinking about recently is how many trades are too many—for Jack, or Jill? And does having multiple “trades” truly make you master of none?

This topic would not have merited much debate a decade ago. Being focused/ becoming an expert used to be the unquestioned 
mantra, but we have since seen the rise of “multi”. Business cards used to read “supply chain design lead”. In contrast, many LinkedIn profile titles today have two commas separating the various roles listed. The concept of one career, one area of expertise, one role—is no longer the norm. 

Technology has been an impetus too—“Push” notifications (breaking news, WhatsApp memes, social media updates) have created an environment of interruptions and reduced attention spans for two and 72-year-old alike. Teaching methods have had to evolve with modules getting shorter and shorter as the target market is the same one that’s addicted to goofy, 15-second TikTok videos. No surprise then, that the idea of focusing on one thing, and one thing alone, is no longer de rigueur.

Then there are market enablers—such as the rise of the gig economy. There are college students studying engineering while editing their movies on iMovie and YouTube artistes that have a side hustle by day. #FunFact—#hustle has over 20 million posts on Instagram while #expert has less than 900 thousand.

So, in this environment where there is greater acceptance of a juggler, and where technology and job markets offer you the opportunity to have multiple pursuits, the question is—should you?

  1. What makes you happy? On an alumni forum, a woman asked—“Is there a time when you chose to focus on one thing? How did that make you feel?” The answers were telling. Several described making difficult decisions to focus on one are alone. And many of those who did voiced the opinion that their choice meant less, rather than more, happiness over time. I quit my job as a strategy consultant at the point in my career where the 13-hour work days might have started to pay off. My plan was to spend six months focused on writing before figuring out what I wanted to do next. Two months later, I was spending a lot of time staring at a blank screen and blinking cursor. When a client reached out with a project opportunity, I grabbed it. Interestingly, I then started writing every day and was brimming with ideas and plots. I realised that doing just one thing wasn’t (enough) for me. The answer is, of course, different for everyone. As a close friend told me, only half in jest—“For me, doing one thing is one thing too many!”
  2. Should your passion pay the bills? I know a talented, self-taught baker who whips up the most wonderful goodies. So, her well-meaning friends rallied around the idea that she open her own bakery. A few weeks on that path and she started experiencing anxiety, and felt her joy of sprinkling frosted sugar on candied roses melt away. It made me wonder—does passion and (monetary) pay-off have to coincide? Does it have to scale-up or is the satisfaction of engaging in that activity enough? Because commercialising a passion takes away some degrees of freedom—which might chip away at the joy of that trade. Sometimes, it is easier to pursue an (additional) interest if you don’t have the pressure of ensuring that the passion has to also provide a paycheque.
  3. How good do you want to be? Practise might not make perfect, but it does make you better. Ask any experienced writer to read their own pieces from a few years ago, and you’re unlikely to find one that won’t cringe at their earlier work, as they only improved with every new phrase they deliberated, and every paragraph they wrote. A related argument is that there is some correlation between how good you are at something, and how much you enjoy it. A chemicals industry banker I know never studied chemistry beyond middle school. He stumbled upon the space and over a decade plus, grew to enjoy it, and made it his own. There just isn’t a substitute for (relevant) practise. And with finite hours in the day (and night), there are choices to be made—about how many things you can truly excel at.
  4. Do you have the support you need? Contrary to point #3, one could argue that Farhan Akhtar does a lot of things really well—acting, singing, directing. There’s no questioning his talent, but he also has an army supporting his ambition. Want to do multiple things well? At the very minimum, outsource tasks that aren’t essential. Taskrabbit can provide you a personal assistant or handyman (for a price), to free up the hours you need to practise violin. The point is—it is hard to do multiple things well, and do them alone, unless you’re a Leonardo da Vinci-level of genius. Barring that, plan to get as much leverage as you can and build the critical infrastructure you need to succeed. 
If you have multiple passions, there could be a way to make it all work, but there are priorities to be identified and choices to be made. Even then, there is a limit to the number of shiny new things one can pursue, and yet do well, unless you have plentiful resources or are pure genius. And if it is, still, way too many, then Jack (and, as a matter of fact, Jill) will come tumbling down.


The article is written by Surbhee Grover, a strategy consultant and entrepreneur based in New York. An avid traveller, explorer, and rainbow chaser, she likes to capture moments and craft stories - using words and visuals. Her writing and photos have appeared in Forbes India and HT Brunch. In between her explorations, she advises companies - big and small - on growth and innovation, and works closely with start-ups in the consumer space.
 

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