is it really that bad to be a jack of all trades, rather than a master of one?
With designers becoming the creative directors, business minds and faces of their brands, musicians making, producing and designing the cover art of their own albums, and Instagram stars becoming writers, vloggers and art directors, should we still...
the vitruvian man, leonardo da vinci
"So what exactly do you want to do?" As a recent arts graduate and young "creative"/freelancer/human being, it feels like I'm asked this question daily. It's loaded with the assumption that there's one job, dream, a burning passion that gets you up in the morning and through bleak winters and away from weeklong wine and Netflix marathons. And I can never answer. Because I don't have just one passion.
The truth is, I like lots of things. This may sound bleak, given the predominant theme across TED talks and public opinion is to chase that one dream, whatever it takes. But I want to explore, try, screw up and succeed at all of them. Well ok, I don't want to screw them all up.
Every time I'm forced to reflect on my future career path (or lack thereof) one annoyingly catchy tagline always nags me: "jack of all trades, master of none." Conventional wisdom holds that spreading yourself across a range of pursuits will result in only a superficial insight into each.
But in today's world, where Kanye's self-proclaimed creative genius manifests in music making and clothing designing and yeezy-inventing, Lena Dunham's CV reads actress/writer/director/dance queen, and Michelle Obama can marry the importance of college education with rap as First Lady, does the "master of none" assumption still stack up?
With the advent of the Internet and the countless "self-made" successes it's generated, there have never been more polymathic role models for young people to look towards. The internet provides a platform for anyone and everyone to create the career they haven't had yet. Not only do you have the tools to learn anything at your fingertips, you have a full range of platforms to publish your work. And the multimedia nature of online content encourages crossover between industries - bloggers write books and vloggers have businesses. Even if you stick to one social media channel, you still need a diverse toolbox. YouTubers write, present, film and edit all their own work. Instagrammers in turn become art directors, stylists and photographers. And of course, in the oversaturated world of the internet, you better have a self-promotional strategy that exceeds the basics of marketing 101.
Yet cultivating a broad spectrum of interests and expertise is hardly a new phenomenon. Rewind a few hundred years and the Renaissance man reigned supreme. A notable example is Leonardo da Vinci, whose cumulative breakthroughs in the fields of both science and art puts the "master of none" label to shame. Universities (stemming from the Latin universitas, meaning whole) were originally established to give students a broad education across the arts, philosophy, science, mathematics - instead of the specialised pathways they've now come to champion. More recently, 20th century bohemians exhibited a similarly intrinsic intermingling of life and work - albeit with a predominantly artistic inclination. And their modern manifestation, "hipsters" (just swap out bohemian for hipster in this song and you'll get the idea) conjure up images of beard-trimmed beanies pushing out everything from websites to apps to podcasts to zines from their local artisan office.
Despite the mockery that some of these groups often attract (and sometimes deserve), behind them is an underlying premise that not only is it ok to cultivate a multiplicity of interests and talents, but it is a well established - arguably even more effective - route to higher levels of creativity.
Prolific (and somewhat prodigious) polymath Tavi Gevinson has fired a well-aimed arrow at cynics of the scattergun approach. In an interview with Vogue, she cites an essay by Wayne Koestenbaum to justify her numerous bowstrings. "Your domain doesn't have to be writing or acting or editing or curating… For me, my domain is me - and I just find the best medium for expressing that". She talks about finding an alternative in any one subject and to refine it to a level of expertise that slots easily into a larger production workflow. She offers the scenario where you work on your point of view and voice, figure out what you're about, what perspective you want to convey, and then find the medium that fits that message.
Grimes' recent album Art Angels reflects a similarly holistic approach. She wrote, performed, produced, played and engineered most of the tracks. She also had a strong hand in the album's visual side - creating the cover art, illustrating it, and then writing/directing/editing/colouring/art directing its first video. The result is a cohesive, unified body of work that captures her vision completely. Surely this is better than a perfectly honed mouthpiece spitting out whatever their overbearing puppeteer demands?
Of course, some occupations demand highly specialised knowledge. If you're slicing open my stomach and pulling my intestines out onto a table to check for abnormalities, I'd like you to have twice your lifetime's worth of study. And even within the creative industries, some areas demand years of training and practice - I'm pretty sure you can't wing the stitching of miniscule clear beads into 3D lattice shapes on a pristine white bolero - ready for the unforgiving eye of fashion critics and a few hundred thousand Instagrams.
There's also the fact that some people do have the one thing they love and want to do forever and ever until happily ever after the end! And to those of you I say - you are really very lucky- though being a master in the field doesn't come without its own dangers, especially for creatives. 2015 has seen a disproportionate number of talents step off the thrones they've worked so hard to get to. Alexander Wang, Alber Elbaz, and Raf Simons have parted ways with Balenciaga, Lanvin and Dior respectively. And when explaining his departure, Simons revealingly stated that "it is a decision based entirely and equally on my desire to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand, and the passions that drive me outside of my work". It seems, even with the masters, blinkered single mindedness can be ungratifying or unsustainable.
Now, it's no surprise that professional accomplishment takes some sacrifice. But since when did success supersede sanity as a life goal? At the risk of sounding naively idealistic, isn't the point not to just master life, but enjoy it? Which brings me back to my jack-of-all-trades justification. It may take longer to get 'there' (wherever there is) than if you narrow your options. But who's to say choosing one thing means you'll master it anyway? Or that mastering it ultimately brings fulfillment? My CV may read like a junk drawer filled with gems and rusty nails alike. But it's interesting and fun and surprising and stimulating. So if we're dwelling on well-worn clichés, let's not forget that "variety is the spice of life".
Text Georgie Wright