Why Being A “Jack Of All Trades” Works

In the workplace of yesterday, most jobs existed as a fixed set of clear-cut, unchanging duties. Rarely did the nature of the work vary, and in many cases a worker’s ability to repeat the same exact process and produce identical results was commended. Just ask an assembly-line worker or a railroad builder if “outside-the-box thinking,” or “creative innovating” was welcome in their workplace. They’d probably tell you that “thinking outside the box” is more likely to result in a factory-wide meltdown or a train wreck than a pat on the back or a promotion.

As a result, job candidates of the past were evaluated on specific skills that they already know. For example, if a hiring manager were filling a position for a bricklayer, they would only care about how well you can lay bricks. None of your other accomplishments matter; if you lay the best bricks, you’ll likely get the job. It sounds so delightfully simple, doesn’t it? Well… tough luck, because as we both know, your job is quite the opposite of simple and straightforward.

Job Description: Bricklayer

  • Spread one half-inch of cement.
  • Place brick, straighten and align.
  • Repeat ad infinitum.
  • Retire.

Being a Jack of All Trades

Today’s jobs, unlike the bricklaying positions of the past, are ever changing, and unpredictable. On any given day, the nature of your work could change drastically. Each new project reshapes your responsibilities, and you may eventually find yourself with a job that is completely different from the one described in your interview. To make matters worse, it has probably strayed from your areas of expertise as well.

This is a common occurrence recognized by entry-level workers and executives alike. In fact, today’s job interviewers frequently glaze over the unpredictable demands of their open position with generalities and trite clichés: Have you been told that your job will require you to “wear many hats?” Does your job description have a long, exhaustive list of specific duties capped off with an ironic “other duties as assigned?” If so, you must know exactly what I’m talking about. Despite all of our different titles, departments and specialties, it seems that we’re all destined to be “Jacks-(and Jills)-of-all trades,” whether we like it or not.

Job Description: You

  • Wear many hats.
  • Be a ‘Jack of all trades.’
  • Other duties as assigned.

Unfortunately, our specialties and backgrounds will never change as quickly as our work does. This is how an engineer finds them self marketing new products instead of building them, or how a writer ends up managing a publishing company instead of crafting their own work. While they may prefer staying within their expertise, the reality may be that they’re the best marketer or publishing manager that the company has, even if it’s not their forte.

It’s certainly not easy working outside of your comfort zone: Lack of experience can cause needless frustration, and you might worry that everyone will forget what you are really good at. All the while, you watch your peers doing what they do best, and reaping all kinds of rewards from it.

The situation may look grim, but there is hope: You may not realize it, but you weren’t chosen for this unfamiliar work solely to cause you aggravation or to make you look bad. You also weren’t randomly picked by drawing the unlucky short straw. You were chosen because you have transferable skills, and unlike some of your coworkers, you can adapt to the unfamiliar, and do the atypical work quicker and better than they could.

Transferable Skills

Transferable skills are the skills that you’ve learned and applied throughout your education and work experience. Things like communication, time management, creativity, problem solving, and expression of ideas. Sure, they’re somewhat intangible, but trust me, you’ve had plenty of practice. After all, we didn’t memorize the Pythagorean Theorem or read The Odyssey in school just in case our future work involved geometry or literature. It was mostly just practicing the same general skills that any professional uses. We may have doubted the validity of these studies in high school, but the purpose of all that busywork was clearly to hone our transferable skills for future use. I trust you were paying attention.

Transferable skills may seem boring and insignificant compared to a degree from a top university or an impressive work history, but they are your best assets in the workplace. Wouldn’t you rather be known as “a great communicator,” “a problem solver,” or “very organized” instead of “has a master’s degree” or “came from a big law firm?” Those résumé items are only as good as the transferable skills that came out of them.

Suddenly, those co-workers breezing through the usual work while you struggled with the harder projects no longer seem lucky or favored. It may be that they can only do the usual routine, and you can do more thanks to your transferable skills.

So, next time you find yourself banging your head against the wall, and struggling through yet another peculiar project, remember that you do have the right tools for the job. Besides, you don’t want to do the same familiar, comfortable work every day. You don’t want to be the bricklayer. You’re better than that, and you’ve got the skills to prove it.

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