Things are good. It has been a busy few months. In October I was delighted to start teaching on an MA in Web Design at the University of Greenwich. I’ve been to conferences in Brooklyn and Belfast where I got to hang out with and learn from some amazing people and good friends. I have some wonderful clients and have had the privilege to work on some brilliant, inspiring projects.
However there is a part of my brain that paints a different picture. The part of me that hates everything I do, that can’t see how good things are, that gets stuck in self-destructive patterns of behaviour to avoid work; divergence to avoid the ultimate and inevitable dissatisfaction with the things that I am creating.
I have always been a polymath – a person who can readily apply their hand to many different things – a jack-of-all-trades.
But I am slowly realising that this is not an ability; rather it is the bi-product of a disability. It is the outcome of a sub-conscious that never wants to excel at something because to excel brings the risk of being exposed; both to criticism from others and from myself.
This is perhaps why I spread my skills so widely in what I do: design, UX, front-end development, CMS-development. To have a broad range of skills and experiences is a good thing, surely. But it also means that I play it safe – I shy away from pushing myself in any single direction, dabbling in shallow waters.
I hate the part of me that hates what I do – the self-critic. And the part of me that avoids work; to avoid having to hate what I do – the self-pity.
Things are good. But I can’t see it.
There’s a quote from a book called Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard that relates to this:
“I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialisation that doesn’t appeal to me.”
The potential trouble with aiming for 100% is that you can get bogged down in all the details. Personally, I like being roughly 80% good at something as it means you stay focused on the important stuff!
Having been a ‘Jane of all trades’ myself all my life, I agree that this condition doesn’t simplify things in life. But it can be both cause or effect of a failure to specialise in any one area.
I recently read a book by Barbara Sher titled I could do anything if I only knew what it was . According to her, people like us fall in one of two categories: ‘scanners’ or ‘unhappy divers’. The former being people who simply enjoy flitting from one thing to the next—like a bee if you will—the latter being people who end up doing so because, for example, they never learned to deal with the frustrations of learning (i.e. being rubbish at the beginning, hitting a plateau, etc.).
Whichever group we belong to—and I suspect that it’s a bit of both for some people—there are two important messages that I took away from the book. The first is: It is okay to be a jack of all trades. Unfortunately, our society values the specialist more than the ‘renaissance man’, and our particular industry has so many famous specialists that it’s easy to feel as if there’s something wrong with you if you don’t manage to specialise to the same degree. But that’s not the case. If you can’t find your specialism in a particular topic like design, UX or front-end development, you may want to look at specialising in a particular role, i.e. manager, scrum master, agile coach or teacher. Those people need a broad skill set rather than a deep, specialised one.
The second message is: You don’t have to be a super talent from the beginning. Just work on gradually improving your skills and discuss your work with others on a regular basis (get a mentor?). That way you’ll not only get used to criticism and defending your work, but you’ll also get a more realistic feel for your strengths and weaknesses and build self–confidence. And the more you work on your skills, the better you’ll get at it, so even if you’re not an expert when you start out, you’ll get there over time and it’ll get easier and easier on the way. As Barbara Sher says: “Nature will meet you half way”.
As another jack-of-all-trades I can empathise 100%. Cut from the same mould as it were.
Of course this is a major strength in smaller teams, or near the only way if you’re a freelancer direct to client. But the web matures every year and like any discipline specialities arise. When I started (before the web boom), I enjoyed making the whole product from start to finish. So I was a 3D modeller, animator, video editor, designer, coder, musician etc, etc. But the bar constantly rises, peoples (clients) expectations increase and in something as fast and young as the digital media industry the change is much quicker.
I find it hard enough to consider myself a designer / developer now and even that is starting to become unrealistic. Designer / Front-end developer?
I am a professional and these are skills. But deliverable skills will at some point in the future be past-curiosities. The deliverable skills are what we are paid for*. I haven’t used Flash for a project in 18 months and I haven’t created anything complex for 3 years. I could build you a fantastic customised 256 colour palette for shared use across an entire project using software that no longer runs. I could control a midi keyboard with a mixture of C and lingo if I had a Mac running OS 8. I once wrote a site in Perl – I have no idea how.
The number 1 skill a jack-of-all-trades has is adaptability. And when, based on past experience, 60%+ of what you do now will be obsolete in 5 years – I think that’s the best skill to have.
*Of course fundamentals are transferable, good design is good design, as is coding practise. But only teachers can make a living from such broad strokes ;-)