Jane of All Trades, Master of None
I’ve always felt that I was good at lots of things, and excelled in few. But as a peer leader in high school, when I expressed with a shrug to my supervisor that I felt this way, she actually cried. To her, maybe my assessment reflected poor self-esteem, an inability to think more highly of myself. To her, of course I was excellent at something; why couldn’t I see it too?
But was it necessary that I did? Because while I’m not great at any one thing, I am good at plenty.
I can sort of play the ukulele, meaning I can’t at all if the song’s chords call for too tangled a finger position. I can also kind of draw; the subjects aren’t life-like but my Pictionary opponents are usually upset that I’ve undersold my ability. And I can take photos pretty well too, but I rely a lot on the sun’s naturally flattering power and am generally lost when faced with the dullness of the indoors.
When it comes to our individual skills and talents, a lot of emphasis is put on mastery and excellence. From a young age we’re asked what it is we want to do and be when we grow up; the implication being that we must select some thing, one thing. That theory is even reinforced in higher education when students are encouraged to choose a single college major and going “double” is met with wide eyes of disbelief or disapproval. (Hence my peer leader’s dramatic response.)
As an adult, it’s admittedly become harder to maintain that same innocent indifference. It now feels like everybody’s skills are advertised across social media; they’re also often commodified—their mastery is worth money. But what about those of us who feel we’re enthusiasts instead of aficionados? Are our interests worth being nurtured even when we’re not seeking to become experts?
According to certified personal development coach and therapist Ellen Tang, the answer is absolutely. Having and pursuing inclusive curiosities can have internal benefits rather than ones steeped in optics.
“Things that catch our interests, whether big or small, are all special in that they reveal something about ourselves,” she says. “They help you gain a deeper sense of who you are.” For example, creative activities such as painting or acting can provide ways for us to connect with our intuition, a capability Tang feels is not relied upon nearly enough.
More simply, nurturing these interests can be a source of both respite and pleasure. “Doing something one enjoys can be a good outlet to relieve stress and practice self-care,” says licensed professional counselor Amanda Levison. “It’s okay to learn new things and learn at one’s own pace if doing something just for fun.” (Remember fun?) Ultimately, we don’t have to become professionals in order to feel these advantages.
This is what I wanted to tell my ukulele teacher who not only started me on Billy Joel’s complex “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” but refused to let me move on from it until it was mastered. That style of teaching stunted the fun; it placed fun at the unforeseeable top of a hill that would take me months to climb. Bless the instructor’s intentions to make me a virtuoso, but I wanted joy more immediately. I wanted to play simpler ditties (in genres that I actually loved) for no one but myself. Thankfully, I found Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and other beginner-friendly tunes and tutorials on YouTube. (And I opted not to buy another batch of guided lessons.)
Being competently skilled across a variety of fields makes us adaptable, confident, prime for leadership roles, and unlikely to get bored or stuck in a rut. Levison adds that it makes us well-rounded when conversing or finding common ground with other people. And Tang says that, most importantly, it emboldens our individual essential principles: “The intrinsic values—our emotional, intellectual, and developmental values—of continuously learning and doing a wide range of activities can never be overestimated.”
Still, if we ever do want to commit to a single curiosity but are having trouble deciding which, we’re encouraged to lean into that fun. The literal, unadulterated fun. In Tang’s words: Be child-like. It can take time to identify which interest resonates with us most, so we’re encouraged to eagerly immerse ourselves in whatever catches and holds our attention—until it doesn’t anymore.
“We don't know how deep our interest is in something unless we have allowed ourselves to enthusiastically pursue it,” says Tang. “So keep having fun wherever your interests lead you until they no longer do. But as long as your interest is still there, keep following it. Don't ever ignore the urge inside you. Indulge it.”
For me, that internal nudge pushes toward photography. I know this because I’ve bought colorful lens filters for my camera, clamp lights, paper backdrops, several instructional books, and too many SD cards to count. Still, I’m cautious. Part of me doesn’t want to strive for precision out of fear the pursuit will begin to eclipse the enjoyment. Part of me doesn’t want to turn it into work.
As a high schooler, my shrug likely did convey a discomfort with my lack of direction. But now I know that we can nurture our inclinations for no other reason but that they bring us joy. We can carefully protect them from the pressure that comes with awards and accolades.
For us Jacks- and Janes-of-all-trades, these enthusiasms make us inquisitive, joyful, and approachable. The perks, so often, lie outside of perfection.
Danielle Cheesman was born and raised in New Jersey, where she lived until moving to Philadelphia to study journalism at Temple University. She has spent her years writing and developing editorial visions for music, art, and lifestyle brands. Now residing in Los Angeles, you can usually find her taking pictures, making playlists, or cuddling her pup. Say hi on Instagram!