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The Specialization Myth: Why Being a Jack of All Trades Is a Good Thing

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “A jack of all trades is a master of none” and associated it with negative feelings towards being proficient in more than one thing. It’s an idiom commonly used to sway students toward the path of expertise, and its effects are detrimental from the very beginning. What most people don’t know is that the full phrase is “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one,” and that it was actually a compliment meant to affirm the importance of generalized learning and living. Unfortunately, most school systems don’t seem to consider this side. 

Early into our academic journey, most of us are posed a question that follows us for the rest of our time in school: What do you want to do when you grow up? At face-value, this question is harmless; not only is it an easy escape for adults trying to make conversation with students, but it’s also of valid interest. Yet, hidden within those ten words is the pressure to decide what you want to do with your life quick — and to specialize in that area even faster. The idea is that the quicker you buckle down in a single area of study, the farther ahead of your peers you become and the greater advantage you will be at down the road. From the time we learn how to read and write, specialization as a necessity is molded into our academic goals and career plans, but it is a myth that is damaging both now and the future.

Exploration — which is at the core of generalization — and the American school system do not easily coexist. In fact, while many scientists, authors and researchers have acknowledged the importance of exploration, high schools and colleges push specialization under the myth that expertise trumps well-roundedness. Why be average at a variety of things when you can be the best at one thing? This specialization requirement can be found in the declare-your-major section on college applications, in the pre-requisites for classes and internships and in the expectations of teachers and family members alike. Their intentions are good, but we are unknowingly producing generations of burned-out students struggling to find their place in life. 

The problem with specialization is that it only works in a specific area of skill development. For sports like golf and games like chess, specialization does prove to be an advantage. Even some careers — especially those in the medical field — require expertise and consistent practice in a single skillset. For example, surgeons must be highly trained in their field because if they’re not, they can’t properly do their jobs. The outcomes of each of these activities are predictable. They require little creative thinking because they follow a very specific rulebook, and that’s why specialization works. But the truth is, much of life isn’t predictable. There is no rulebook. By encouraging memorization and extreme specialization, schools are doing students a huge disservice. 

Life is all about problem solving. Generalization allows students to develop this important skill. Something you learn in your biology class might help you in your English class, so the belief that academic and career disciplines have impassable borders is false. Essential life skills are not confined to certain areas like specialization proponents like to think. Furthermore, generalization can open doors you didn’t even know exist. Trying things outside of your area of interest might introduce a new topic or passion that completely changes your perspective and path. Simply put, generalization enriches life because it prioritizes learning and encourages out-of-the-box thinking, which contributes to increased happiness and sense of fulfillment.

As college students, we’re all aware of the pressure we faced to go to college directly after high school. The specialization myth plays a role in this. In some careers, it takes years to qualify as an expert and reach full earning potential, so you might as well start as early as possible. However, studies have shown that taking a gap year actually increases career outlook. Without the strict year-by-year plan to follow, students are better able to find what works for them and what doesn’t, develop skills relating to independence and risk-taking that are crucial in the professional world and find themselves. That doesn’t mean everyone should take a gap year; the idea is that exploration is key to development because it allows you to get to know yourself and your interests before committing to a path or area of study that can be difficult to get out of later on. 

In an evolving world, generalization is becoming increasingly beneficial. While experts are still needed, it is not uncommon for their problem-solving skills to be hindered by their inability to see the world through more than one lens. Students who have prioritized having range may feel behind initially, but they make up for it later when their wide skillset and knowledge surpasses their specialized peers. 

It is unrealistic to give a student the responsibility of committing to a single career path and life plan as a teenager, and even more unrealistic to expect them to stay dedicated to this path as they grow older. We don’t live in a specialized world, so instead of adequately preparing students for life after college, the specialization myth infuses students with a running-out-of-time mentality that fuels panic, burn out and failure. When students have the freedom to embrace their many interests and talents, their thinking is diversified which, in turn, makes them more competitive personally and professionally. 

In a specialized society, it is easy to fall prey to specialization demands since it is so pervasive. The best thing to do is try things you might not otherwise participate in. Challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone, and engage in activities you might not know much about. College is a breeding ground for exploration because of the plethora of opportunities and resources it provides. Taking advantage of this by joining clubs or taking classes not in line with your major or academic interests can help you to break out of this myth. Open-mindedness is also key. Allowing yourself to grow, fail and engage in trial and error without judgement can reveal new things about yourself that will prove to be invaluable to your academic and professional life.

Grace McClung is a first-year journalism major at the University of Florida. She is from Denver, Colorado and loves poetry, running, and the beach.
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