Some people like to say we’re reasonably competent at just about everything. And it’s true, we’ve have done a little of everything. We are a “jack of all trades” as the expression goes.
But that’s a terrible thing to say when describing ourselves. Especially if you remember the second half of the expression: “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
© Flickr User Jim Pennucci
If You Can Do A Little of Everything Well, There’s Nothing You’re Great At
If you want to become an expert at something, it takes time. According to some research, it may take between 10,000 and 50,000 hours. But what is take to be marginally competent?
A nice example is learning a language. According to one expert, it takes between 500 and 700 hours to reach basic fluency in a foreign tongue. So if you say “I speak enough of a few different languages to get by” you’re likely saying that you’ve never really devoted the time to learn one language well.
And in most cases, being an expert is more useful than being a novice.
No One Believes Someone Who Is Good At Everything
I’m repeating myself here. (That’s something I good at.) Read my blog post on why the more you say you can do the less believable you are.
You Think It Makes You Look Like a Team Player, But Really It Makes You Seem Like You Lack Focus
This problem may not seem real until you experience it yourself. A jack-of-all-trades is willing to dive in and help out with any problem. But if that’s the case, what is the specific area where they are an expert?
If you raise your hand to help out with anything, you’ll seem like the company handyman. Except, not just on fixing problems with the building or the machines—but with everything.
And if you’re the one who runs around and solves problems you won’t seem like a strategic thinker who is focused on the long-term needs for an organization.
You Run the Risk That People Will Think You’re an Expert
That’s a big problem, if it’s a field you’re not actually an expert in. If you fix a few computer problems, you look like an IT person. If you make some changes to a document, you look like a copy editor.
People don’t know what they don’t know, and you can think you’re an expert (or look like one) due to well-established psychological phenomena. So watch out when you raise your hand. Plus: saying it can be done may get you the job.
© Flickr User PopTech
What To Do Instead
Focus on a handful of areas of expertise. When something is outside of your area of expertise, say so. Explain that it would be more efficient to find an expert. Push back on spending staff time inefficiently and suggest spending money on an outside resource. And if there is no other option and you need to step up, reinforce that it will take you longer and there is a lower chance of success.
Managing perceptions and expectations is essential at work. Don’t do everything, because you can’t anyway. And the ramifications in the minds of others could be disastrous.