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This excerpt is adapted from the new afterword of Range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world by David Epstein, published by permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Random House, copyright 2021 by David Epstein.
One of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase “jack of all trades” as an insult dates back to 1592. In the new Latin form “Johannes factotum”, it appeared in a pamphlet by a playwright criticizing his own industry. The jab refers to a poet with no college education who was apparently involved in various other roles, such as copying scripts and acting, even trying to write plays. The poet victim of the insult: a young William Shakespeare. The expression has evolved over time, and today it is usually “Jack of all trades, master of none”. I think it’s culturally telling that we tend to cut the end of the long version: “A jack of all trades is a master of nothing, but often better than a master of one.”
Our notions of the relative merits of scope versus specialization are often based on little more than adages like the ones above, but they need not be. In the nearly 430 years since that beard aimed at the bard, researchers have compiled a mountain of work to determine if the jack-of-all-trades is, indeed, still better than a master. My book, Vary, which came out in 2019, is a journey through that research, and it shows that most of us would be better off with the longer version of that quote. We’ve come to believe that people who specialize early and narrowly, like Tiger Woods, who was already on national tv playing golf at age 2— have an insurmountable advantage. But research shows that these stories are actually the rare exception on the path to success, and usually confined to repetitive areas, in which next year’s work will feel like last year’s work – something psychologist Robin Hogarth called “caring learning environments”. Most of us don’t work in caring learning environments; it was eye-opening to learn the benefits of the expanse and delayed specialization. The research covers all stages of life, from children’s development in math, music and sports, to students fresh out of college trying to find their way, to mid-career professionals in need of a change. and future retirees looking for a new vocation after leaving a previous one.
We must be aware that it is easy to be fooled by the head departures.
Needless to say, most people won’t be William Shakespeare. And although many stories in Vary depict uncommon accomplishments, I hoped these would serve as memorable portals of engagement in research that applies to a much wider swath of humanity. In fact, international research that studied thousands of workers – more than three-quarters of whom had no college education – produced results that resonate with a major theme of the book: that sometimes actions that give a head start jeopardize long-term developmentwhether it’s choosing a career or a course of study, or simply developing a skill or learning new subjects.
A study 2017 published by four economists in the United States, Germany and China analyzed education and employment data in 11 countries with significant vocational education or apprenticeship programs, comparing people in each country with similar backgrounds, including test scores, family history, and years of education—but differed depending on whether they received career-focused training or broader general education. Of course, there was considerable variation between countries and certainly between individuals, but the general trend was that people who received a narrow, career-oriented upbringing were more likely to be employed right out of school. school and earn more immediately, but over time both benefits have evaporated. ; decades later, they had spent less time in the labor market overall and had lower lifetime earnings than workers with general education.
Early specialists often won in the short term and lost in the long term. Workers who received a general education, the economists concluded, were better placed to adapt to change in a mean world, where next year’s work might not look like last year’s work.
The pattern was particularly pronounced in two countries with extensive apprenticeship programs, Denmark and Germany, an important finding given that over the past decade U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle have advocated for a move towards the German apprenticeship model. In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order to expand apprenticeship programs to prepare workers for “today’s rapidly changing economy.” Economists, on the other hand, have concluded that the faster a nation’s economy changes, the greater the long-term benefit of general education. Of the three countries with widespread apprenticeship programs – Denmark, Germany and Switzerland – early specialization only resulted in a lifetime wage premium in Switzerland, which had the growing economy by far. the slowest of these three countries in recent decades. “This comparison is consistent with the idea that those with a general education are more adaptable to changing economic demands,” wrote two of the economists. “Vocational education has been widely promoted as a way to improve the school-to-work transition, but it also appears to reduce workers’ ability to adapt to technological and structural changes in the economy.”
Does this mean that we should have no early vocational training or apprenticeship at all? I certainly don’t think so, and one of the economists who did this work pointed out that apprenticeship still works well in specific areas, such as construction trades, but also that those trades represent a small portion of non- filled. In my opinion, you have to preserve a variety of backgrounds, to adapt to a variety of life circumstances. But I also think we need to be aware of how easy it is to be fooled by advances, assuming they represent terminally stable trajectories, whether the advance is for child athletes, students who are learning mathematics or workers entering the labor market. “The advantages of vocational training in facilitating entry into the labor market”, write the economists, “must be weighed against the disadvantages later in life, disadvantages which are likely to be more serious as we age. we are moving towards a knowledge economy”.
Over the past year, I have often felt late. I found it particularly important to remember the theme of research in Vary: Development is not linear, and diversions that set you back in the short term often become powerful tools in the long term.