|Philippe Halsman. Jean Cocteau, “Jack-of all-trades”, 1948|
First of all, I must admit I loathe that phrase, often because someone is using it to describe me. They think the use of such a platitude will inspire me to spend more time mastering one artistic form, but they’re really just annoying me because they’re missing the point: some people are meant to explore many artistic endeavors! There’s a lot of evidence to show that being a Jack of All Trades/Renaissance Man is a genetic trait, and our brains are wired to respond to different stimuli. While there is much wisdom and truth in that phrase, because we might not be the best at any one genre, that’s not to say there aren’t wonderful benefits to being a Jack.
Jean Cocteau was an internationally acclaimed avant-garde artist of the Parisian scene probably best known nowadays for his novel "Les Enfants terribles" or his landmark black and white film "Beauty and the Beast" whose design style has been copied in many forms. In addtion to writing and filmmaking, he was also a very accomplished artist, playwright, poet, novelist, designer, and of all things a boxing manager! A famous photograph of Jean Cocteau by Philippe Halsman even depicts him with 6 arms doing different things called "Jack-of-all-trades." You could say he was quite the Jack.
So was Leonardo da Vinci, with a long list of credits to what he spent his time doing. If he had merely stuck to being a mathematician and engineer, we would have missed out on several of the most iconic artworks of all time. However, it’s interesting to note that while he’s most known for his paintings, he actually only completed a relatively small number! He was constantly trying out new techniques that failed and was a known procrastinator! While he invented all manner of things and made some amazing discovers in the fields of anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics, he failed to publish any of his findings! Still, do people cry out in anger for Leonardo being a Jack? He’s known as the quintessential Renaissance Man, and perhaps that distinction makes all the difference, for he successfully integrated his many skills and disciplines into a mastery of his own that many can admire beyond his lifetime. If he didn’t explore all his various interests and experiment widely, who knows if his works would have achieved the sublime level they are known for.
One of those techniques that I find most useful, is “The School Day Model.” Remember how you learned things in school? Did you spend an entire day studying math or history? No, you spent about an hour, then the bell rang, and you went on to the next class and next subject. The same principle can apply towards your creativity. Focus intently on one subject, one genre for a period of time, then take a break and go on to another subject. I find that writing for several hours, then shifting towards making art, then business matters, etc., works quite well. Instead of multi-tasking, I focus for short bursts at a time, just as we have learned to do since we were young.
Sher outlines a new way of categorizing people who are interested in a lot of subjects as “Scanners,” or people who like to scan a wide variety of interests. She also presents the strong case that the Cold War had much to do in the demise of the traditional Renaissance Man because the U.S. had a new mission to outrun the Soviets in the Space and Arms Race, which required people becoming specialists. People who became experts in their field have lead to major advancements in science and medicine that we’ve all benefited from. However, in some ways we’ve moved forward a bit too fast in that race, too fast in the constant advance of technology over human and natural rights. Perhaps we need some time to slow down and catch up as a society – for not every advance has been a step forward in the right direction. In the race to succeed, we’ve also burnt through a vast amount of resources and the planet and it’s yet to be seen if we haven’t dug our own graves as a results.
We definitely need Masters to take us farther than we ever thought possible, but we also need the Jacks to hone their abilities and to be encouraged to bring together their various skills to come up with practical, balanced applications. Jacks could be the hybridizers of the world, the ones who bridge the past wisdoms with future advances.
In researching this weeks subject matter, I also discovered that the above phrase was incomplete. The full phrase reads as follows:
“Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.”
Are we living under some kind of conspiracy where the abbreviation was put in place by the “masters” in order to keep the “Jacks” feeling bad about themselves? Regardless of how we got to this point, the path forward is clear. We need to both width and depth in our exploration in order to map out a clear future. We’ll discuss more of that next week…