Jack of All Trades

Jack of All Trades?  

“I don’t know how to get the right answer!  I can’t do this!”

“This is just dumb! Why do I have to do this anyway?”

“Why don’t they write their questions in plain English?”

This was the scene last night in our house. 

One person was struggling with math homework. Another was on the computer, dealing with an assignment that had been left for far too long, and railing against the unfairness of having to do homework for a teacher who would “grade it as less than 100%, no matter what I ever do.” Back in the kitchen, someone else was mumbling about forms that seem to only explain half of what they want–and don’t list any way to get necessary and needed clarifications.  My own day had started with the best of intentions at completing a project… only to see it pushed aside for other urgent matters, leaving me feeling inadequate.

Quite the family, no?  

These conversations got me thinking about “perfect”.  It’s much nicer to have the right answer the first time through, much more fun when your paper doesn’t sport smears from erasers.  It’s a lot more fun to get back a 10/10 than to see red marks all over your work.  It’s much more satisfying to start a project and finish it.  Who doesn’t want to feel competent, accomplished?  To feel you’ve done something perfectly?

That’s where our conversation went last night.  You don’t have to know how to do the math question the first time out; that’s why we have erasers.  You might not understand the instructions and the assignment at first; ask questions. You probably won’t get everything done today; bring it forward to tomorrow.

The world is not coming to an end.

I had a friend in high school.  In my mind, this young man was fabulously talented.  He played the trumpet–first chair.  He could hear a song and reproduce it on the piano, no music needed.  He acted in our musicals and plays.  He sang a lovely tenor, and on the buses to music competitions, he and a group of guys would spontaneously break into four-part harmonies with songs that they invented. He was a good student.  He played sports.  He was kind. He had many friends, and was just an all-around nice guy.

One day, he made an offhand remark that has haunted me to this day: “Yep, I’m the jack-of-all-trades, but master of none.” How could this talented guy see himself as not worthy?

This winter, I read an article from a woman who received a holiday gift of glass blowing lessons.  She went to her first class, hoping that she’d be on of those “naturals”, someone who would “just know” how to make exquisite creations. But, reality being what it is, she was not.  She struggled to produce anything close to the level of perfection she had hoped for.  For her, it brought to mind the search for “mastery”.  She reflected on how long it takes to master a skill, and how much dedication you must have.

I keep mulling over these two scenarios.  Is it necessary to “master” something?  Is that the point?

Surely we all agree that while we must “master” the basics of math, very few will become mathematicians.  It’s good to be a competent, cohesive writer, even if we don’t write the great American novel.  

I just don’t think we are failures if we are just “good enough”.  Years later, I still refuse to believe it is inherently bad to be “the jack-of-all-trades, master of none”.  

This past December, our nine-year-old announced she’d like to play a piano solo, at church.  I hesitated, wondering if she’d be too nervous. But she insisted she wanted to, on Christmas Eve.  So that evening, outfitted in a lovely dress and sparkling with happiness, she walked up to the piano, confidently sat down, started in…

And made a mistake.

I held my breath.  Would she dissolve?  No.  She just started over that little section, and went on to finish well, to the accolades of all.  

Perfection and complete and total mastery was not needed here.  She delivered joy to all who listened and made the world a better place with her contribution.  

Competence ruled, skills gained through frustration and some tears along the way.  Mastery eludes us, sure. Full lives are still achieved.

It’s all just part of the education.

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools–now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels.  She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.  Contact her at jill@globalcow.com.

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