By Franklin C. Annis, EdD
Many of us know the adage, “A jack of all trades and master of none.” This phrase, in the modern usage, is usually used to describe an individual that is functional in several different skills but lacks the ability to really perform well in any of them. However, the phrase may have carried a significantly different meaning when it was first invented. Almost no one knows the passage often ended with the clause, “…is sometimes better than a master at one.” This addition significantly changes the meaning of what we can draw from the phrase. Often polymaths, individuals with interest in a multitude of areas, possess a distinct advantage over those that specialize in only one subject (monomaths). As the Army continues to push leaders to think outside the box it may be time to examine how “the box” developed and how we can truly test its limits.
What we think of as “the box” probably has an origin much earlier than many would guess. In 1840, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the industrial revolution drastically increased the productivity of society by having individuals focus on one specific step in a manufacturing process. While he noted the increase in productivity, he also noted that it robbed men of something larger. While the “art” of manufacturing may have improved, it came at the expense of the artisan. As Tocqueville explains in his work Democracy in America, “While the workman concentrates his faculties more and more upon the study of a single detail, the master surveys an extensive whole, and the mind of the latter is enlarged in proportion as that of the former is narrowed.” As workers became more and more specialized, they soon adapted strict concepts and assumptions that applied only to the craft of making their assigned part.