Inventor. Drawer. Painter. Sculptor. Architect. Scientist. Musician. Mathematician. Engineer. Writer. Cartographer.
These are just a handful of the trades Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci participated in during his lifetime. His life experiences run counter to the famous figure of speech — “jack of all trades, master of none.” In fact, the life of many polymaths like da Vinci disproves that figure of speech altogether.
Not only is da Vinci considered one of the most skilled people in his various fields, but he is also considered one of the skilled people to have ever lived. He was indeed a jack of all trades, and a master of many, too. It’s embedded into his legacy.
The early national period of the United States boasted its fair share of polymaths, too. Benjamin Franklin dabbled in science, philosophy, and politics to name a few fields. And his contemporary, Thomas Jefferson was also a polymath.
Jefferson, the third president, is definitely not without controversy. Historians and political scientists (and of course a Broadway musical) have explored the paradox of the immortal phrase “all men are created equal” and Jefferson’s slave ownership.
Nonetheless, Jefferson’s success in a variety of trades has also been well documented. In addition to his role as a statesman, Jefferson was a lawyer, philosopher, architect, and musician. Much like Franklin and da Vinci, Jefferson was a polymath who found success in many different trades.
Jefferson’s well documented and fully furnished resume as a statesman included: third President of the United States, second Vice President of the US, Governor of Virginia, US diplomat in Paris and Minister to France, first US secretary of State (where he served under George Washington), and one of Virginia’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress, where he was the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence.
In fact, his gravestone does not even mention his higher-level political positions. Famously, it reads:
“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”
In April 1962, President John F. Kennedy said to a room full of Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
I’ve been inspired by both of these polymaths throughout my entire life; but aside from their oft-highlighted achievements (think the Mona Lisa and the Declaration of Independence for da Vinci and Jefferson, respectively), their ability to master multiple trades fascinates me.
In our capitalist culture, the benefits of specialization and trade are drilled into our minds from an early age. If one is a committed capitalist, the efficiency that comes with specialization and trade is almost undeniable. Individuals’ specializations, however, can be detrimental to their careers. Just take a look at industries in our overall economy in 2020.
In this new industrial revolution, many jobs that we relied on are transitioning into a sphere of irrelevance. Coal miners and truck drivers, for example, are rightfully anxious about their economic futures. Why? They’ve spent a lifetime specializing in one trade, and that one industry has either already been replaced with more efficient energy (in the case of coal), or is about to be replaced by machinery (in the case of trucking).
They mastered one trade and did not master another. They’re right to panic. And their story should be a cautionary tale for the rest of us.
The idea that jacks of all trades cannot master any completely ignores the successful polymaths in our history. Leonardo da Vinci had it right. Thomas Jefferson had it right. There’s too much risk in mastering only one trade. It’s important that we become masters of many.
If not for our careers, at least for our personal development.