Growing up, I was often told I was on my way to becoming a jack-of-all-trades. I had a plethora of interests and activities, and had no idea how I would ever be able to choose a single focus later in life. In high school, it was apparent that I was pretty good at a lot of things but not truly excellent at any single thing. Everyone around me seemed already narrowing down their interests or cultivating a particular talent but I was lost. I had always loved being the jack-of-all-trades. Couldn’t I just stay that way?

There was, of course, a time when it would have been acceptable to have so many interests and talents – the Renaissance. So-called “rebirth” of European cultural and scientific advances in the 14th through 17th centuries spawned a number of people with historical figures in a wide variety of arenas. Great minds such as Leonardo da Vinci still escape traditional single-word occupations, and were revered for their many interests and abilities. Da Vinci, for example, was a painter, scientist, musician, cartographer, inventor and much more — the quintessential “Renaissance man.” This was an era where society not only accepted, but highly valued multi-talented people.

But, obviously society has changed a lot since those days. We’ve now come to channeling our efforts into a single direction for increased specialization. Students are expected to choose a field of study early on, and the people who are most revered for their knowledge in our world are those with Ph.Ds — which are nothing more than testaments to a person’s full expertise in an extremely narrow, specific discipline. Someone who does many things but can’t choose a single one to gain expertise in is deemed a jack-of-all-trades. The connotation is overtly negative, as he or she is not just the Jack-of-all-trades- such a person is often considered a “master-of-none.” Perhaps it’s important to choose a specialty, a single-word occupation for the world to know each of us by. But I’d like to think there is still some value in being knowledgeable or talented in many areas.

I’m an engineering student, but I took a class in environmental law last semester. I’d eventually like to go into this field, but it isn’t entirely relevant to my undergraduate studies. Although I intended to take it purely out of interest, I was surprised to find that it provided the most relevant background for my internship this summer. My employer was more impressed with my knowledge of American environmental legislation and regulation than any of my engineering studies, and it played a daily role in the work I did there.

My experience could be written off as isolated, but I’ve talked to many fellow students who’ve had similar experiences in the workplace. Interdisciplinary approaches to problems are becoming more valuable and appreciated. Too many students fall into the trap of over-focusing on a single subject. This kind of focus can be beneficial to many disciplines, but it also can detract from their marketability and performance. Times have certainly changed since the Renaissance, and today’s society demands more specialization. This specialization, however, shouldn’t come at the loss of a general awareness of other subjects. The oft-referenced “absent-minded professor” comes to mind: someone who is brilliant at what he or she does, but is confounded by everyday life. Sure, society isn’t breeding us all to be so extreme — but it is certainly beneficial to be knowledgeable in areas outside our immediate focus area.

So go ahead and take that class on the discovery of DNA or fascist cinema or American business history. Carving a niche for yourself is important, but so is being aware of the world around you. We may not all be Leonardo da Vincis. However, we can still do our part in growing a generation of well-rounded, multi-talented thinkers and leaders — the new jacks-of-all-trades.

Hema Karunakaram can be reached at khema@umich.edu.

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