Wednesday, October 20, 2010

i got your back, jack

When we decided to get into home brewing my friend James and I were talking about how exciting and fun the process was. I was really wound about the cider pressing and could not wait to bottle our own. So I told him I wanted to try some simple kit beers too. The pressing inspired my long-put-off home brewing itch. I explained this and he just shook his head at me, "Let's just stick with the cider, Jenna" he said, "a jack of all trades is a master of none." And I was instantly hit with this shot of odd guilt because my entire lifestyle is based around trying to be Jack.

Then I realized how ridiculous it was to feel guilty about not living up to an aphorism, specially when it feels so damn wrong.

I am a master of nothing. I despise perfection, hate details, and roll my eyes when someone complains about a finger print on their car's new paint job. I have no desire to be "Jenna the Knitter" or "Jenna the Fiddler" or "Jenna the Baker." I want to be Jenna. And being me means a messy life full of animals, music, experiments, mistakes, victories, and a wide variety of utilitarian skills and interests. I want to do well at the things I am involved in, but my measure of "well" does not have to match anyone else's. If I grow food I can eat: I consider this a successful garden. If my sheepdog herds sheep: I consider this a successful partnership. I do not need three-pound tomatoes or trial ribbons.

I think that was the spirit of the original homesteaders. Back then being a master of a craft meant one of two things: it was either a luxury or your trade. You either had the money and time to do one thing well, or doing that one thing was what paid for you to everything else not nearly as well! I bet the best farriers and blacksmiths made skunk beer from time to time. They had to become Jack too, because in the spirit of self-sufficiency they needed to learn many skills across the board just to survive. So even if they made a sweet wagon wheel they still had to be okay at butchering hogs or sewing new shirts. It never crossed their minds to have another master do these things simply because they were better at it.

I'd much rather play a mediocre tune on the fiddle, while drinking passing home-brewed beer, while wearing a scrappy homespun hat in a house that needs vacuuming than be an artist at one thing. Frankly, that seems boring as hell. I like knowing I can set up a chicken coop, tack up a horse, raise geese, spin wool, and bake a pizza in the same day and know none of these things are artisanal, but utilitarian, which is what their purpose was in the first place.

Some of us have the perception that we should strive to perfect one discipline. That's great if you want to get into Julliard or earn a football scholarship to Yale. I want to run a small, diversified, farm. I honestly believe if I keep doing all the things I am doing I will get better at them. I believe I will naturally gravitate to fewer and fewer till it appears that I have settled on "mastering" one or two things. Truth is, those will be the things I liked the most and simply did the most. Maybe one day Cold Antler Farm will just be sheep, border collies, and pumpkins. Right now it's a beautiful frenzy.

So, you can call me Jack.

comic from


Blogger Laura Camp said...

Totally agreed. Our culture definitely encourages specialists, not Jacks-- but sometimes it's fun to be counter-cultural.

October 20, 2010 at 11:55 AM  
Blogger Teresa said...

My group of friends and I have postulated that you can either be an obsessionist or a dabbler. My friend who is an Olympic rower? Obsessionist. Friend who plans to sail around the world one day and has devoted most of his life to sailing? Obsessionist. Me? Dabbler. I'm never going to be famous for anything, but I'll sure have tried a little of everything.

October 20, 2010 at 11:56 AM  
Blogger Meagan said...

Wonderful thoughts! I try to keep my hobby/learning expansion to reasonable limits, I'm the kind of person who loves having 50 projects on the go at once. Still I couldn't help but learn plenty of things this year, many of which I hadn't even thought about before (such as how hard it is to raise chickens vs turkeys). I've found so far that it's worth its weight in gold to play around and give things a shot before deciding whether to commit fully to any new homesteading hobby. Sometimes you have to commit a good amount even just to test things out, like with acquiring a cow and doing the related dairy tasks, which is why I am firm in my desire to not have a cow here yet despite living in dairy country. But I know that someday I will be at that point and a cow will join us and we shall enjoy the trials and trades that go along with her. I think there's nothing wrong with being a jack of all trades, so long as you don't try to be it all at once. Like you say eventually we find tasks which are more desirable or pleasurable to us and naturally gravitate towards mastery. But you sure won't find those tasks by not dabbling in em.

October 20, 2010 at 11:59 AM  
Blogger DarcC said...

JennaJack, very well put. I have a saying I picked up somewhere along the way "the perfect is the enemy of the good". I too like knowing I can do many different things with minimal experience/effort. If I care enough about specializing in something, I will, until then, I want to experience many things!

October 20, 2010 at 12:05 PM  
Blogger cpcable said...

Very well put. I too am a dabbler and have often been made to feel that this is a bad thing. Only more recently am I coming to realize that, as long as I love what I'm doing right now, this is a perfectly valid way to engage with the world.

October 20, 2010 at 12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, there's even room in homebrewing for perfectionism, you can enter competitions and go for medals if you want to, but that's not the heart of the hobby. Our hobby was lucky enough to be fathered by a very relaxed Zen-like man named Charlie Papazian, the man who wrote "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing" and ushered-in the modern era of microbreweries and homebrewing. BTW, he's also a "Jack", as besides being a guru in the industry/hobby he's also a nuclear engineer. While there are many influences in beer today, he set the tone with his oft-repeated mantra: "Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew." It's an attitude that's permeated the industry, even among professional craft brewers. So, RDWHAHB!

October 20, 2010 at 12:20 PM  
Blogger Robbie Knight said...


Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls perfection "the death of everything". Specialization was much touted when I was growing up, as a means to security. Then the best possible thing happened: the bottom fell out of the entire idea that specialization, or even monetary wealth, would result in "security". After 20 years in a career of elevated expectations which made me privy to the perfectionism of the culture, I decided to drop out. I've never been healthier.

There is such PLEASURE in a life of many crafts rather than ONE THING that used to be a loved pursuit and after a time becomes a dreadful, deadly, abusive GRIND.

You've inspired me so much, Jenna. I'm SO MUCH happier making my own mediocre bread, worrying over my chickens and making a 10th attempt to knit in the round than I was in my "career". A job is a job, and jobs can be good. A LIFE, though....a LIFE is finest when handmade, with a few dropped stitches and snags in it.

October 20, 2010 at 12:22 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

I think it is great to take on and explore as many projects, crafts, trades as you want to. If you want to perfect something, it doesn't have to be because you want to became famously perfect at what you do, but I think it can be because you want to explore something to its utmost. I am definitely not a master at any one thing and I am too interested in too many things to (and not a perfectionist) to focus on just one thing.

I think it is important to remember, though, that even if we prefer to make instead of buy and do it ourselves, we ideally want to incorporate the element of community. By sharing our skill and the things we make we don't all have to do everything. Maybe I bake bread, make yogurt, and sew. I'd like to dabble in more, but I'll trade some of what I make for some of your homebrew (or whatever) so that I don't have to do it all.

October 20, 2010 at 12:25 PM  
Blogger bookjunky said...

That was one of the things I liked about your book - that you tried things that you obviously had no clue about but jumped right in. I think so many of us are taught to be fearful of not being perfect, not getting an "A" in every subject, that we just shut down on trying new things. Or if we try them and we aren't perfect then we throw in the towel, rather than accepting that OK is, well, OK.

I think you need this shirt

October 20, 2010 at 12:33 PM  
Blogger bookjunky said...

Anna, great thoughts about community. This is something we wish we could create in our area but so far have not been able to. I think we will be a big change in this area in the not-distant future, as people have less imported stuff and more need for local skills...

October 20, 2010 at 12:36 PM  
Blogger leafonatree said...

Cheers to Jack.

October 20, 2010 at 12:38 PM  
Blogger Robbie Knight said...

One thought...would you have time to design a t-shirt with a graphic of the symbols of homesteading trades (a spindle, a spoon, a basket of eggs, maybe?) and the phrase, "Call Me Jack"? If you don't have time I'll applique one and post the pic... ;D

October 20, 2010 at 12:46 PM  
Blogger Cindy said...

Hear hear! I've often thought my motto should be "good enough is good enough". Perfect is boring.

October 20, 2010 at 12:54 PM  
Blogger bySarah said...

Love this post.
Thanks for making it.
I love my knitting/spinning/weaving/gardening a-d-d.

October 20, 2010 at 1:30 PM  
Blogger Crystal said...

Very well said. I have a habit of finding something intriguing and jumping in with both feet and a blindfold. I stumble and sputter and enjoy the hell out of the process. Am I perfect? No. Could I be better at a few things than throw my net wide? probably.

That's part of the loveliness of freedom, to be able to explore whatever grabs your mind or heart as soon as the feeling slaps you.

As I always say (mainly to remind myself) we only get one go around on this Earth and I want to experience it all.

October 20, 2010 at 1:31 PM  
Blogger Meredith A said...

the more you lean about one thing the less you'll learn about another.

have fun with it.

October 20, 2010 at 1:55 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Adding this post to the list of CAF favorites.

October 20, 2010 at 2:06 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

book junky i love that shirt!

October 20, 2010 at 2:09 PM  
Blogger Damn The Broccoli said...

We have plenty of words in common usage that celebrate those who weren't necessarily masters.

Bodge? Tinker? These are just two that come istantly to mind. Those who couldn't afford artisan craftwork or to buy something new would go to either of these for a cheap and cheerful fix up. My grandad certainly was no master but could get his tractor running with any three bolts and a tub of grease!

I am no master as I have to be able to do everything, sadly there are not enough of us trying to do things the hard way anymore.

So I make Cider, I make Wine, I make Ale, I am making Port by mistake as I am not a master! I keep trying to make cheese, I grow as much veg as I can and I raise chickens.

Bees will follow, and possible things with hooves.

I can only do this by not trying to be a master, although I am by nature a perfectionist so this does rub agianst the grain somewhat!

So here's to us less than skilled who get by because we try!

October 20, 2010 at 2:10 PM  
Blogger Crit said...

I totally dig that. Totally agree!

October 20, 2010 at 2:25 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

Jenna and all other dabblers

You will love the Cult of Done Manifesto here

I have it posted on my inspiration board to remind me--a recovering perfectionist--to just DO.

October 20, 2010 at 2:33 PM  
Blogger The MO Farmers Daughter said...

HI,It does seem to me that you do try to do too much and that your post seem to come quicker and quicker and that your going to just get overloaded,in a weeks time look at what all you have done???Focus girl a little more,or you are going to get overwhelmed.I understand that it is fun,but,don,t you have a day job still?have a great day, carol

October 20, 2010 at 2:59 PM  
Blogger Paula said...

Specialization and mastery are the things that will divide those who sink from those who swim when the ship hits the sand.

October 20, 2010 at 3:02 PM  
Blogger Kitchen Mama said...

As an inveterate perfectionist, I envy your zeal and zest in tackling everything that interests you. It is probably a much more healthy approach to life--and you get to try out so many new interests that way--than obsessing on perfecting a few skills.

My only advice: try not to spread yourself too thin. I remember how sick you got when you rushed processing a chicken. Try everything you want, but do each task as it comes, deliberately, and protect your health. Alot of animals depend on you.

In the meantime, I love living your experiences vicariously. Wish I could share a bottle of Antler Ale with you.

October 20, 2010 at 3:59 PM  
Blogger Weaving Rose said...

Trying new things is a lot of fun and you are right about it giving you a chance to try something different. You'll know which one's you like the best because those will be the ones you keep wanting to do. We brewed beer for awhile. It was a lot of fun, but eventually I kind of lost interest because of all the cleaning involved. My advice? Use a lot of hops.

October 20, 2010 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Firecracker Farm said...

I would rather be stranded on The Desert Island with Jack than with a brain surgeon, a world class athlete or the guy who holds the world record for largest toothpick collection.

October 20, 2010 at 4:24 PM  
Blogger Tara said...

I'd buy that shirt. ;)

And I completely agree. Besides, if you didn't try brewing beer in addition to cider, how would you know which one you liked better? I think it's fine to be fine at many things, and still become very skilled at one or two, but you have to do the dabbling to know which things you want to excel at, right?

October 20, 2010 at 4:58 PM  
Blogger Denise said...

My guidance councelor told me you dont want to be jack of all trades and master of none. But I did. Masters only do one thing you're so right Jenna and I wanted to do lots of things and not be cubbyholed into one thing. How boring! Besides those masters are totally helpless at other things so call me Jack too ;)

October 20, 2010 at 5:58 PM  
Blogger HotFlashHomestead said...

I try and be as much of a generalist as possible, however, I find there's a certain zen in totally focusing on one task at a time, and not being rushed by having too many competing priorities. That's the Quaker way. Having too many projects going can make for a rough go of it. But if there's time, I'm all for learning new things!

October 20, 2010 at 6:51 PM  
Blogger Thinkin' Out Loud said...

Good for you Jenna! I am still trying to not care that my crafts arent perfect and never will be.

October 20, 2010 at 6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this post. I call myself a dabbler. I like to do everything, too. It's true, life is beautiful as a frenzy.

October 20, 2010 at 7:30 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Thank you for this post. I really needed to read something like this today. I will always be a 'jack'. :)

October 20, 2010 at 7:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with you on this one - I'd so much rather have a number of things (and interests) that I'm okay at than just one thing that I'm great at. It makes life more interesting, and I think it leaves me more adaptable as well, which is usually a good thing.

October 20, 2010 at 8:11 PM  
Blogger becky3086 said...

I would much rather know a lot of things than know just one perfectly. I don't believe that I could. I learn one thing until I can do it, then move on to another, later I come back to that thing and do it (or learn it) again. It keeps me busy, interesting and I think we are stay so much healthier as we grow older if we always keep busy and learning.

October 20, 2010 at 8:27 PM  
Blogger KristenAnn said...

Rock. On.

October 20, 2010 at 9:12 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

What a great post! I didn't realize how many dabblers were out there. I love it when an "inspiration" hits, be it a recipe, pattern,crafting, and I can't wait to gather everything I need to get going on my new project. And if it's a disaster? Oh well... on to the next project.

October 20, 2010 at 10:30 PM  
Blogger Aurora said...

I to am a jack; and sometimes I beat myself up about that, having never found 'the one' thing that I could devote my life to whole heartedly.

Now I am happy to dabble; and perhaps I will settle on one or two things to devote my energy to more fully - but I will still carry on experimenting with other things, because it is fun; and means that you have the final say on the ethics of the processes and final product.

We have (ok, my other half has) just moved on from kits to his first mash brew; we plan to experiment with a few seasonal beers next year. It is a very satisfying slow craft and you can explore it as deeply, scientifically or artisanally as you want, you will still earn many (tipsy) friends and have great beer to drink.

October 21, 2010 at 5:30 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

I think for a small farmer it is important to be a jack of all trades, you can save a lot of money doing things yoursef and as markets change you can adjust what you produce to the market demand.

October 21, 2010 at 6:36 AM  
Blogger Matt_Middleton said...

I prefer the full quote: jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.

One way of reducing bias from people who have a negative association with the term "jack of all trades" is to identify yourself as a polymath. As a bit of a geek, I actually like using uncommon words, and polymath definitely falls in that category.

October 21, 2010 at 9:12 AM  
Blogger Laura from beautiful West Michigan said...

NEVER stop learning! I am considerably older than you and am constantly amazed at how much there still is to learn and do! How would we ever know our passion if we didn't try the things that interested us? And learning something new is good for our brains. Never feel bad for learning something new!

October 21, 2010 at 10:23 AM  
Blogger Angie said...

"I'd much rather play a mediocre tune on the fiddle, while drinking passing home-brewed beer, while wearing a scrappy homespun hat in a house that needs vacuuming than be an artist at one thing."

That describes me so well. People ask me what my hobby is and I want to know why I have to pick one.

Hope this doesn't mean your first batch of beer turned out skunky. Don't be detered! I think it does pay to spend a bit more on slightly better kits, but brewing should be fun. You might also like making wine. Less complicated than beer making and often you can scrounge the ingredients from feral fruit trees or brambles. Here's a couple websites if you're interested:

October 21, 2010 at 1:11 PM  
Blogger HotFlashHomestead said...

Angie, Jack Keller rocks, I agree! I learned everything I know about winemaking from his helpful videos! Jenna, you should check him out.

October 21, 2010 at 5:03 PM  
Blogger Lynda Halliger Otvos (Lynda M O) said...

Polymath describes people like us and those we love.

October 21, 2010 at 6:43 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

You go, Jack!!!

October 21, 2010 at 9:16 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

you go Jack!

October 21, 2010 at 9:16 PM  
Blogger Heidi said...

amen Jack!

October 22, 2010 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger Lyssa said...

I feel that in the modern age, with access to the internet and its vast pool of knowledge, that there is no excuse for not being a Jack of all trades. You can find out how to do ANYTHING, and if you put in some effort you can make a reasonable go at it.

After that, it is all up to you: if you enjoy something enough to keep doing it, keep doing it. If you keep doing it long enough, you might just find yourself a master someday...but passing up other things you might try so that you can give more attention to a single subject doesn't seem like the road to the fullest life.

October 22, 2010 at 1:01 PM  
Blogger Mauivix said...

Here, here Jenna!

October 23, 2010 at 3:13 PM  
Blogger Mauivix said...

Here, here Jenna!

October 23, 2010 at 3:13 PM  
Blogger Mauivix said...

Here, here Jenna!

October 23, 2010 at 3:13 PM  
Blogger Mauivix said...

Here, here Jenna!

October 23, 2010 at 3:14 PM  
Blogger Karen Sue said...

Although I agree with you trying out many things and learning to do lots of stuff, I can see where your friend was coming from with the statement. Sometimes its good to try one thing and then expand after you learn from that... Learned that by throwing out a Batch of pickles x4 last year, because if one was good, 4 was better, but not really knowing how the one tasted, I found out that 4 was just wasted stuff x's 4. Time and money down the drain. Perhaps he was just telling you to take this through to completion before you got more going.....

October 26, 2010 at 6:55 AM  
Blogger Sarah Rachelle said...

EXACTLY! You totally hit it on the head. That is me right there. I love trying new things and I get my heart set on doing something and I do it. Life is way more interesting that way! Thanks for putting it into words. I needed that today.

November 3, 2010 at 2:28 PM  
Blogger jen said...

i am blown away by your post. thank you for sharing such a healthy and refreshing view! you've made me think about a few things i've been feeling, and i'm feeling better about them now. thanks!

January 1, 2011 at 11:55 PM  

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