A few months ago I was interviewed by the friendly folk over at GeekXP. One of the questions I was asked was how I ended up where I am today, and after a much longer and more convoluted answer than even I anticipated (I think they were expecting something more straightforward), I was struck by the number of things I’ve done over the years, mostly without intending to!

A quick rundown. Since I turned 18, I’ve studied Fine Arts and then later 3D Animation. I’ve been a lecturer, a TV presenter, a producer, a voice over artist, a visual artist, a VJ, an MC (not the musical, rapping kind!), a writer, an editor (magazine) and an editor (video). Sometimes many of these at the same time. Some of them I can’t even remember.

I’ve spoken at international conferences, I’ve given a TEDx talk, I’ve represented South Africa at an international conference. I’ve been in a band (doing live visuals) and I’ve exhibited work in galleries.

When people ask me what I do, I often find it very difficult to answer the question. So although I have an official job title (for my day job at least), I often call myself a jack of all trades. What’s that old adage?

A jack of all trades, master of none?

Photo by Christo Doherty. Soft Serve Launch Party, GoGo Bar, Newtown
Photo by Christo Doherty. Soft Serve Launch Party, GoGo Bar, Newtown




But here’s the thing. The world needs people like this. The world needs people who are problem solvers. People who teach themselves how to do things out of necessity. People who don’t say, “oh I don’t know how to do that!”





Over the years I’ve taught myself to edit video and mix sound (the latter rudimentary, but it suffices in certain circumstances). I have formal training in 3ds max, XSI, Maya and Combustion. Everything else was kind of just picked up along the way. At the moment I have a rudimentary knowledge of Illustrator, and I’m trying to teach myself how to utilise it more effectively. I’ve taught myself Quartz Composer, VizRT, Touchdesigner, Adobe After Effects, Adobe Photoshop, an old editing system called Casablanca in the days when we still recorded on to tape, and a variety of other pieces of software, some of which I still use, some of which I probably couldn’t even remember how to navigate.

I’ve built visual performance systems and used them in performance for both my own band, Soft Serve, and for performance at a Vuzu event. (You don’t have to watch the whole video below, but it’s a work in progress example of something I worked on a few years ago).


I’ve spent hours on YouTube figuring out how to the best results from a plugin, following tutorials, and in cases where none were available for what I wanted to do, figuring out how best to do what I needed.

And I’m not the only person who does this. For example, the amazing photographer who produced the shot below, and a former business partner of mine, Tim Hulme, is almost entirely self taught, particularly when it comes to Photoshop and retouching. Many people I know are self taught in their current field. Perhaps they studied, but never went into that area of work, and got where they are by spending time honing skills out of necessity. Working hard to get where they wanted to be.

Photograph by Tim Hulme. Make-up by Natasha Carstens. Feature for Spliced Magazine.
Photograph by Tim Hulme. Make-up by Natasha Carstens. Feature for Spliced Magazine.

I come from a university background. I taught at Wits University as the 3D Animation lecturer in the Digital Art division of the Wits School of Arts, so I’m very much in favour of a formal education in many ways. I think it hones critical thinking abilities. That said, there are certain on the job practical skills that I acquired only after being forced into a position where I had a deadline and had to figure out how to produce the best end product I could. This often involved teaching myself pieces of software that I had absolutely no knowledge in.

I requires time. It requires patience. And although the term jack of all trades is explained in Wikipedia as “a figure of speech used in reference to a person that is competent with many skills, but spends too much time learning each new skill that he/she can not become an expert in any particular one”, I feel that this is by and large a good thing. It’s not that the person cannot become an expert in any one particular skill, but they are willing to spend the time learning and acquiring skills outside of their expertise in order to find a solution to a problem. In the process that knowledge becomes assimilated into their day to day practice.

The world needs experts.

But the world also needs problem solvers. Jacks of all trades.


9 thoughts on “Opinion // Profile // Who is Pippa Tshabalala? Or Why the World Needs Jacks of All Trades!”

  1. I couldn’t agree more Pippa. We need problem solvers, so awesome that you’ve been involved on so many different levels of creativity. Here’s to years of problem solving 😉

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  2. In the words of Wayne & Garth…….”We’re not worthy!! We’re not worthy!!”

    I’m also a Trade Jack…not as accomplished as you are…
    Heavy-duty Diesel mechanic, Project management, hospitality, IT Tech, I have papers for Hydrodynamics, Thermal dynamics from Flir Africa.

    That excludes both matric certs.

    This article just proves once again why I have always kept you in highest respect and regard.

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  3. Totally agreed Pippa, but at the same time, being a jack of all trades sometimes make me feel very stranded, as I see the world asking for more and more and more experts in all things, and right now especially in things I love doing, and it’s the culture of corporate organisation (at any level beyond level 1) that requires cogs that fill specific needs in engines that calls for it.

    I guess what I’m saying is that we also need more systems that require jacks of all trades rather than engine cogs, so that we foster the demand for them, and thus make the proposition to become one more apparent.

    Right now I’m a jack because I ended up that way, not because I aimed to be 🙂

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    1. Oh I never aimed to be a jack! It’s kind of just where I ended up. yes the world calls for experts, but when one jack can cover multiple aspects of a job, it’s a much more cost effective way of doing things. I think there’s call for both specialists and generalists, but the world tells us that we must all be specialists in something and I don’t think that’s the case!

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  4. I’ve had basically this exact discussion in the last week with my wife.

    I myself am battling to justify moving on to learn new things because it feels a waste of so many years of study, but I’m beginning to feel the need to try new things before I stagnate. It’s a daunting step, but it’s starting to feel more and more right as I look into it.

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    1. I firmly believe that no studies are ever a waste! It doesn’t matter if all it did was teach you that you didn’t want to be an accountant, knowledge is never worthless 🙂 Learn new things!

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