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?
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.
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.