Jack/Jill of all trades, master of none. The modern-day dilemma.

I have been reading a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, written by Yuval Noah Harari. As the title suggests, the author paints a picture of typical human behaviour, skill, and intelligence through time. During the period in which humans were both predator and prey, an individual would have had to possess an incredible amount of knowledge and skill to survive. For example, they would have needed to know when and where the predators would hunt, what food was safe to eat, which medicines could be used to treat different ailments, and have a strong understanding of climate, this was a period in which humans were highly intelligent, a requirement for survival.

By comparison, the modern-day man or woman is very different. We do not need to have a strong all-round understanding of every aspect of life. Rather, our survival depends more on being an expert in the area of specialisation that we choose. In modern times, we could equate our occupation as a form of survival. Almost every high paying job advertisement requires a level of specialisation and field-related experience.

A ‘Jack/Jill of all trades, master of none’ is somewhat of a dilemma in modern day life. This person is a generalist rather than a specialist, a competent individual but no expert. But how does an individual become a specialist?

Traditional high school education systems are tailored for the mass population and provide a broad understanding of wide-ranging subjects. Little specialisation takes place in a group of 30 people who are spoon fed the repetitive content. For those who are successful, this may provide the opportunity to enter university or technical institutions where skills and true expertise come later and are hard earned. In essence, the educational systems are gearing up individuals with the skills necessary for specialisation, foremost – the ability to learn how to learn.

Those who eventually specialise find in themselves the tools to facilitate their own specialisation. Hard work, determination, patience, and genuine curiosity are some of the many tools and qualities needed. In modern day life, careers and job opportunities are also extremely dynamic, changing rapidly, those who succeed can adapt and grow accordingly.

The shortened version, put simply ‘a Jack/Jill of all trades’ without the ‘master of none’ part is often seen as a compliment for a person who is good at problem solving and has a strong foundation of knowledge. You may be thinking, I am probably a Jack/Jill, perhaps that makes you a master in your own right. A master of integration, as those in the past needed to be in order to survive.

In a world in which an individual with one strong skill can create an unimaginable amount of success and wealth, the understanding of your own true ability and skill become more important. All fingers point towards yourself, you need to look inward to become a true master.

Presenting Google Earth Engine at the UCL-Wits climate workshop

I was asked by my supervisor Prof. Jen Fitchett to present at the University College London (UCL)- University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) climate workshop during May 2021. I was excited because she had planned for me to demonstrate to a live audience how Google Earth Engine (GEE) can be used to collect climate data remotely.

GEE is a platform that I really enjoy working with and in my opinion, it is the future of remote sensing. During the early stages of my PhD, I had the quite frightening realisation that I had very little data to work with as a result of travel restrictions caused by the global pandemic.  My project revolves around a large peatland deposit in the Angolan Highlands. This would ordinarily have involved going to Angola and collecting samples over several weeks of fieldwork, none of which were possible. I started to investigate whether I could visit my study area virtually, using remote sensing. After watching hours of YouTube tutorials, I finally got a grip of how GEE works. The platform has allowed me to collect large quantities of spatial data about my field site, all from the comfort of my home, pushing my PhD progress forward.

I have repeatedly presented on the extensive datasets that GEE has to offer to both of my supervisors. I often planned a meeting of 20 minutes that would frequently last over an hour, simply because we were all intrigued by the extensive data catalogue. I wanted the UCL-Wits workshop presentation to be no different, and Prof. Fitchett encouraged me to keep the same ‘show and tell’ format when presenting. The GEE platform really sparks discussion and places thinking caps firmly on heads.

If I am totally honest, I was not nervous to present, even with the knowledge of having to present to highly acclaimed researchers at UCL and other international institutions. I think this was because I had the experience of live demonstrations and I knew that what I would share would be new and valuable to almost all the audience. It also made me comfortable knowing that Prof. Fitchett would be there if anything went totally wrong.

I did, however, perform a quick Google search on what makes a good presentation beforehand. One of the most striking points from this search for me personally was that it is the presenter that makes the presentation worth watching. I knew I had to bring the energy and put a big smile on my face, especially at the start to draw attention.  When presenting online, you have no real social cues to go by, no eye contact or body language, so a lot of the suggestions of what makes a good presentation do not apply.  

If I look back at the presentation itself, I encouraged the live audience to interact with me as much as possible, far from a lecture-type presentation, and it was a great success. In hindsight, I probably should have moved through the datasets a bit quicker as I did not get to show nearly as much as I wanted to. The positive side to this was that some members of the audience had the opportunity to see their field site for the first time on GEE. My plan was to showcase the extraordinary capabilities of the platform in the hope that other researchers and students may use GEE in their own projects, especially now when fieldwork is logistically impossible.

After the presentation, I received communication from both Dr. Sarah Roffe and Dr. Adriaan van der Walt, two former PhD students of Prof. Fitchett, both asking me if I would like to do the same presentation at The Society of South African Geographers (SSAG) Students and Young Professionals (SnP) group workshop. Hopefully, these workshops could be the start of something that I could take forward in a teaching and learning setting in future. I would love the opportunity to teach GEE post PhD at a university or technical institution.

Three presentation lessons learnt:

  1. What you say is more important than the written text in the presentation.
  2. You need to bring the positive energy, not the audience. If you think your presentation is boring, the audience will think so too, so make it interesting and worthwhile for the them.
  3. When presenting online, technical difficulties are inevitable, just deal with them as best you can and do not let them distract you.