My friend Jonathan asked who my superhero is. Did I look up to a character like Superman, Spiderman, or Batman? I jokingly said Robin. Then I quickly added that my real favorite superhero is MacGyver.
MacGyver gives dignity to the often popularly maligned generalist, Jack of all trades, master of none. I can only guess that the original writer/creator of the television series was inspired by the complete idiom, not the shortened version most people know.
The alleged original idiom is: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” This is a convenient, easily remembered way of saying that having multiple interests and talents is an advantageous quality to have over somebody who is only talented in one thing.
If we examine the origin of the idiom, we can gain more insight about it’s meaning. Back in the 1600s, a “jack” was the word used to refer to an ordinary, common man. A trade is a practiced skill-set a person has developed in order to earn a living. So, an ordinary, common man who was reasonably competent in many skill-sets was called a jack of all trades. The phrase, “master of none” is said to have been added in the 1820s.
I remember my grandparents who were farmers and my parents who grew up on farms. To be proficient at many skills was pretty much mandatory in the isolated environment of a rural farm. If you were unable to competently perform nearly every task needed to keep a farm running, the farm would fail. Both the man and the woman on the farm needed to have multiple skill-sets.
There was a lot of overlap, too. Traditionally, the man nurtured crops and livestock, the woman managed the housekeeping and cooking chores. The skills were not always limited to those needs. Sometimes it was necessary for the man to help cook and clean. Oftentimes, women cared for gardening or worked in equal measure to raise crops and livestock. The children were taught to continue these roles effectively as informal apprentices.
Before there was such a television show as MacGyver, I observed dad. If ever there was a jack of all trades, it was dad. He was able to repair nearly everything in the house. He enjoyed carpentry projects and was mechanically adept in metalwork. He was no slouch regarding domestic housework. He could cook and clean with the best of them. On top of his chores at home, his professional career consisted of designing and supervising road and bridge construction.
After a spring through fall season of highway construction, dad had more conventional work and home schedules. In the off-season, he was able to enjoy more time in his workshops in the basement and in the garage. On one typical Saturday he might repair a broken door latch, rebuild the carburetor on the Buick, then help mom prepare dinner in the evening. Sometime in-between, he managed to help us kids with homework assignments for school.
It seemed like dad was constantly busy fixing something, building something, or reading about something. Yet somehow, he always managed to find time to watch his favorite prime-time network television programs. Of course, he frequently popped corn for us to munch during teevee time.
It was dad’s ability to be a jack of all trades that he attempted to instill as a quality into my brother’s and my skill-sets. That said, neither my brother nor I were ever able to acquire most of the skills of our father despite our best efforts. Our lack of breadth may be due to us not growing up on a farm. It was not vital for us to know how to repair a barbed-wire fence, milk cows, cultivate a field of crops, fix a broken-down tractor nor any of the myriad other chores associated with a small agricultural operation.
This brings me back to the fictional character, MacGyver. He is the ultimate jack of all trades. He also seems to be the master of all. He is good at doing everything I believe is meaningful and important. He is passionate about social issues. MacGyver is depicted as a frequent volunteer to help the needy and less-privileged members of society. He shows concern for children, in particular. The character has helped with a mountain trip for juvenile delinquents. He has been a “Big Brother” mentor. He also has been shown to help handicapped kids.
MacGyver’s other interests are environmentalism and protection of endangered animal species. At some point in the series, he becomes known as a vegetarian.
On top of all these attributes, MacGyver’s main role is that of a non-violent problem solver. The character is famous for improvising devices to get him out of dangerous situations. He doesn’t use sophisticated, specialized technology. His tools of the trades include duct-tape, his ever present Swiss Army Knife, and a simple toolbox carried in his vehicle. He wears a regular, cheap Timex wristwatch. Somehow, MacGuyver manages to find a use for stuff like wood stick matches, chewing gum, paper clips, and other regular, mundane objects.
Somehow, MacGuyver found time to learn enough French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Morse Code, and signal flags to negotiate his way out of sticky scenarios. He is also a top-notch outdoors-man and athlete. Don’t forget that MacGuyver can also play guitar and create paintings.
In my opinion, there is no greater fictional superhero than MacGuyver–the ultimate jack of all trades.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Socrates. “No man undertakes a trade he has not learned, even the meanest; yet every one thinks himself sufficiently qualified for the hardest of all trades–that of government.”