Jobs for dilettantes?
January 18, 2013 7:21 AM   Subscribe

I have bright-burning short-lived interests in many things, mostly around technology and writing. I admit it: I'm a dilettante. Is there any way I can turn this weakness into a strength?

I am interested in all sort of things related to science and technology, and I love to write fiction and non-fiction. My problem is that I have poor follow-through, and one shiny thing replaces the next.

For example: a few months ago I read several books on cosmology, but then got distracted from that when I learned there is a whole culture on the internet around building your own semi-autonomous flying drone. From there I wrote probably 30K words of notes for a young adult book, but I haven't written much of the book itself yet because I've been trying to work through some of the Code Academy stuff on using APIs. And so on and so on.

At work, I can combat this tendency enough that I can focus on and deliver projects, and I am reasonably successful in my area. And in the past, I have actually started and finished two books, which I self-published to limited but not zero success. I know I need to stick with things, so I focus on an important few and just tough it out. But I find it exhausting.

What I would like though is a way of taking advantage of my tendency for broad shallow knowledge rather than always fighting it, so I could use what limited reserves of focus I have for the stuff I really care about like writing and learning to code. One possible way forward I see is that I love training people and coaching them, and there are opportunities in that sphere within my company that I could explore. I see this working well as I can help people with their stuff, connect it to the other broad stuff I know, and then walk away to the next person or assignment without requiring the sort of follow-through needed to actually deliver a project.

But I am open to any and all suggestions. Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about getting into journalism in some way (writing for established sites, blogging, contributing guest columns to your local paper, etc.)? I'm like you, a mile wide and an inch deep in many respects, but when I was a reporter that was the part I liked best -- parachuting into some topic, learning as much as I could in a day or so, and then moving on to the next thing.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:27 AM on January 18, 2013

This is what corporate training and consulting is about. In fact, it's one of my frustrations about this kind of consulting, in that we spend a lot of time trying to deliver a project using a specific technology, wrap up the project, and then move on to a completely new thing where we have to build up our knowledge about a new system and technology from scratch. If this is the sort of thing that really energizes you, then you can do that!
posted by deanc at 7:29 AM on January 18, 2013

Business research has a lot of these elements, as well. You can deep-dive into a topic or a company or another subject that your team requires, then you have to dump all that information into succinct reports and forget that info just as quickly to move on to the next thing.
posted by xingcat at 7:48 AM on January 18, 2013

Well, if you're invested enough in making this change to go back to school, being a reference and instruction librarian at a university would probably be a good fit for you. Plenty of teaching and training opportunities, learning to code and keeping up with new tech would be beneficial, and by helping faculty and students with research you end up learning a little bit about a lot of subjects.

(The usual caveats about making this career change apply: do not go into debt to do it, the job market is hostile, and if you work for a corporation now you'll probably be taking a pay cut.)
posted by clavicle at 8:23 AM on January 18, 2013

I am similar to what you describe. A couple of books that I have found to be tremendously valuable and helpful are Refuse to Choose and The Renaissance Soul.
posted by jbickers at 8:57 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am a reference librarian, and I proudly describe myself as a dilettante.
posted by mareli at 9:14 AM on January 18, 2013

I'm a reference and instruction librarian and I have not found it to be as dilettantish as I hoped it would be.
posted by mskyle at 9:26 AM on January 18, 2013

This is part of what I love about working as a trial lawyer. The work on each case is similar enough that I feel as though I can build real skills and get better over time. However, each case has its own set of facts and its own weird legal issues that I get to research. I've gotten to learn about everything from how DNA works to what special rights foreign nationals have in US Courts to how the city determines which high school a given kid will go to. It satisfies my need to delve deeply into lots of different topics without feeling as though I'm hopping around, never carrying over knowledge from one project to the next.

(I'd add all the usual caveats about how law school these days is often a losing bet, where you go into a quarter million dollars in debt and come out facing unemployment. It worked out for me, but I'd caution you to do a lot of research about the legal job market before deciding to go back to school. Metafilter and AskMe have dozens of threads on this topic.)
posted by decathecting at 10:16 AM on January 18, 2013

Wow, a whole culture on the internet around building your own semi-autonomous flying drone!!! Cool! What was the question about again... oh, yeah the question I clicked on to see if anyone had any good advice.

You can't have this be both your weakness and your strength. Your strength is that you have a powerful drive to learn and engage with the richness of human knowledge. Your weakness is that you find focusing on one thing for too long exhausting. FTFY.

Maybe you could blog about your learning adventures, or lead life enrichment seminars in exploring different topics, or teach summer and afterschool classes for kids where you spend each week on a different thing.

In the end though, all of those require a certain amount of focus and can cease to be a shiny thing anymore. You have to promote your blog consistently, or write up lesson plans repeatedly, or deal with the same administrative overhead time after time.

Are you looking for something where you will have to learn new things all the time, and could be spending a few weeks learning intricate details of something you didn't choose yourself? Or are you looking for something where you will be free to follow the shiny and choose what to work on? And do you need to be learning new things via reading about them, or does hands on experience in different locations, or with different groups of people, or in different environments scratch that itch for you?

You might be able to start some sort of business that takes advantage of this, except that you'll have even more things that have to be kept up with consistently over time, and some of them will be very dull.

In some ways there is no substitute for focus, but just toughing it out might not be the best way of going about that. Experiment with different ways of doing that, find the stronger and weaker aspects of focus, and stay aware of what's going on when you have more or less focus. Find what works for you to handle your focus dynamically, as a sensitive instrument, instead of gripping it as tightly as possible.
posted by yohko at 1:56 PM on January 18, 2013

A few years back I noted down this book, Refuse to Choose!: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams (UK title What Do I Do When I Want to Do Everything?: A Revolutionary Programme for Doing Everything That You Love) by Barbara Sher. It sounded interesting, has good reviews, and looks like it might be up your street.

I haven't read it though because, er, I keep getting distracted by all the other things there are to read, do, etc...
posted by fabius at 4:05 PM on January 18, 2013

Like an above commenter, I was going to suggest business research, aka industry analysis, competitive intelligence, etc. Moving into CI has allowed me to be a (paid!) professional generalist, a researcher of everything, that guy who can read tech blogs all day and have it actually be relevant to work and deserving praise from the boss. I admit it, when I run out of ideas, I turn to MeFi and Reddit (but have had this same process since the times of needing to choose weekly topics for various university classes).

Although the big topics may stay the same, and there are threads that will. not. die., and there are some cyclical patterns (perhaps, analyze quarterly results of competitors, or summarize this year's developments), no two days at work are ever the same.

Check AskMe for older questions where this same type of job has come up. There are a few of us around.
posted by whatzit at 4:41 AM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

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