Shiny things! Eh, they're just things.
January 8, 2015 10:14 AM   Subscribe

All my life, I've had a cursory fascination with pretty much everything: from neuroscience and biology, to poetry, history to politics to cooking, writing, architecture, art, aviation and photography. You name it, it's piqued my interest. For all of thirty seconds (exaggerating, but only a little). It's occurred to me that one of the reasons I can't start on a career is because nothing... and I do mean nothing... has ever compelled me to study it beyond a very superficial, Reader's Digest-y type level It's especially apparent when I'm around my very intellectual, very well-read, well-rounded friends. They can talk for hours about most anything, and I can only put on airs using the little I know to only just pass for competent. They read and wonder about things. I might watch half an hour of a basic cable documentary on something and then flip channels. I'm 25. This doesn't seem to be going anywhere? What do I do?

PS: I know this will ring more than a few ADHD bells. I can't take anything for it- my blood pressure is too high as is- nor do I really want to...
posted by marsbar77 to Grab Bag (33 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
I should also add that, as far as I can tell, this isn't a symptom of my depression as it stands now. This has been an issue since way before I became depressed.
posted by marsbar77 at 10:15 AM on January 8, 2015

Even if you can't take ADHD meds (really? all of them? does your doctor agree?), it might be helpful to get a psych workup and look into alternative treatments.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:22 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Adopt a pattern of reading three books on any subject that interests you. You'll still get through a lot of subjects and know quite a bit more.
posted by michaelh at 10:27 AM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Become a librarian. Seriously, having a wide range of interests is a valuable characteristic for good generalist reference librarians whether in public or college libraries. I'm kinda like you myself and wish I'd become a librarian sooner. Of course it does require some other skills, feel free to memail me if you're interested.
posted by mareli at 10:42 AM on January 8, 2015 [7 favorites]

You know, my girlfriend has the same issue. I have been trying to make the case to her that this is all right, that you can choose to dig in deep to one thing or you can choose to know a lot about very many things.

I know dabblers and dilettantes get short shrift in this world, but the fact is that unless you're going into a highly specialized field, most jobs that are out there don't require a Ph.D. level understanding of things. I have a very deep knowledge in a few areas, and it rarely does me any good, because I don't apply that knowledge to where I work and there aren't that many people who know the same amount I do, so instead of being helpful in conversation, it becomes a indifference, and I become a know-it-all.

No, the most interesting people I have met can talk a little bit about almost anything, and it also allows them a great deal more flexibility in life. They're not locked into one thing, and their general interests mean they are capable of learning about a new thing when they need to.

But, look, if you're unhappy being a flibbertigibbet, I do have some advice for you: Learn how to apply your natural wideness of attention to one topic. I'm doing that now with my blog about the Irish-American experience. Superficially, it's about one topic, but it's actually about film, art, language, food, etc. And I write about whatever attracts my attention at the moment and ignore what doesn't. It's actually an example of me being tremendously flighty. But, at the end of it, I will nonetheless end up with a very deep knowledge of one specific thing, the overarching topic, and because I return to certain subtopics again and again, my knowledge about those things keeps deepening as well.
posted by maxsparber at 10:48 AM on January 8, 2015 [24 favorites]

So you have an approximate knowledge of many things? Which is how my husband has taken to describing my many and random interests. I will start a new hobby or area of interest every month or so, so I can totally relate. I'd suggest you break down the areas you are interested in a little more. So say instead of just poetry, get an approximate cursory knowledge of say beat poetry, or the romantics or whatever, then get an approximate cursory knowledge of just one of them. Then suddenly BAM you're an expert on something. You don't have to make it work, just spend sort of steer your interests a little, while they last, if your interest wanes there is nothing wrong with knowing a little about a lot. They call that a renaissance man/woman.
posted by wwax at 10:48 AM on January 8, 2015

All my life, I've had a cursory fascination with pretty much everything: from neuroscience and biology, to poetry, history to politics to cooking, writing, architecture, art, aviation and photography. You name it, it's piqued my interest.

If you like everything, you like nothing. Its not that you like something, its that you like it more than anything else?

So what do you like above all else?

Awesome. Go pursue that.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:48 AM on January 8, 2015

Or you could go in a completely different direction and explore the concept of multipotentiality. (Heck of a word, isn't it?). It basically is a concept like what you describe - attracted to many interests, but none in depth:
posted by RogueTech at 10:50 AM on January 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Always be curious! Your many interests are a wonderful gift; be proud that you will never be bored. What you're describing is exactly how I felt in college. All my friends seemed to be going off in singular directions, leaving me feeling scattered. I don't think being interested in tons of things cursorily is a problem at all, but it does help to find a focus eventually.

I like what mareli said about being a librarian. You could also be a researcher or writer.

In my case, I solved this dilemma by going into graphic design. At age 20, forced to choose a major, I decided that this was the career that would allow me to touch on many different interests, based on the natural effect of having many different clients and solving their problems. This has worked out well. Any given week I can be dipping my toes into the world of fine art, internet security, social services, child car seats, lawnmowers, chairs, you name it!

Also, I found that with age comes more diligence and focus. It was only in my 30s that I was able to find the attention span to really study music. It feels great to be able to build skills that I never expected to have when I was in my 20s.
posted by oxisos at 10:53 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you're a dilettante of everything - which I think is just fine. Just because this isn't that common doesn't mean it is bad. As a fellow milennial, we were told that you need to find a job that you love to be happy and win at life. That was a big lie. That's great if it works out, but for most people it isn't true, and it just ends up depressing many. You just need to find a career that you can do and gives you some satisfaction in life, and that doesn't cause a lot of unnecessary stress. And then switch careers if you like as needed.

Is your unhappiness with yourself stemming from feeling you should be different based on your friends and how you think the world should be, or is it from actually being unhappy with yourself?
posted by umwhat at 10:57 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure I understand your question -- are you hoping to know more about more things, or hoping not to look like you know less when you are out with friends? Does it actually bother you that you don't have a wide, deep range of knowledge, or does it just bother you that it seems like other people you know have this, and it makes you feel inferior? How do I read deeper and learn more may require looking into other ways to deal with ADHD if you think that's the cause, but it could also be that you're not actually all that interested in the shiny stuff once you get started -- and that's okay too.

I would suggest a completely different tactic -- for good conversation to really snap together, you don't just need expert talkers. You also need good listeners. Work on being that. When your friends take a subject and really hit it hard, make it your job to be the one who asks questions. "Where did you read that?" "Tell me more about how _____," "So if he's saying X and she's saying Y, how does Z make sense?" Whatever it is that they are saying that interests you - ask the questions as if they're the experts and this is your chance to learn. The key is to ask stuff you really want to know the answers to.

One side effect of this is that if you're interested enough in what they're talking about, and keep following those threads, you might learn more without ever having to read the books on your own ;)
posted by Mchelly at 10:57 AM on January 8, 2015

So I was literally just diagnosed with ADHD a month ago, and let me tell you, there are 1) a ton of meds out there that won't affect your blood pressure and 2) a ton of non-medication options for helping to manage ADHD. It's not just "amphetamines or suffer" any more. This is definitely something I'd consult a psychologist about; ask for a screening and a discussion of current management strategies.
posted by KathrynT at 11:07 AM on January 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am very similar to this. What I found is that because it I am great at jobs that require bursts of attention and focus under right deadlines, along with learning very quickly how to do things. I have gone into the startup world and business operations where execs toss me new crazy projects every few months or weeks. If you had an MBA you could be a marketing or management consultant and make a lot more money being a flexible, math-competent jack of all trades. But many fields need this type of person. In film it's a producer. In music it's a road manager or A&R rep. In advertising it's everyone (seamingly). Any place that needs cleverness, speed and fast cycle iteration more than decades of doing the same thing to perfection needs us.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:08 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Eh, I've made a career in IT out of having 'a mile-wide-and-inch deep' knowledge of tech stuff. I'm versatile and learn quickly. Some guys I've worked with know one piece of technology backwards and forwards, sometimes more than the company that sells the thing, and then when it becomes obsolete or the company moves on, they're fucked, because they don't know anything about anything else.

It's not a character flaw, and it needn't cripple your life or career advancement. Just follow your interests wherever they lead you. Even your complaint about not being able to talk in depth about particular topics-- consider that knowing a little about a lot lets you draw connections between disparate topics that deep-divers may not be able to.

Also, at 25, I was a college drop-out that spent most of my time getting high and going clubbing. Most of the most interesting people I've ever met had no idea what they were doing with their lives well into their 20s.

Life isn't about a career and following some pre-defined path. Follow your bliss, man.
posted by empath at 11:11 AM on January 8, 2015 [8 favorites]

I agree with so much of what has been said here. I want to add that it took until I was well into my 40's to feel like I was capable of somewhat sustained attention to one subject. In my case I think it was a hormone thing. Despite the fact that I have not, until very recently, been able to direct my life in a single direction, but instead flitted from one thing to the next just sort of trusting to chance, I have enjoyed my life a great deal and have been to lots of great places and met lots of interesting people while having lots and lots of fun. So don't despair. It can be a great life.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 11:17 AM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was turned on early in my academic career to the idea that one can really get beyond superficial knowledge in an area that may not be your primary focus by committing to reading one peer-reviewed journal article per week in a given area of interest. That's an extremely modest task, and it ensures that you get high-grade content in the little time you're willing to devote to a shiny thing. Just revisit the shiny thing once a week, for like 40 minutes. Keep copies of the articles you've read, and you'll watch the record of your knowledge base grow over time. This is also much easier to do with the steam that's built behind the open access movement in peer-reviewed journals.

I love that someone suggested becoming a librarian. Fantastic suggestion, especially if you have a wonderful reference library near where you want to live that has a staff of researchers. You may find doing on-demand topical research very engaging: learn knowledge, condense it, dump it into a document, move on to next project.

[Lastly, as an aside, I'm not your doctor and I don't know you or your history, but speaking very generally: I'm an epidemiologist/toxicologist working in this field--worry less about what ADHD pharmaceuticals might do for you, because you're much more likely to have a very active mind that prefers breadth instead of depth than you are to have some sort of pathology. Being interested in many things does not equal a disorder that requires chemical therapy, which should be avoided unless truly necessary for quality of life issues.]
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:20 AM on January 8, 2015 [8 favorites]

It's occurred to me that one of the reasons I can't start on a career is because nothing... and I do mean nothing... has ever compelled me to study it beyond a very superficial, Reader's Digest-y type level...

In many cases, what you study has absolutely no bearing on what career you'll have. I was a liberal arts person who majored in Communications. I've made a comfy living working in offices for industries that have nothing to do with radio, TV, or film. Because I know a little about many things, I'm a good fit in many different positions. I can work with IT people, salespeople, construction workers, and project managers. I've been a trainee and a trainer.

There are many people in the world that bemoan the typical office/cubicle job as soul-crushing and not stimulating. They could never DO that! Do what you love and it's never work, amirite? And that works, if you have one thing you love. Some people have that kind of calling. Like Chris Hadfield, who knew he wanted to be an astronaut from the day he learned the word. Like my husband and mother, who knew from little kids that they wanted to teach.

The rest of us, we get jobs that allows us to dabble in our interests when the workday (or night) is done. Trust me, I'm not here because I found spreadsheets and conference calls compelling enough to study when I went to school. I don't have a career, per se, and that's okay. I've had some fantastic jobs though!

What do I do?

You relish the fact that, at least to me and the slice of the world I inhabit, you are a regular human being. When you learn a little about a lot of things? That's called a well-rounded education and is an ASSET. Your super-intellectual friends -- if they actually really know as much about as many topics they let people believe -- are a small percentage of the bigger world. It's your curiosity that will make you a better conversation partner, a better interviewee, a better networker in general because you'll be asking questions and not just droning on.

Don't beat yourself up. You are fine just the way you are.
posted by kimberussell at 11:24 AM on January 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you're serious about the blood pressure thing, are you taking meds? I'm doing Losartan and it makes me calmer, slower, a little less anxious. The meds... they help.

Oh, but I'm still a raving dilettante! But like Potomac Avenue suggests, I've been lucky enough to find work that lets me do a little of everything. If you have a knack for listening, connecting the dots, knowing a little about a lot of things, and sensing of when to turn something over to the experts (which is simply impossible for most people to gauge that well), there's work for you in just about any industry.

It's a feature, not a bug.

One thing that does help me focus is limiting media access. If I keep the TV off when I'm working on a multi-week project, I absorb information in a much deeper way.
posted by mochapickle at 11:26 AM on January 8, 2015

I see some of myself in your description. For me the answer was just to pick something. Not everyone gets a calling. Some of us just get jobs that when you apply yourself turn into careers in areas you were never drawn to, but turned out to be good areas to earn a living.
posted by cecic at 11:27 AM on January 8, 2015

True story: musician goes to Boston to audition for Boston Symphony. Walks in the warmup room, and other candidates are doing MIRACULOUS things on their instruments. Playing faster, higher, more agile than he could ever imagine playing, himself. Every single person in this room is doing something he can't do.

The committee calls him out to come play. Un-rattled, he plays the music merely beautifully. He gets the job. He's there 30 years.

Lesson: don't judge yourself by stuff other people do that you can't. Instead, be glad it's a big diverse world where people with lots of different skill sets and proclivities aggregate to create a rich, highly-functional whole. You yourself don't need to embody every worthy trait and faculty. You don't have to be able to rebuild a transmission, or pitch for the Yankees. There are guys for that. I'm not handsome. That's okay...there are guys for that. That's how it works! :)

By age 25, we begin to recognize that we're not the heroes of this collaborative performance piece; rather, we're character actors. That said, there's no reason to limit yourself. By all means, grow and develop in as many ways as you possibly can! But next time your friends express greater depth of knowledge than you have (or physical strength, or beauty, or stylishness, or courage, etc.), instead of indulging the narcissistic (sorry, that's a harsh word, and I don't mean to be harsh, nor am I calling you a narcissist, just identifying the root of this one particular dab of behavior) impulse to measure yourself in comparison, just enjoy hearing them talk. Don't make it about you. Drink it in. Enjoy, learn, and even admire their this one thing. While recognizing that superiority in a given realm doesn't make one a superior person (nor the reverse, re: inferiority). Those terms just don't apply. They're silly. We're all just following our paths. Each one's unique.

I'm really good at a number of things. And I absolutely suck at way more things. I admire people who have stuff, know stuff and do stuff I lack. This means I admire just about everyone. So I'm enjoying the ride!
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:28 AM on January 8, 2015 [14 favorites]

Flibbertigibbet here. (I was so pleased to see that word used upthread. And it takes a true flibbertigibbet these days even to know what the word MEANS.)

You know who else calls himself a dilettante? Atul Gawande.

I have a hard time focusing on any one thing myself. I have a bunch of sincere interests, but no passions. I've been like this forever. I'm like you: I wish I could be one of those "deep" people. But I'm not.

You'll become better at a couple of things if you work at them for 40+ hours a week. The trick may be to find a job that lets you do a bunch of different tasks, most of which engage you to a greater or lesser extent.

I'm a software tester, which means that I get to:

  • Find issues with software, requirements, design, what have you
  • Write code to automate some tests
  • Use my technical communication skills (career #2 - I'm on #3 now) to write up bugs, training material, what have you
  • Learn new things or relearn old ones: that senior-year statistics course I took so many years ago has paid off recently
The librarian suggestion upthread is also a good one. I know a few librarians and kick myself regularly for not pursuing library science when it was still affordable.

What am I truly good at? Baking cookies, which I learned from my mom when I was a teenager. I would do that all day if it paid my mortgage. Doing it as a hobby allows me to continue to ENJOY it.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:58 AM on January 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm wondering if this masks a deeper question? Maybe I'm projecting. I have the same issue and it also means feeling that I have no true passion. I believe it can be a symptom of dysthymia, but that's just an idea I've developed through my own experiences.
posted by bluespark25 at 12:10 PM on January 8, 2015

Really wonderful advice upthread, thanks all. I notice though, that the way I've worded the question might be placing it in a more exclusively academic context than I intended. This issue isn't just limited to situations one could use as a metric for intellect. It's affected my entire life. No hobbies to speak of, nothing to talk about beyond small talk with most people. I'll admit that I've always held the savant/ boy-/girl wonder to be my role model ( see Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Richard Branson, Oprah, people at the MIT Media lab, basically anyone on any sort of 30-under-30 list), but this is as much about my larger identity as it is about a job.
Will definitely look into library science. I, maybe being ignorant, have always thought it might be depressing to sit under the flourescent lights of a library wearing my go-to sweater for the rest of my life. But I realize now I'm probably being an idiot.
Would also appreciate if anyone with experiences outside the "amphetamines or suffer" dichotomy could MeMail me. :)
posted by marsbar77 at 12:22 PM on January 8, 2015

Two thoughts:
- you might get something out of reading "Refuse to Choose" as it has a lot of ideas about how to manage being into a little bit of everything, and I think it does have some career advice.
- do you have anything you want to do or achieve? I find it very hard to learn about something new in any depth until I've actually got a reason why I have to know about it.
posted by crocomancer at 12:27 PM on January 8, 2015

There are also career books (mentioned in other similar threads) on being a "Renaissance Person" - I think one is called "Refuse to Choose". (Ah, Crocomancer just beat me to it!)

There aren't many traditional library jobs, but I have a non-traditional job that uses library skills. I basically run an internal reference desk for a local government area, and facilitate public access to government documents. The bulk of my requests are very similar and mundane, but then I get big project requests and I have to go snooping in to excutive's emails on the new bus shelters, financial data on parks, illegal brothels, etc. I quite like my job, and got it through library skills. Generally, "data" and information architecture, management, etc. I think the ability to find almost anything interesting is absolutely an asset! That said, it does sound like you'd be more satisfied by this skill if you increased your attention span a bit - lots of techniques and meds for that.

Yeah, you need to drop Stephen Hawking and replace him with Malcolm Gladwell ;), or Leonardo daVinci or similar.

With hobbies: I think I finally (at 32+) landed on something that sticks: crochet. There's lots of techniques to learn, affordable, I can make useful/pretty things, there's no mess, and I can pick it up for 5min and put it down to no ill effect. No glue, no equipment, no barriers. Drawing may also be do-able like this. Think about what potential hobbies might work like this for you. (And hey, on this note - a short attention span is kind of a blessing when you have a new baby. I can only ever watch half of something or read a few paragraphs at a time anyway!)
posted by jrobin276 at 12:42 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding Mchelly's advice about listening and asking. Bonus: you usually find out more stuff to be interested in!
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:33 PM on January 8, 2015

TV news, online news, media, advertising--most media production outlets are packed with people who know a tiny bit about a great many subjects (I say my own knowledge is about 3000 miles long and 6 inches deep.) News is great for people with ADD/ADHD as everything is changing every two seconds. I've had a couple dozen hobbies from antique roses to collecting California pottery to silversmithing, but hobbies are never as much fun as my work is.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:19 PM on January 8, 2015

Take a look at Barbara Sher's book: Refuse to Choose. It is written for people who really don't do will pinned down to just one thing. Within that, she has a couple of different modes and for each one, advice on how to build a career that fits your style. So, if on browsing, one of her modes fits, you will probably find the book very helpful
posted by metahawk at 4:35 PM on January 8, 2015

Sometime an interest leafs to a job/career, and sometimes a job leads to an interest.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:03 PM on January 8, 2015

I've got ADD and also have a LOT of interests and kinda despair about never getting as good at anything as a dedicated expert will. That's part of what led me to become a journalist, which I liked because I got to talk to a lot of experts about things and got to do some quick research and become a cocktail-expert on all sorts of stuff. Then I get to move on to something else.

The caveat: I'd never recommend anyone become a journalist if they can at all avoid it. I'm no longer a journalist (though I may be again sometime) and I fulfill that itch by taking lots of classes and continuing to learn lots of things.
posted by klangklangston at 5:23 PM on January 8, 2015

You can dabble when no one cares whether you ever complete anything. You have to combine your interests with some responsibilities if you want to be forced to follow things through.

Get a job in something you like, maybe after some schooling, and you'll be forced to focus on it every day or lose your job.

If not a job, then a joint project, where your friend or friends will keep pulling you back to focus on the thing you are doing together. It's a band and you're the bassist and backup singer and you have to learn your parts because you are recording and playing out. Or it's a community garden and you're the one who has to take care of all X, Y, and Z for the community garden or 100 gardeners will be after you in the spring with hoes and rakes. Or it's a class you take or teach, or it's a trip to Spain you're going on with a friend on a certain date and you have to learn Spanish before then, or it's a poetry magazine and you have to read hundreds of submissions and decide which ones are going into the next issue and the one after that and so on, or it's anything else that has goals and deadlines you can't avoid without disappointing everyone else.
posted by pracowity at 2:31 AM on January 9, 2015

If it's any comfort, I'm a few years older than you, and while I was the same as you at your age, I've mellowed as I've gotten older. I do still jump from thing to thing, but now it's from thing to thing-I-was-interested-in-a-while-back to thing to something-else-I-used-to-be-interested-by. Certain things are standing out more and more as things that interest me over long periods. I'm also slowing down with regards to how far and fast I jump around.

One thing that really helped me was doing something/creating something with this new [thing]. Like the crochet that jrobin276 mentions - I made myself a shawl a few years ago, but I recently picked up my hooks again and made a hat using slightly more advanced techniques. Getting further along, as it were, with the skills and knowledge really helps. And now, I have a useful hat and shawl for cold weather. It's slightly more difficult to do something with neuroscience because you can't really go around cutting people's heads open, but you could perhaps write an essay or short blog post about what you've learned. It helps draw things to a conclusion, but is also a useful starting point for when you want to get back into [thing].

I do still get my curiosity piqued by many things, but I now bookmark them and then come back to them in a week. If they're still interesting, I delve a little deeper. Most of the time, they're not, so I just delete the bookmark and let it go. This has cut down drastically on the time I spend on fruitless [things], leaving me more time to focus on things that are worth focusing on.
posted by Solomon at 10:00 AM on January 9, 2015

For many years, I thought that I needed to be a specialist and gain that deep knowledge in one area. And in fact my degrees are all in very specific fields - which I have never directly used.

I am a good generalist who knows a little bit about a lot of things and has broad transferable skills (general project management skills, writing, proposal development, relationship management). This means I have had opportunities to work in really diverse areas. I have held jobs in aviation, regulation policy, international aid (on projects from road design to human trafficking), trade promotion, digital services. I still have one or two things I wouldn't mind trying sometime, but essentially this list covers many of the areas I have had as an interest at one time or another.

It is tempting to become a specialist because it is somehow easier to see the possibilities of what you could do. But while there are specific, interesting opportunities that are only available to specialists, as a generalist, you have so many options and that can make it harder to find a direction you like.

I never set out with any specific direction in mind (or if I did, I never held it for very long!). Instead, I have always just taken the next role based on what I'm interested in at the time, without much consideration of where it will lead (next best move!). This has given me some odd combinations of skills and experience that are interesting to employers. Over time, I have, by virtue of ending up in some jobs for a while, developed some more specific subject expertise, but compared to others in the field, I would say it is still at a generalist level.

I have always been in work and been able to find new work quickly on the basis of my generalist, transferable skills.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:05 PM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

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