Being Interested in Everything Feels Like Being Interested In Nothing
February 17, 2015 11:10 AM   Subscribe

What does one do to compact or compound their interests into a single thread?

Often "great people" have a single thread that explains the narrative of their life (yes this can be a simplification by the authors and legends that gather around such people). But I wonder about my own life; I have many interests, many ideas, etc. But I find it hard to define a single thing that I am deeply interested in knowing.

While I know a little about a lot, and I enjoy this broad scope, I can't help but feel that the diversity of my interests leads me into feeling that I am really interested in nothing.

Has anyone on MeFi felt this way? Did you narrow your interests in response to this feeling or did you broaden them even further?
posted by tarpin to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
You're assuming that a single, narrow interest is superior to the way you experience life. It isn't. "Passionate curiosity" is just as valid and just as valuable.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:29 AM on February 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

@DarlingBri That's a fair enough statement, and one I have subscribed to from time to time. How do I go about shaking this feeling of being a dilettante?
posted by tarpin at 11:37 AM on February 17, 2015

Two books I strongly recommend that you read are "The Renaissance Soul" and "Refuse to Choose." To put it very succinctly, this personality of yours is a feature, not a flaw.
posted by jbickers at 11:51 AM on February 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

How do I go about shaking this feeling of being a dilettante?

Spending a lot more time around other dilettantes. I know how easy it is, especially now that everyone seems to be under pressure to "craft their brand" or whatever bullshit, to think that literally everyone around you has found their Guiding Passion and Purpose, but really, lots of people just dabble in interesting stuff with no real focus.

This helps you to see that your possibly negative impressions of yourself-as-dilettante probably don't apply to others who are generalists in a similar way. When you meet someone who can talk about lots of different things in different situations, your knee-jerk reaction usually isn't "meh, what a dilettante." It's "hey, I get to hang out with Sue, she always has something different to say."
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:52 AM on February 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

My technique for shaking it is to cast dillettantism as a positive. Isn't it the path to Renaissance?

The problem is that 'dilettante' seems to be universally a pejorative (was news to me at some point), but catholic interests are their own reward.
posted by rhizome at 12:11 PM on February 17, 2015

Choose one, or perhaps two, things to really focus on and spend a third of your time only on that. The other two-thirds, be a dilettante! After a few years you'll have gone deep into the former without abandoning the latter.
posted by mono blanco at 12:13 PM on February 17, 2015

Maybe this feeling is telling you something, and you might want to pick some topic and dive deep.

This is in no way to imply that you should drop your other interests, and, indeed, getting really deep into one area might reveal interconnections that you never saw before.

I have no guidance about what to go deep on; it may be a matter of just keeping your eyes open until a good opportunity presents itself.
posted by BrashTech at 12:13 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I think this appearance of people having a single thread in their lives is just because they are able to tell a good story or give you a good sense of their personal philosophy which becomes the glue that ties it together. As Steve Jobs said, 'you can only join the dots backwards'. Early on, my career didn't seem to make sense and seemed quite scattered, but now with time, I can tell a neat story about how it joins up that I couldn't see at the time.

Having said that, you may find some value in exploring how you would describe your mission, purpose, set of values or approach to life (which can explicitly include something around valuing curiosity) to tell yourself a story about how these diverse interests are part of the same bigger single plan and give you comfort in having broad, rather than deep interests.
posted by AnnaRat at 12:22 PM on February 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

Most people don't get biographies written about them or do much of anything noteworthy from the perspective of anyone who doesn't know them personally. It helps to stop worrying about how you might be perceived and keep in mind that most likely nobody is out there saying, "Wow, tarpin is really not an expert at anything." As long as you don't try to act like an expert in areas you really don't know much about, nobody will think negatively of you for having a broad range of interests.

If you find yourself feeling inferior like this after reading about some other person's amazing accomplishments, stop reading about other people's accomplishments. Get off the internet, social media, whatever is causing you to feel that way about yourself, and do what you want to do.
posted by bananana at 12:30 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I can't help but feel that the diversity of my interests leads me into feeling that I am really interested in nothing

Don't experience this as fear; but for what it really is as a truly awesome, exhilarating, sometimes daunting state of existing as a thinking human being in an unimaginably immense, rich world. This is a sign that you have a mind which is open to the world and being lead by your experiences- with adequate intellectual machinery to make sense of it, thereby generating curiosity and propelling you to the next interest. If you dig a little deeper behind the historical narratives of many great people's lives, you see that they often had a very diverse set of interests and active intellects. It is probably an error for us to think that their greatest accomplishments were in spite of this fact- rather it was likely because of them.

This post screams of Heidegger's philosophy and questions that he addressed.
The commentary below uncannily jumped out at me from the above link as pertaining to your concern:

"While this question is a gateway to Heidegger’s inquiry into the nature of Being, it is also a way of approaching and coming to terms with the quality of one’s own existence. The encounter with nothingness, according to Heidegger, puts me into a position where I can choose an authentic existence, or where otherwise I can allow myself to fall back into a sort of life where most things are decided by others, or by circumstances of a more or less impersonal nature. Angst, in other words, reveals to me my fundamental freedom."
posted by incolorinred at 12:45 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I love the movie Adaptation, and the book it was adapted from The Orchid Thief. In both the book and movie, Susan Orlean, the author, is fascinated by the passion orchid collectors put into their hobby, and writes this:
There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.
Watch Adaptation. Maybe a few times. Lots of interesting stuff to ponder about your question.
posted by The Deej at 1:26 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

How do I go about shaking this feeling of being a dilettante?

Well, what's wrong with being a dilettante? You're allowed to enjoy and engage with and learn about things without being a certified expert on them. Plus, you know, that guy who holds forth with massive authority about the Prius or cold brew coffee or hens or whatever like he IS a certified expert is always just some kind of unbearable asshole.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:52 PM on February 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

While I'm not suggesting that you focus on your death, the best obituaries, to me, are not those that read, "And she worked at X Company for 45 years and watched baseball every weekend." Instead, it's the obituaries that read, "She loved her job doing X. She also loved crocheting scarves for her friends, growing mushrooms in her basement, campaigning for the Pirate Party, and spending her weekends crawling in the ditch beside the road looking for wild herbs with which to make her famous herb-and-garlic bread."

I think there's an amazing quality to being an expert in something - I love talking to someone who has a deep passion about a certain thing - but there is something adventurous and appealing about someone who has all sorts of interesting things to talk about. There are SO MANY things in this world that you COULD try - why limit yourself if you're not really keen to narrow your focus? If something does appeal and you want to dig deeper, you'll feel it. If not, why force the issue?
posted by VioletU at 3:54 PM on February 17, 2015

For me personally, I find dilettantism frustrating not in my "consumptive" pursuits (e.g. reading a bit of Schopenhauer, watching half a season of some show and then moving on) but in my creative pursuits--e.g. learning how to screen print a little, buying some gear, and then moving on to photography. It's a bit shameful to be confronted on a regular basis with objects or memories reminding me that I was going to get good at chess, and finish that screenplay, oh yeah and really kill it on next year's Halloween costume ... but in the end I have nothing to show for any of it.

So as I get older, I put my dreams in little imaginary boats and light them on fire and push them out to sea. I come to terms with the fact that I will never, ever be fluent in Spanish or jazz piano. I've come up with the concept of "fifteen lives" that I try to console myself with as I grieve for these abandoned dreams: that in some other life I am dedicated to that dream and I am realizing it there.

And for me, the point of stripping away all of these other pursuits is to focus on the few that remain. (For me, those are to be good at my job and to write and play rock music.) That makes it worth it. It really is helpful for me to consciously "put to death" my other interests and grieve for them. Give away all the accoutrements, etc. It also helps me to think or read about other people out there who have realized that particular dream, and to revel in our shared humanity and thus feel connected to that particular pursuit in that way. They did it so I don't have to, that kind of thing.

As has been said above, it's ultimately true that being interested in many things will be, on balance, good for you throughout life. You'll never be bored! But I do think there's satisfaction to be had from learning to focus on just a few things if we're talking about creative endeavors.
posted by The Minotaur at 4:06 PM on February 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

For me, the common threads are skills, not interests. I like reading, I like writing, I like hunting for information, I like figuring out how to explain things to other people, and I like somewhat repetitive, meditative pursuits. Some things I've been interested in over the past year are the history of linoleum, running, medieval Armenia, and cryptographic hash functions. These have very little to do with each other, but lots to do with that core list of skills.
posted by yarntheory at 5:31 PM on February 17, 2015

I understand your feeling. There does seem to be this pressure to specialize, either in terms of career or just for the sake of having a defining (and reductive) sense of identity: e.g. "Tarpin the Violinist."

However I think such reductionism unjustly dishonors the complexity of the human soul. It may be alluring to represent oneself as a singular concept but this is an inauthentic and incomplete self-representation. No one is just one thing. Even people who are famous for just one thing, such as acting, are sometimes also great scientists or musicians but never achieve renown for any of that other stuff. Reputation is more a product of effective marketing than a sure indication of relative competence.

Worry less about reputation and more about living as the best expression of your fully integrated self. Some of us are broad-minded, big-picture folks for whom variety is the spice of life. There is a common thread to this kind of personality: curiosity, novelty, adventure, discovery, philosophy, spirituality, even enlightenment. Being able to see the forest for the trees is an invaluable and necessary skill. We need people like this to connect the dots. Good managers can do this. They don't need to have the exact skills that each employee possesses, but they need to be able to see how and where each skill works best and to coordinate effectively. E.g., "The Mastermind."

I have heard the 80/20 rule applied to achieving mastery. That is to say, you can become 80% competent in some area with just a bit of time and effort, and indeed 80% competency is a significant amount. However, 100% mastery, or that last 20%, will take decades of time, work, and dedication. If there is something you are that passionate about then it is worth it and you won't have to force it because it is just who you are. But don't bother striving for mastery just to impress others or to feel worthy of a label. You do not need to be the best at what you do to stake claim to the facets of your personality. You just have to be sincerely engaged. If you play the violin, then you are already a violinist, even if you are not the best in the world. In any case, I have found that in the small ponds most of us are a part, 80% mastery is more than enough to excel in our projects and even to exceed others. And if you make the pond big enough, even the people that seem peerless tend to become less extraordinary. But they are no less true [whatevers].

And finally, sages and wisemen are revered for their breadth of knowledge and for vast wisdom in living the good life, not for being the best at some hobby.

I hope this helps!
posted by Angel de Lune at 8:29 AM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

Check out this site - all about those of us who have many interests and passions - huge community of bloggers too.
posted by jasbet07 at 12:14 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Each of these responses has been invaluable.

I have a few things to consider now. :-)
posted by tarpin at 4:12 PM on February 19, 2015

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