dilettante and trying to be okay about it
January 29, 2019 8:37 PM   Subscribe

I am a person who has a hard time sticking with A Thing (a hobby, a sport, a craft, etc) past the "general competence" stage. I feel like I have this internalized message that mastery leads to contentment, but I'm tired of beating myself up for losing interest in things. I need more perspective.

I get wild hairs to research things, go and try things out, talk to people about things-- until I master the basics of the thing. Then I either a) bite off more than I can chew and so get discouraged (which is mitigatable if I really like The Thing) or b) just lose all interest in The Thing (if it's not interesting enough in the mid-to-long term).

To be clear: I'm not looking for suggestions on Things. I find Things all the time. It's adjusting my expectations about my life to match my tendencies, and hoping to see some good things in my future from all this goose chasing. Or, more accurately, I don't want to look back in ten years and still be thinking, "My God, I'm no good at anything, I haven't done 10,000 hours of anything yet" and feel that I have nothing to show for the intervening ten years.

I am looking for a lot of angles on this.

- A framework for thinking about persistent dabbling leading to fulfillment in life (a book or an article, not specifically devoted to discussing a "jack of all trades" type of career -- this is personal life/hobbies only)

- Are there any famous dabblers (who aren't "renaissance men" who never had to do laundry in their lives)?

- Are you a dabbler? Talk to me about that. How are you doing? What are your thoughts? What are the major sources of contentment with your life*?

* if you say kids, that's fine, but that answer is not useful to me specifically since I will not be having any. Between not having kids and not making any progress on becoming Great at a thing, I guess I'm nervous that nobody will want to be around me or see any value in me as I grow older. I'm tired of feeling scared/worthless/scared of being worthless. The time to change my thinking is now.
posted by snerson to Grab Bag (39 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
I struggle with the millennial urge to monetize every hobby — literally all I do is work, so why bother learning something if I'm never going to be good at it enough to do it professionally? I try to remember that plenty of people already do X professionally and the field is fine without me and it's ok to do things just to relax or fill my time.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:43 PM on January 29, 2019 [7 favorites]

You might be interested in Barbara Sher's book, Refuse to Choose. It's oriented towards career advice - the subtitle is Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams .
posted by metahawk at 8:55 PM on January 29, 2019 [14 favorites]

Yeah, read Barbara Sher. She calls you a "Scanner" and doesn't think it's a bad thing at all.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:15 PM on January 29, 2019 [8 favorites]

I'm nervous that nobody will want to be around me or see any value in me as I grow older.

There's a huge benefit to dabbling in lots of interests you might be missing here: you have varied enough experience to have a good conversation with just about anybody about whatever they might be interested in. That's useful in both personal and professional life.

People mostly care about whether you're willing to listen to their thoughts about a subject, not about whether you can deliver a lecture on it yourself. (Though you're probably picking up enough about each of your interests that you could if you needed to.)

It's OK to have interests that change with time, and OK to feel like you've gotten what you want out of sport/craft/hobby/employer. Moving to new things gives you new things to talk about and new people to meet. Just try not to invest too much in tools and equipment each time if you feel compelled to keep that stuff around.
posted by asperity at 9:23 PM on January 29, 2019 [10 favorites]

One thing to think about might be hobbies that aren't based around mastery. I was going to put my parents up as dabblers who benefit from that tendency, but I don't think that's quite accurate - they just have interests where there's no real end goal or stage. My mom has been birding regularly for maybe seven or eight years now, and seems to enjoy it a lot because of the community she has there, along with the inherent pleasure of being outside.

My dad is a pretty passionate cyclist, but never beyond the extent of what his day job has allowed - sometimes just his commute. He rides with a few different groups, and he's certainly met some long-term friends through them. There's no clear place to stop with cycling - certainly, the definition of 'mastery' has changed a lot for him in the ~40 or so years he's been doing it.

Of course, I'm not sure I could point to a similar example of that sort of community-building passion in my own life, but I certainly think of myself as much more defined by the content of my interests than the mastery thereof - I like books, I like music, and I like talking with people about them pretty much regardless of how highbrow the book - or conversation, most of the time - is.

As far as almost-actionable advice, I guess I'd suggest re-framing things so that you're enjoying the practice of the skill, without aiming for mastery beyond... whatever's fun? It sounds like you get a lot out of your hobbies, and I think that's really all you need to ask of them; cut the 10 000 hours short when you get bored, and look back on a solid amount of time enjoying things. I do wonder if this approach might let you enjoy things for longer, too, if you look for things where the practice is in and of itself fun for you, without really any way to set a higher goal.
posted by sagc at 9:46 PM on January 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

I feel like I do this - for example I enjoy climbing but only go once a week and so feel stuck around the beginner level. The awareness I'll never be that good was hard for a while but then realising that I don't want to take it seriously enough to do it 3+ times a week plus yoga / strength training. So I've found a balance that gives me enjoyment and some progression but keeps it fun.

Same with DIY - I tend to do a few projects in a thing (mosaic, woodwork, painting etc) then try something else. As long as it's good enough (I can feel proud seeing it around the house, not wishing I'd done a better job) that seems to maximise outcome for the least effort.

So seems the best to me - I want a varied life of trying lots of things, not focussing on just a couple to the exclusion of others. And i don't find the repeated practice / failing aspect of learning things fun so don't really want to slot away at anything. Looking around the house at things I've made does make me happy.

I guess the only exception is running where I've really got into it and now after a few years have it as a more than casual interest. So be open to taking things further if they do grab you - and that is useful in terms of having a concrete identity, "I'm an Xer"
posted by JonB at 9:50 PM on January 29, 2019

Perhaps like me, you will find comfort in knowing the whole quote about being a jack of all trades:

A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.

Being someone who is interesting to talk to about many things is wonderful. It means there are so many friends from a broad cross-section of life that are just out there waiting for you. Most people aren't masters of anything. Most people don't want to be, and don't find a whole lot of pleasure in hanging out with people that are. Just allow yourself to follow your fancy without shame or judgement. You deserve happiness and what brings that is changeable.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:23 PM on January 29, 2019 [28 favorites]

I am like you and I am a scanner! Thanks so much to Barbara Sher for showing me this was a good thing.

I embrace dabbling...I love that overwhelming obsession with a new Thing, researching, acquiring the bits and bobs to make or do the Thing, doing the Thing then as the obsession eases, I pack away the bits and bobs and move on to the next Thing.

I know that this is what I do, so I try not to invest too much time/money in a new Thing up front. Sometimes just doing the research is enough, but I have found that I do come back to a few things over and over (sewing costumes for example), and I've deepened my skill level and acquired specialty tools for these activities over years. However sometimes it's enough to take a single dance class, just to scratch the itch.

There are definitely benefits to being a dabbler:
- I take satisfaction in knowing how my mind works
- Friends ask me to find things, how to do things or if I can recommend classes/people etc; I enjoy being the 'go to' person!
- I have been told that I'm a very interesting person (quite a boost for a quiet, shy introvert!)
- Because I have a range of interests, it's easier to find ways to connect with people.
- There is always a new interest just around the corner and that makes me happy

No kids here, and that's a bonus because it means I have the time and money to indulge my interests in a way I wouldn't otherwise.
posted by eloeth-starr at 10:39 PM on January 29, 2019 [16 favorites]

My friends joke that come the zombie apocalypse, I will definitely be top on their lists for members of their dystopia commune. This is because I'm constantly learning how to make or do useful things. I rarely get particularly good at them, but I can spin, sew, knit, garden, make bread, yoghurt, pickles, cure olives, and all sorts of other "not really necessary in modern life" skills.

Primarily, I enjoy learning things. My brain craves novel ideas and wants to understand how things work. Once I understand the concepts involved, and have done a "proof of concept" test, I often lose interest. I'm OK with that. I try not to spend too much money until I determine that I'm interested in something past the initial learning and testing phase. Luckily, there's enough other people out there like me, that there is a large secondhand market for these sort of things.

I do a similar thing when I visit new places. I study the map, go for a walk and try to climb up somewhere tall to get a birds eye view. And once I feel oriented and I can get around without getting lost, I stop caring so much, and only look at a map when I'm going somewhere new.

Learning is good for the brain and keeps it supple. I have kept a few hobbies that I enjoy in and of themselves, but not many. I will also pick up and put down some hobbies, because they suit me sometimes, and sometimes not. I enjoy doing some things as a social event, that I'm not inspired to do by myself, which is a nice way to get out of the house and make friends. Learning something to mastery is only really a quality of life improver if 1) the skill improves your day to day life e.g. learning a language to communicate with people around you or 2) you enjoy practising it. If I don't enjoy the new hobby more than my old faithfuls, I don't beat myself up about losing interest.
posted by kjs4 at 11:05 PM on January 29, 2019 [22 favorites]

I‘m having a really hard time processing the thinking behind your post. Here‘s my lazy GenX perspective:

I started learning the guitar, lost interest in practicing...stopped playing the guitar. It‘s not a character flaw to in your free time just do the things you enjoy, when you enjoy them. You have plenty of things you NEED to do all day anyway, and there‘s this pressure to always seem „driven“ and „dedicated“ and „self-improving“ while they dangle the carrot of professional success infront of you. You don‘t need to import that thinking into your precious free time.
I‘ve been writing A Novel for the past ten years. I sometimes stop for years at a time. Maybe I will never finish it. That‘s totally fine - when I am writing, it‘s the best thing in the world. Isn‘t that what life is for?
posted by Omnomnom at 11:24 PM on January 29, 2019 [8 favorites]

Also, maybe your „thing“ in life is to be a Renaissance Woman. You know, a polymath who is accomplished in lots of different areas.

I think you sound like a very interesting person to talk to!
posted by Omnomnom at 11:28 PM on January 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

It helps to think of it as allocating points in a way. I know some really smart competent people who are very good at certain things and baffled at my ability to do intermediate stuff in several niche subjects and handskilled areas. They have heaped up their points hugely into certain areas, so what I can do seems out of reach to them. We spread our points in different ways.

It's a great question btw. I think society/capitalism love the prodigy/single talent model, and the idea of dabbling in various things for pleasure rather than to become Good Enough (for what? validated by Art? by being paid? by being first in the field?) is pushed back hard in lots of ways. Dedication and 10,000 hours are big big mantras.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 11:39 PM on January 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am like this, and I'm OK with it. My reframing is that actually, my hobby is picking up new things. I know where to look for classes and learning resources, how to fit new topics into my fairly broad existing mental frameworks, effective techniques for learning, how to be a decent player in a new sport when I don't know all the rules, etc. I'm the friend people turn to when they want to take an Intro to Russian class and want someone to take it with them, or are looking for a good way to learn CSS. And when I'm working in an area that I am an expert in, I can remember the experience of being new and identify assumptions made by the writer/creator that will block beginners, and I'm good at documenting my own work.

So, new self description for you: "I'm a great beginner".
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:48 PM on January 29, 2019 [16 favorites]

The part of your question that has me wondering a bit is this section:

I get wild hairs to research things, go and try things out, talk to people about things-- until I master the basics of the thing. Then I either a) bite off more than I can chew and so get discouraged (which is mitigatable if I really like The Thing) or b) just lose all interest in The Thing (if it's not interesting enough in the mid-to-long term).

I guess I'd ask how you find the interests that you get involved with and how that connects to the people you talk with.

For me, I used to get caught up in things other people were interested in, learned a lot about them in order to have conversations about something of shared delight. Once the conversational interest reached its limit the interest in the thing did too. Things I was interested in on my own didn't provide much conversation, so they'd be set aside when something shared came along.

It wasn't until I realized the things themselves were secondary to the interest in sharing ideas about them that I was able to accept the things I continue to find interest in for myself simply aren't wildly shared, so if I want to keep at them it'll mostly be on my own, save for the times my interests intersect with some boundary crossing element of someone else's thing.

It's frustrating at times, but I can still dabble in other interests for conversation if I want and keep my dilettante status. There is though definitely some feeling of being left out that accompanies this, particularly as I get older and the society spins off in directions I don't follow. Keeping your hand in many things without mastering any, as I used to do, does helps prevent that.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:59 PM on January 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

People who are interested in and have done a wide variety of things are hands down the best people to talk to at parties. They also tend to be better able to identify with more folks, leading to greater empathy and kindness, but mostly, they're way less boring.
posted by Mizu at 12:20 AM on January 30, 2019 [11 favorites]

I wish I had your brain for my job! I work in government in Australia and have to do a lot of little tasks all day, know a little bit about a lot of things, and the job keeps changing around me just as I get close to mastering things. I am a born specialist so for me this is really hard but for you it sounds like it would be ideal!

Just putting that out there!
posted by EatMyHat at 1:29 AM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I guess I'm nervous that nobody will want to be around me or see any value in me as I grow older. I'm tired of feeling scared/worthless/scared of being worthless. The time to change my thinking is now.

The way I’d start to change my thinking about this would be to analyse this anxious/scared/worthless feeling. Where does it come from? Why am I attaching my selfworth to this particular idea of Greatness? What does greatness really mean? Is my real worry something else, but this dilettantism issue is a way of masking a greater fear? Why would any one human be worthless just because they’re not an accomplished professional-standard pianist or built their home from the ground up? Are there other factors of “worth” that I’m not considering? Where does my sense of self worth come from- inside, or from other people’s approval? Or, to flip it around, is my sense of insecurity and selfdoubt the reason I’m always pinging around and never feel settled? Are there other aspects of my life that make me feel that way?

All this to say that wanting to be really good at something is a goal. There are other goals that people might have which are equally valid. And this goal that you have doesn’t seem to be making you very happy- you are holdiing it above yourself as The Only Arbiter of My Value as A Human and simultaneously telling yourself “I will never, because of the kind of (implied bad) person I am, achieve that level and feel fulfilled and worthwhile and successful. And because of that I will be sad and lonely and no-one will like me”.

You’re also scared that you will “have nothing to show” for your life if you’re not an international amateur chess champion or cabinet restorer to the stars. That is another, bigger, existential fear which is kind of piggybacking on this more specific worry. I would say, being competent in a handful of pursuits (which is how you describe yourself) is, in fact, a lot to show for yourself! But you are very resistant to seeing it that way, I think. I would wonder why that is.

Perhaps a strategy would be to lean in to your butterfly, “dilettente” ways and make the plethora of pursuits into the goal. Like, in 2019 I will take a course on decorative ceramics, teach myself Go, learn to tile and plaster a wall and take up ultimate frisbee. Then in 2020 I will learn to weave, focus on a foreign language, learn auto repair, and try horseback riding. Even if all you “end up with” is a couple of wobbly pots and how to say “Where is the train station” in Icelandic, don’t you think that sounds like a fun, interesting, joyful and full way to live? And it doesn’t have to be like this hyperbolic example. Doing one thing that gives you joy until it doesn’t anymore is a lovely and valid use of this short time we have on earth!

One more place I would disagree with your line of thinking: things don’t vanish off the face of the earth just because you’ve left them by the wayside for a little bit. You may rediscover an interest that faded a while ago and pick it up again. Or you may discover something at 80 that fills you with a consuming passion that you would never have thought of before. What I’m saying is life is full of opportunities and fun things, and to be open to the multitude is so great! You’re really good at that! Just stop beating yourself up for something that is good about you!

Finally: all living beings have intrinsic value just from being alive. The “laziest”, least successful, most unaccomplished person is worthy of love and friendship. Develop compassion in this area, and extend it to yourself.
posted by mymbleth at 2:01 AM on January 30, 2019 [16 favorites]

I haven’t read all the other replies so forgive if I’m repeating things others have already said. I am just so excited by your question I wanted to jump straight in!

I am you! Except that I love this (flakiness and curiosity and neverending looking and leaving stuff) about me! I’m not one to plan into the future, I don’t generally think long term, I do what I like right now and for the next few months, and it has served me well.

When I’m asked about my studies I call it my Six Degrees of Graduation; i started and dropped out of that many university courses, often after reaching a high point - like coming first in my class. I have also dropped out of three vocational courses.

I also do this with my hobbies. If you can be bothered looking in my ask history, I posted about some of my paintings, a MeFite said they were surprised I was so competent without training and yes, I guess I am in a particular style but then I chucked it in. I was also a promising ballerina - chucked that in. I did a writing class and my teacher - a commercially successful screenwriter - wanted to do something with me, I chucked that in!

So maybe you need to shift how you think about yourself. Are you comparing yourself to someone? Has someone you care about said something stupid to you? Do you need to do other work on fortifying your sense of self? I think of these things I delved into briefly as rich and interesting parts of me. I’m not worried no one will want to be around me or that I will have no use. All of your endeavours add up, there are a lots of skills and experiences that will serve you in unexpected ways. The range of things I’ve abandoned help me make initial connections all the time. My small talk game is strong! And if it gets beyond that, I can see intersections that are interesting to exchange.

These are the things I think make you, and all of us, the special multifaceted snowflakes we are. People worth your energy will be people who can see and enjoy that about other people.

Sorry if I sound glib, I just think this is a lovely quality to have and I appreciate it in others. You and I could probably talk long into the night about some really interesting stuff!
posted by stellathon at 2:02 AM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm like you, and have been a dabbler my whole adult life. The occasional judgment I feel from both myself and others for dropping the various things I've started and stopped in my adult years really pales compared to the judgment (again from self and others) for quitting my childhood hobby.

I started very young, and kept it up through college, and it was probably close to 10,000 hours. I share this because I can tell you for sure: when you focus on one thing for years or decades, the feeling of discontent doesn't decrease, it increases. People don't only say, how nice, thank you for sharing, you do that so well. Your inner voice doesn't only say, nailed it, good work self, I sure am glad I put in all those hours, it's paying off.

A couple years ago, I dabbled in painting at a paint-and-pour, literally the first time I touched a paintbrush since elementary school. There was briefly a fantasy that it would become a serious, long-term hobby. I hung up the paintings where I could see them, and the feeling I got was not that different than what I feel when I pick up my childhood hobby, whether back in the day or for a brief revisit now. I see where I was trying to go with the project, and I see where my work falls short, and I think about what I would need to do to move it further along. Recently I gave the few canvases I painted to a friend who is really into painting and always raising money for art supplies. I checked with her first that she'd be able to use them, and I assured her it was fine for her to paint completely over them. For weeks afterward, I would look at where the paintings used to be, and I felt pretty darn content that I had done the right thing with them. And I haven't really thought about them in a while (another sign of contentment?).

My friends who turned our childhood hobby into a career often tell me they are the most content when they are teaching/training/coaching, not when they are doing the thing (and being paid for it, winning awards, etc). In the career I have now, I find a lot of contentment in the teaching/training component. I think the common thread between that and my experience giving away the canvases, is that contentment might be more easily available when we're trying to help someone else increase their mastery or reach their dreams than when we're striving toward our own.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 2:56 AM on January 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I’m also like you!!i like to say my hobby is collecting new hobbies. For me, the best part is being a little afraid of trying something new, and then trying it and realizing I’m not so bad and I’ve learned a lot, and now I have a whole new vocabulary when I talk to other people who have done This Thing, too.

I actually talked to a therapist for a long time about this - she at first thought I was jumping from one thing to another because I was looking for happiness and not finding it, but now she understands. For her, her satisfaction is in honing a craft well (she also dances), while for me, my satisfaction is in learning enough to understand something and then moving on.

Have you ever taken the Big Five personality test? It’s more scientifically rigorous than Meyers-brigg, etc. There’s a category for Openness to Experience - I bet you also score very high.
posted by umwhat at 3:56 AM on January 30, 2019

When my now-husband and I were just starting to get serious, I said to him, it makes me a little sad that you don't have a real passion--a vocation or a hobby you excel at or something like that. He said, you know, that's true, but I love to dabble and I love the range of interests it brings me. Coming to know him better since then, I've found out that's true: he's interested in everything, he's willing to try all kinds of different things even if they're outside his wheelhouse, in comparison to me with my much narrower range of interests. He may not be an expert in anything, but having a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things also means he can find something to talk about with most anyone. It's now one of the things I love about him.
posted by huimangm at 4:13 AM on January 30, 2019

I've stopped telling people things I'm interested in, because many times, they want me to immediately monetize my hobbies.

"You like cooking so much, why don't you write a cook book?"

"Let's sell your handmade soap and make millions!" (that didn't work out, and it made me hate it, tho' I did make a superior product)

Look, I'm not out to be the next famous chef or compete with Lever Brothers. I like learning about stuff, watching cooking shows and YouTube videos relaxes me and gives me a project with instant gratification (or not, depending on the results). But now that I've tried making injera, I probably won't do it again, among other things. I like trying new things.

I don't make soap anymore, but I guess if we had a zombie apocalypse, I could figure it out without ordering fancy oils from the internet. I buy Yardley's oatmeal and almond, because I like it.

Some people are naturally curious, and I am one of them. I want to know how things are made. Woodworking, rug making, etc. I've learned about a ton of different things. Antiques, jewelry, but that doesn't mean I am going to become an antique dealer or a jeweler.

I've also dabbled in drawing and painting, wire wrapping crystals, ukulele, used to play violin and upright bass, soap making, lip balms, essential oils, and a bunch of other stuff I can't remember. I know how to knit and crochet, but I don't do it anymore, tho' I still have some yarn and lots of knitting needles and crochet hooks, just in case the urge strikes me.

I have some craft projects waiting for me, either I will get to them or I won't, but I got a lot of pleasure out of thinking them up. I'm thinking of making one of them for my sister-in-law and mailing it to her, because I know she'll like it. It's making little candle votives out of glass yogurt jars and sticking tissue paper on the outside with white glue. Because I can't stand to throw out jars, and I had to stop collecting them because I had so many (I now buy a different brand of yogurt, ha-ha).

I also collect rocks and minerals, and ephemera, old cookbooks like the Osterizer book of Spin Cookery and Famous Drinks of New Orleans (I don't drink cocktails, nor do I have a blender).

My husband has also gotten into lots of hobbies, knife collecting, shooting (neither of which he does anymore, but he loves to point out the guns in movies, especially if they are holding them wrong), stick fighting, juggling, he wanted to be a sommelier once, taking a chocolate making course, become a baker (we have joked about opening a bagel shop, as there aren't many good bagels in our parts, note, we don't even eat bagels anymore).

I think it's true about teaching, I've taught people to make soap and how to mix up lip balms and that was a lot of fun, and they got a lot of enjoyment out of it. I do have kids, and one is into gardening (which was a serious hobby of mine for a while, I don't have yard space for it now) and the other into cooking (among other things), but kids grow up and move away, so you're back to your own devices when that happens. The most enjoyment I got out of soap making was researching methods and making up recipes, then my boyfriend at the time got into the whole moneymaking thing and while I've done it since then, it's more like, eh, I know how to do it, but I don't need 12 lbs. of soap sitting around and I am most definitely not interested in pursuing it as a business.

But so what? I'm not breaking any laws and I'm not hurting anyone by being a dabbler. If I really want to master something, I'll go take a course, but every day self-gratification, eh, I'll try it on my own and see how I like it.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:49 AM on January 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm a dabbler too! As I've gotten older I've become a lot more comfortable with that, as others mentioned - I'm really open to new experiences, have lots of fun stories and am good at meeting people through these various experiences.

One thing I used to struggle with is the sense that all that stuff I do doesn't actually accomplish something. People who spend years becoming great carpenters can point to the amazing furniture they made, but maybe I only managed to make a box. An idea I came across that helps with that is of 100 Dreams.

The list can be used in various ways, but like you I have no trouble keeping it populated. The key for me is to keep the list bite-sized. So take a photography class, not master landscape photography. When I do something, I move it to a separate list with the date when I did it. Almost as fun as that, is that I now have a free space on the list I can populate with a new dream. These are just lists in the Notes app on my phone but you can keep them however you like. They give me a tangible sense that I'm accomplishing things, since I keep making progress with my list.
posted by peacheater at 4:59 AM on January 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Primarily, I enjoy learning things. My brain craves novel ideas and wants to understand how things work.

This, exactly. I love learning how things work overall, but I'm less interested in the nitty gritty. I occasionally find something that I want to take a deeper dive into for a while, but mostly I just want to have an overview understanding of how everything works. My wife laughs when I start a sentence with "did you know -" because I could start talking about just about anything.

I used to think that I should want to learn about things in more depth, but eventually I realized that there's no reason I need to. It's not inherently better to be an expert at two things than familiar with how 100 things work.

The biggest source of contentment in my life is family & friends (I do have a kid but a kid is not necessary to be fulfilled by your relationships with others). I do also find it fulfilling to be able to do lots of useful things even without being an expert - e.g. I can do simple sewing alterations and fixes but I don't want to learn to sew my own clothing.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:00 AM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm very lucky: I get paid- albeit not very well- to be a dabbler as a reference and research librarian. Yeah, I've done heavy sustained research and writing, but I'd much rather help others to do their own dabbling, and sometimes their dabbling leads to sustained research and expertise.

Another thing that dabbling leads to sometimes is ways of seeing the connections/parallels between the various dabble areas.

I am never bored. Dabble on!
posted by mareli at 5:08 AM on January 30, 2019

My mother and her sisters were skilled at various forms of needlework and over long lives produced a great deal which resulted in a dilemma for one. She showed me a drawer full of beautiful completed needlepoint projects, then another and another. She had a whole dresser full, had given away as many as was reasonable and had no idea what to do with the rest. I took that as a warning and now I try to learn enough to make what I need to a satisfactory standard which needn't be anywhere near professional. If I need a quilt I practice a bit and make the quilt. The next time I might practice another technique but I don't keep on making quilts and putting them in drawers. Maybe, instead of thinking of these as abandoned hobbies, you could think of them as one more skill that is useful or enjoyable .
posted by Botanizer at 5:31 AM on January 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

A framework for thinking about persistent dabbling leading to fulfillment in life

Robert Sapolsky's essay "Open Season" addresses this. He's a neuroendocrinologist and primate researcher, and became interested in the question of why we tend to reject novelty as we age, concluding that the urge to learn new things is a positive trait. You can find it in The New Yorker, or in his book of short writing, Monkeyluv (NYT review). Maybe it will help you re-frame your changing interests?

I second the points above: you have done a bunch of things, and have gathered a lot of skills, and that means not only that you can talk to a broad selection of folks about these hobbies, but also that you are naturally equipped to talk with people who do things you haven't yet tried! Curiosity is a marvelous trait to have, and look at you, exploring all of these different areas because you like your mind and want to respect your tendencies! I think that says something about being true to yourself, and your ability to hear and heed the little voice that says Oooooh, that would be a neat thing to learn!

Are there any famous dabblers (who aren't "renaissance men" who never had to do laundry in their lives)?

I got nothing on laundry. There is also some value in daily disciplines.

Are you a dabbler? Talk to me about that. How are you doing? What are your thoughts? What are the major sources of contentment with your life*?

I ended up doing something very far from my original training, and when I post photos of the newest piglet litter, I still get mildly disappointed comments from my dissertation advisor, which stings a little. Those years of study left me deeply grateful, and I feel like my subsequent dive into a variety of projects complements them. I can ask questions, do my research, and enjoy the hell out of the bumpy process of trying the new thing because I've done a bunch of stuff already and it gives me confidence to tackle something different. (I am not compelled toward novelty, but I like the idea of learning to be a steward of my interests. I do feel compelled to ask what I'm going to do with the thing I've made, which I often give away. It's the making and the skill acquisition, and not the having.)

So for whatever it's worth, you have my permission to enjoy your own mind and to pursue your curiosity without shame. Exploration can be its own satisfaction.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:05 AM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

So far for me that ones I haven't done are:
plan an invasion
set a bone
fight efficiently
die gallantly

I would have a good go at setting a bone if we were way out in the middle of the woods and couldn't get to proper medical care. I can fight, just not very efficiently and I've yet to die so I'm not so sure about the gallantly part, but otherwise I have changed diapers, butchered a hog, Conned a (small ship 17.5 ft fishing ship), designed (and built) a small camp in the woods, written a (bad) sonnet, balanced checkbook, built a (garden retaining) brick wall, comforted dying people, taken and given orders, cooperated and acted alone, solved MANY equations and analyzed MANY problems. I've pitched manure (as well as dug in well rotted manure into the garden) programmed a computer, and am an accomplished chef.

I dabble in many things. If I had more money and time I would dabble much more. Don't feel bad about dabbling.
posted by koolkat at 6:14 AM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Where in your life did you get the idea that mastery leads to contentment?

Serious question...I’ve never actually heard that as a life principle.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:23 AM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Honestly, generalists are making a comeback. Specialists were the thing for the last...15? 20 years? And that's fine, but now with agile teams and the emphasis on being adaptable, people with a decent knowledge of a lot of things are going to be a) in vogue and b) valued. Sure, this is for the workplace, but it translates. I have a friend with a brilliant mind and little in the way of practical skills, and she asks me everything, and I can usually at least point her in the right direction. It's useful. Reframe it - you're not a dilettante, you're knowledgeable.
posted by wellred at 6:27 AM on January 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would look at this as, the world is full of cool things to see and do, and if you go through life trying a whole bunch of them, then that’s a pretty great way to live. Why not!

There’s nothing magic about the idea of spending 10,000 hours on a thing. First of all, mastery isn’t proportionally related to time spent, and secondly, there’s no rule that you have to be amazing at everything you do. I’d say that having several things at which one is functionally competent is really pretty dang good. And second of all, just because you lose interest in a thing doesn’t mean your knowledge of it goes away. If you ever felt like picking a thing back up, you probably could, or be a resource for someone who was interested in getting into it.

You’re continually educating yourself on new things and expanding your worldly experience. That in itself is an admirable and useful quality, knowing how to learn. If you want to look at the idea of spending 10,000 hours on a thing, consider that your 10,000-hour mastery.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:29 AM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

"A thing worth doing is worth doing badly." -G.K. Chesterton.

The basic idea is that there are some things that ought to be done well (e.g., thoracic surgery), but for most things, and especially the most important things, the outcome isn't really that important. The more important thing is that you're doing it. The line is specifically in reference to childcare; one shouldn't get caught up in trying to be "the best" parent, but instead should focus on actually parenting, even if you think you're kind of a lousy parent. The meaningful things in life are too important to be left to professionals. The same logic applies to hobbies. Indeed, I have a distinct memory of Chesterton saying something similar about croquet, although I can't find it now, and I once had a fortune cookie with the same sentiment applied to singing.

A ha! Further digging reveals:
how far you really are from the pure love of the sport--you who can play. It is only we who play badly who love the Game itself. You love glory; you love applause; you love the earthquake voice of victory; you do not love croquet. You do not love croquet until you love being beaten at croquet. It is we the bunglers who adore the occupation in the abstract. It is we to whom it is art for art's sake.
Consider the root of the word "amateur". It is actually more noble to start a hobby and give up on it, rather than trying to somehow monetize it.

Leave space for the idea that your Thing may not be any of these actual Things, but actually the process of learning and gaining competence. And in my book, that's actually a pretty cool Thing.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:35 AM on January 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

This comic helped me accept my own urge to dabble. Though I've set my limit at a year, pick a time frame that works for you. Every year for the past two years I've picked a new thing to "master" in that year. I don't do it for money, or fame or anything other than the fact my brain loves to learn new things & I'm happiest when doing so. This year I'm going to learn to knit & crochet & try to make a rug, I might do some weaving. Anyway this is my year of yarn, it's going good so far my MIL is teaching me to spin this weekend, I have made an ugly scarf, I'll make another at the end of the year to see how I improved. Relax embrace your interests as they come & go, life is short, learn what you want about what you want, continue to be excited by the world & all there is to know.
posted by wwax at 7:45 AM on January 30, 2019 [7 favorites]

I read a story once about an imagined society where every young person was tested and placed in the right career track for their particular set of talents and interests. The protagonist wasn't immediately given an internship or study program, just left to wait while all his friends were placed. He got nervous, then depressed, thinking he had somehow failed the test and there was no career he was fit for.

Finally, someone came to talk to him about future plans. The protagonist started to apologize for being so useless, until his new mentor stopped him and explained that he himself had gone through the same thing. In that culture, some people, who were just generally interested in a lot of things and people, were kind of left alone to explore their diverse interests. Eventually, like this mentor, who was the mayor, they became community leaders.

Leaders have a particular skill set they need, to be sure. But they also need a certain diverse empathy and understanding of everyone else and their interests.
posted by amtho at 9:23 AM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

There's a whole Meta about this. Join us!
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:34 AM on January 30, 2019

Trying new things IS a significant hobby. Researching, learning, dipping your toe in, doing enough to feel somewhat competent... that’s what you like. You need to get better at it because you don’t yet believe that the pleasure of trying new things is worthwhile. I totally get it, because I used to feel that my interests didn’t really count, compared to other people’s hobbies and other extracurriculars. Having therapists tell me that I needed to honor and value my preferences didn’t help, it just made me feel like I was doing another thing wrong. I guess what did help was just continuing to do my things and enjoy them, and gradually build my ability to notice the positive aspects of what I like to do. It did take time to escape the idea that I wasn’t really into anything substantive. Maybe ask yourself what you’d tell a good friend if they told you about the same worry. I kind of doubt you’d say “Yeah, you’d better do something to fix that and quit doing what you enjoy and are good at.”

There are a lot of people who don’t have your curiosity or your willingness to move on once an activity has served its purpose. When you find yourself disregarding your own strengths, consciously veer away from self criticism and start imagining some thing or things you might try your hand at in the future. And pay attention to the fun you have when experimenting and learning the basics.
posted by wryly at 9:42 AM on January 30, 2019

I bet if you have friends with similar habits, you don't judge them for it. "Last year Chris was into small-engine repair but this year they're perfecting their sourdough recipe, UGH, what a flighty loser!" doesn't sound right. Instead you're happy for them (and hoping to get to try their sourdough.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:17 PM on January 30, 2019

I’m also a dabbler. I find that the only thing that bothers me about it is that before I accepted my nature, I would sink money into supplies and then feel bad when they sat unused. Now that I have accepted it, I have a better sense of how much is reasonable to spend on a new thing, and I don’t feel bad. I just get to enjoy doing the things for awhile!
posted by ocherdraco at 11:37 AM on February 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

(Also: I have found that I come back to things over time.)
posted by ocherdraco at 11:37 AM on February 2, 2019

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