The world doesn’t look too kindly on a dabbler
July 2, 2019 10:45 AM   Subscribe

It bums me out that we need thinkpieces and books, now, to give us permission to putter around with stuff that we're curious about or that gives us joy, without any goal beyond satisfying the curiosity or that ephemeral joy.
posted by salt grass at 11:06 AM on July 2, 2019 [39 favorites]

The book Refuse to Choose has an even more positive spin on this kind of thing. The author says we should celebrate our varied interests, not feel bad about them. It also includes practical methods of keeping track of things.
posted by cats are weird at 11:23 AM on July 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

I am a lifelong dabbler, to the point where I have to impose self-limits to keep from spreading myself too thin to even dabble effectively at any one thing. I shall leave behind nothing of consequence when I die, nor will my endeavors affect the world in any significant way; but I couldn't care less because I'm having fun while I'm here. I mean, sure, it'd be nice to find I'm good enough at something to make other people interested in my efforts, but even without that I consider my dabbling time worthwhile.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:26 AM on July 2, 2019 [27 favorites]

The Good Life Project (FANTASTIC podcast) today has an interview with David Epstein on why generalist is often better than specialist in how you approach life.

I thought this post was actually going to be about the episode. I'm learning that what I perceived as a key weakness of mine throughout life I have leveraged into being able to tackle almost any problem and responsible for my doing well at work.

Show description: David Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene and his new blockbuster book, Range, which makes a powerful, science-backed argument about success. Contrary to those who say “find your thing as early as possible, then focus on becoming the best at it,” it turns out those who succeed at the highest levels and stay there longest do not specialize early or become world-class experts in one narrow domain. They actually do the exact opposite. They stay generalists for as long as possible. Early specializers often rise fast, then burn out, leaving those playing a longer, more generalized game to eventually lap them, rise higher and stay successful longer. We dive into the eye-opening research, along with Epstein’s remarkable personal journey in today’s conversation.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:28 AM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Cats Are Weird, I came in to mention Refuse to Choose as well. I am about to apply her concepts to my entire life - maybe this time it will work!
posted by rebent at 11:29 AM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Good Life Project actually turned me on to the test he developed on what kind of work is meaningful to you and my result actually snapped into focus why I am the way I am. I'm not lazy (I do like sleep and idle time) but I find the most meaning in simplifying and efficiency. That's why I'm a creative who also loves spreadsheets.

About to start a career change doing... who fucking knows. Maybe Project Management? Terrifying! But this has helped me a ton.

Anyway, the test is free if you generalists/dabblers want to have some insight. It's the only personality test beyond maybe the Enneagram I can highly recommend. Seriously changed my life 2 months ago.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:35 AM on July 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

Serendipitously, I just read this piece: No More Forever Projects:
These days, all my projects start as experiments. No forceful promises, no forever projects. Gravity seeps into the things that stick around.
posted by Lexica at 11:36 AM on July 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

The only insult I've ever received in my adult life was when someone asked me, "Do you have a hobby?" A HOBBY?! DO I LOOK LIKE A FUCKING DABBLER?!
-John Waters
posted by TrialByMedia at 11:42 AM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

It bums me out that we need thinkpieces and books, now, to give us permission to putter around with stuff that we're curious about or that gives us joy, without any goal beyond satisfying the curiosity or that ephemeral joy.

I know, but here we are! People have internalized the idea that, if they can't be a professional at some enterprise, there is no point in doing it.
posted by thelonius at 11:57 AM on July 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

See, I never did have a problem with the dabbling-in-things approach. I think the key is to tell yourself that you are ultimately trying to create a stash of on Gifts For People - that way if you come up with something halfway decent, you can indeed give it to someone and they will be impressed as hell that you made it with your own two hands, and if it looks like crap but still not that bad, you can use it yourself and tell yourself it was practice for the better version you'll be giving to friends.

A lot of my early exercises in jam making, soap making, candle making, liqueur making, etc. got foisted on friends and on theater casts as my opening night gifts. I did one show where we had a mostly-male cast and the events took place in the 1910s, so men were encouraged to grow out their beards; I got a bunch of cheap mugs from the thrift store and made the guys all shaving-soap sets and one dude said it was the best opening night gift he ever got.

With another show I made everyone some little jars of ginger-peach jam; throughout the run I could tell when each person dared to open it up and try it because the next day they invariably would say something to me (Constance Wu was one recipient, and she came in with a big grin the next day and said "I really liked that jam!") Our sound designer still hadn't opened his jam up by the time we closed; after we closed the set, he and I bummed a ride from our lighting designer back to Brooklyn. Somehow or another the jam came up, and the sound designer asked me how the heck I'd learned to make jam.

"I just read about it," I said.


"I just kind of go through phases," I said. "Like, every year I come across some craft or project I want to try, I obsess about it and make piles of things, and then a couple months later I get bored and I have all this stuff that i end up giving to friends."

"Like what kind of projects?"

"Well, jam...and then one year it was soap....then candles...and then last summer actually it was liqueur."


"Yeah, like mango-infused rum, blackberry wine, spiced brandy..."

"You just make that and give it away?"

I nodded, and the lighting designer spoke up: "Sometimes, it's really, really good to be EC's friend."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:01 PM on July 2, 2019 [27 favorites]

"Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." - G.K. Chesterton.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:02 PM on July 2, 2019 [26 favorites]

Drawing forces me to accept that I enjoy something that I will never be great at, at least not enough to monetize. (I even did a whole blog about not being a very good artist.) It's also a good way to meditate on an object, and that has calmed me very much when my mental illness is acting up.

I miss singing a lot. In order to sing, you either need a willing audience or a soundproof booth, and I have neither, although I can clean up at karaoke. I'd like space to sing sad songs, though, or to practice climbing up as far as I can go. Why? Because I like to feel a song filling my chest, that's all.

At this point in life, when things are less secure than ever, I am looking for pastimes that offer no security, that cannot be bought or sold, that offer a simple chance at joy while it can still be had.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:05 PM on July 2, 2019 [15 favorites]

I'm a die-hard dilettante and I felt a lot better about it when it suddenly dawned on me that my hobby is "learning and trying new things" and it's okay that I took one 12-week pottery class, learned to throw a pot, and, curiosity satisfied, have never felt the urge to go back. People kept saying, "But, aren't you going to keep going?" Well, no. I didn't actually want to take up pottery, I wanted to learn how pottery works and actually try it a few times. I did, it was fun, I'm good! (I made my mom a lopsided vase, she put it on the shelf with my preschool pinch pot, LOL)

I do have a couple of "real" hobbies I've stuck with over decades (I've been embroidering since I was 5 or 6, for example), but "trying new stuff" is definitely one of my favorite hobbies!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:20 PM on July 2, 2019 [33 favorites]

I love this. I actually wrote a question on AskMetafilter once because I was grappling with being a dabbler. But I've come to terms with it! It's not that I'm not disciplined, I just find lots of things interesting and I want to try them all out. IT'S FUN.

I also kind of like the idea of someone coming to clean out my place after I've died and them saying, "Whoa, did you know thebots could silversmith/embroider/paint/needle felt?"
posted by thebots at 12:22 PM on July 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

Hi, it me.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:32 PM on July 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

Well, our society has some incorrect notions about success and ambition so that's probably why. 10,000 hours is just horseshit as is the myth that you need to focus from an extremely early age. So yeah, I'm happy to see this even if I'd reached the conclusion independently just related to my own life. It's nice to be validated.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:45 PM on July 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

Dabbling good. Specialization good too, but dabbling better. So says me.
posted by coppertop at 12:45 PM on July 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have no issue with dabbling as such, but be careful how you dabble. I run a choir, and if you join my choir and tell me you plan on performing at the concerts, I'm gonna assume you're going to be there (and put the requisite work in to be ready for the concert). If you then show up for three rehearsals, bugger off for two months, then come sauntering back in time for the concert? Yeah, no, sorry, you're not going on stage. As the director, I need to know who I can rely on.

That said, if you show up at the start of the season, tell me up front you're just here because of interest and don't want to perform, then that's fine because then I won't rely on you.

Be upfront with your dabbling. But dabble on!
posted by LN at 12:52 PM on July 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

The funny part is that dabblers are often the most impressive people we know, it's just never been expressed as such.

We all know someone who's "good at everything." She's not a professional singer, but she kills it at karaoke. He isn't a fashion designer, but he always looks sharp. She isn't a chef, but her cooking's always delicious. He isn't a musician, but he always knows the best bands coming to town.

So much of that is just being willing to dip one's toe into the pool enough to know more than 80-90% of the rest of us.

Plus, the stuff that's a transferable skill is often that initial bit. The first 100 hours of woodworking are probably more applicable to learning metalworking than the next 9900 hours. So dabblers tend to be quick to pick up new stuff.
posted by explosion at 1:18 PM on July 2, 2019 [20 favorites]

dabble on!

Apply directly to the hobby!
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:23 PM on July 2, 2019 [22 favorites]

Didn't Heinlein have that whole bit about how specialization is for insects?
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 1:35 PM on July 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

Right - " A human being should know how to cook a soufflé, pick a lock, remove an inflamed appendix,soothe a child who has dropped his ice cream cone, kill a man silently with his bare hands, harmonize figured bass...." - that one?
posted by thelonius at 1:53 PM on July 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

"Didn't Heinlein have that whole bit about how specialization is for insects?"

Yeah, although the character who said it was 2,000 years old and had time to get really really really good at all his enthusiasms, which is a thing not be overlooked when considering the quote.

In my teens and twenties and up into my early thirties I thought I needed to be good at everything. As I got older I realized I would never be good at everything and stopped worrying about it -- but trying a whole lot of things put me in good stead for that one thing I was good at (writing), inasmuch as I now had (and have) a broad base of knowledge and experience to draw on, and equally importantly if I didn't know something, I knew how to learn about it. Very useful.
posted by jscalzi at 2:00 PM on July 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

I stopped reading this article partway through because it was so convincing.
posted by srboisvert at 2:13 PM on July 2, 2019 [11 favorites]

Well, you'll never attain Professional Article Reader status at that rate!
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:29 PM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Here's another interview with Epstein on the Longform Podcast, and the pull quote.

“You can’t just introspect or take a personality quiz and know what you’re good at or interested in. You actually have to try stuff and then reflect on it. That’s how you learn about yourself—otherwise, your insight into yourself is constrained by your roster of experiences.”

Or as Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” So, if you don't have enough experiences to reflect on, you're kinda stuck. But, you have to do the reflection, too.
posted by Gotanda at 2:58 PM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

surfers or divers, it's a big ocean. do what you love.
posted by chavenet at 3:09 PM on July 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

My dad was a dabbler, I'm a dabbler, I am raising my child in the ways of the dabble.

Though personally I prefer the term dilettante.
posted by deadwax at 3:49 PM on July 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

My dad was a dabbler, I'm a dabbler, I am raising my child in the ways of the dabble.

I'm a dabbler, he's a dabbler, she's a dabbler, we're a dabbler,
wouldn't you like to be a dabbler too?

Be a dabbler, drink Dr. Pabbler
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:27 PM on July 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

dabble babble
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:27 PM on July 2, 2019

Yabut dabbler doo?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:08 PM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

thelonius: I very much prefer your list of essential human skills over Heinlein's—in fact, I'm going to include it with the lock picking set I bought for my son's birthday. For xmas I'll either teach him how to do a soufflé or kill a man with his bare hands (depending on my mood at the time).
posted by she's not there at 7:34 PM on July 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

In Girl Scouts the badges you could earn were broken up into categories (arts, technology, outdoors, etc) the first of every section was called the dabbler and was just a little taster of things you might find more in depth in later parts. I had every dabbler badge, they were always my favorites.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:38 PM on July 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

For xmas I'll either teach him how to do a soufflé or kill a man with his bare hands (depending on my mood at the time).

Combine both lessons - add the dead man' heart to the soufflé for extra umami!
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:38 PM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I used to have a website called "serial dabbler" but I found I just didn't keep putting new content on it. (That's not a joke, it's whatever eponysterical is but for websites instead of usernames)
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 8:05 PM on July 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

This is very much of my interest. I wrote my college entrance essay on how being a dilettante was a good thing actually and the negative connotations were undeserved. Certainly was true of me at the time as it is now, and got me into college say yay!
posted by Carillon at 8:32 PM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

A human being should know how to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. Specialization is for insects.

No, wait, hold on — I might be mixing up two different quotes. I’ll come in again.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:25 PM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have spent my entire life thinking of myself as "a writer", and it was why I constantly dabbled and sought out new experiences, because my understanding of what it means to be a writer is to come as close as possible to knowing almost everything on at least a sufficient level to write about it without sounding like an uninformed idiot.

For example, I am not in any way a horse rider, but I've ridden horses up to a gallop, and that is sufficient to write horse riding scenes without half a dozen mistakes I've come across in fantasy novels (absolutely no one is having a lengthy philosophical conversation while riding at full gallop! That is physically impossible! Riding a horse is not like driving a car, there is physical exertion involved! You cannot ride horses at full gallop for long periods of time, they don't have the metabolism for it, and also, if your character hasn't ridden horses in a while they will be sore)

Every experience in my life has been sublimated towards writing. When they set the bone I had broken, as I screamed, a part of my mind was trying to pay attention and take notes. Can't let the experience go to waste.

And yet ironically I write very little, for a long list of reasons. I keep wondering if I can still call myself a writer, this title I have carried around inside myself for so long, when I do so little of it. I keep wondering if I need to let that part of myself go, and then I start crying... So, whatever, I keep it for now. But anyway, writing and dabbling go well together.
posted by Cozybee at 11:21 PM on July 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

some notes on the good life project sparketypes test:

1. the ten spark types are:
The Maker – the person who lives to turn ideas into reality.
The Scientist – the person who lives to solve problems.
The Maven – the person who loves learning for its own sake.
The Essentialist – the person who feels alive when they create order from chaos.
The Performer – the person who enlivens any interaction.
The Warrior – the person who is driven to organize and lead people.
The Sage – the person who is driven to teach and share wisdom.
The Advocate – the person who champions others.
The Advisor – the person who gives guidance.
The Nurturer – the person who lives to nurture others

2. You can read the description for any of the types by going to the url
and replacing the maintype with one of the names above, eg:

Note that you must capitalize the name (Nurturer, NOT nurturer)

replacing the subtype is not important, the page will still load and subtype descriptions are just a one line summary and a sales pitch to buy their product. if you changes ss=no to ss=yes at the end, you get an eleventh profile, for "the shapeshifter"

3. There's a totally of 50 questions, 5 for each type, and it is ridiculously easy to figure out which question corresponds to which type. I found getting only my top 2 scores to be annoying, so I copied all the questions into a google doc , assigned the answers values from negative to positive, and made a graph for the results. Tbh, I wanted to share that here but twenty minutes of googling has not yielded me an answer on how to share a google sheet anonymously. I'm willing to memail people who want it, I'm just not willing to post it in a comment.
posted by Cozybee at 1:33 AM on July 3, 2019 [9 favorites]

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it appears to me to be a peculiarly American trait to want to turn every hobby into an international sport be it frisbee, skateboarding or pottery. Sometimes the impression might be given that the Japanese have a similar level of fervour for some hobbies, but there seems to be an underlying acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of the endeavour at the same time. And it would be rare the English person who harboured the desire to take their model train miniature countryside building hobby "to the next level" competitively. I agree that simply enjoying a hobby for its own sake is something to be cherished, but the idea that the natural state is to want to perform a hobby for others at the highest level is completely alien.
posted by drnick at 4:11 AM on July 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I consider myself to be of unofficial spark type The Lumper - the person who keeps piling things to do into a big lump until it gets so large that the only recourse is to push the lump off a cliff and start over.
posted by Chitownfats at 10:56 AM on July 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

By definition, my educational path is extremely narrow, but deep. I've intentionally kept my education as broad as I could.

Dabbling is essential to that; I try to at least get to the level where I can ask intelligent questions, and understand/ judge good answers to those.
posted by porpoise at 7:29 PM on July 3, 2019

The world doesn't look too kindly at least at present times is because the world has just gone through 2 centuries of the industrial revolution. The sentiment is a reflection of what has been.

Unfortunately, the 21st century is going to be opposite that. Over-specialization could very well be an impediment in a VUCA world.

What the world needs now, and this is especially prevalent in the tech industry are specialists with general skillsets. Headhunters call this T-shaped skills. Dabbling becomes a prerequisite for that kind of profile.
posted by crilien at 3:26 AM on July 4, 2019

I presume all of you other Dabblers have seen The Generalist Academy.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:00 AM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

1. the ten spark types are:
The Maker – the person who lives to turn ideas into reality.
The Scientist – the person who lives to solve problems.
The Maven – the person who loves learning for its own sake.

Yeah, by the second or third page of the quiz I could see how it was going to go for me and I almost didn't finish, but I wanted to see how it ended. It ends with them sending you email offering to sell you stuff. I didn't need a quiz to tell me what my mix of those categories was. It said I'm a Maker/Maven, and I'm pretty sure I could have made it say Scientist instead of Maker without really trying. The rest of them were all variations of "sure, that's enjoyable, but it's also exhausting" except for the Performer, and, well, I married one of those. She doesn't need a quiz either.
posted by fedward at 6:45 AM on July 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I feel reading the comments like there should be a link to the Multipotentialite movement... I'd like to read the original article but it appears Medium is throwing a 500 error right now.
posted by Snowflake at 11:26 AM on July 4, 2019

We were talking about trying deliberate dabbling.
Trying a new thing each month. So I threw together this very small and terrible webpage to pick an activity we'd do.

If I find the time in the coming month I might build something a bit more involved, with links and suggestions and things. But I thought since I was pottering about with it I might as well share.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:12 PM on July 4, 2019

That website told me "make cider" twice in a row, but I don't like cider so unsubscribe. ;)
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:30 PM on July 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

It didn't say to drink it.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:39 PM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Sadly, "working to get other people drunk" isn't high on my list of potential hobbies.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:15 PM on July 4, 2019

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