On Dilettantism and the Virtues of Pursuing Multiple Interests

Elizabeth Spiers
Nov 14, 2012 · 5 min read

When I think back to my childhood, I have a lot of fond memories involving family and friends, but the fact is, I hated being a kid. Not for the reasons you’d think: I wasn’t bullied on the playground, I didn’t have a tormented relationship with my parents and while we never had money, I don’t think it made our experiences any less rich for lack of resources.

I mostly hated being a kid because I wanted to be more independent. I loved my family, but I would have probably moved out of the house at 10 if it had been remotely feasible. (In fact, I may have tried to move into the treehouse in the backyard on one or two occasions, but those periodic forays into independent living were usually kiboshed by dinnertime.)

My parents didn’t take it personally; they just allowed me to make independent choices where I could and encouraged me to pursue anything I found interesting, as long as we could afford it. It was a way of letting me be independent by giving me control over how I spent my time and how I chose to express myself. I took piano lessons, preferring “Wind Beneath My Wings” to Symphony No. 2 in D Major (I was 10, in my defense); learned to oil paint in Bob Ross-ian fashion, though my clouds were less “happy” than vaguely morose on a good day; played basketball (point guard, mostly on the bench), and sang (badly) in the church choir. I also wrote terrible poetry on a secondhand wordprocessor that ran on DOS, built dangerous contraptions in the garage with tools from my dad’s workshop, and if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up at the age of nine, I would have told you I either wanted to be a lawyer, an auto mechanic or President of the United States. (It’s much to my dad’s credit that it never occurred to me that those were all male-dominated or exclusively male professions.) My parents never pushed me in a particular direction, and were just happy that I was occupied and engaged in things that were constructive.

And allowing me to do all of those things had some practical value when I applied to college, which was definitely not something that they anticipated. (No one in my family was a college grad and it wasn’t a given that my brothers and I were going to go, though we all did.) But as a function of all the dabbling in things and racing from lessons to practice and so on, I was “well-rounded.” I knew a bit about a lot of things and excelled at one or two. At the time, at least, this was incredibly advantageous. I only applied to one school, but it valued specialists and generalists fairly equally, and I got in. But despite stellar grades and test scores, I’m not sure I’d get in now, because I think we live in a culture that heavily favors specialization.

Which is a shame, because learning to pick up new skills in a variety of different areas and being encouraged to dig into things I’m curious about is a key part of what has helped me in my career, both as a writer/editor, and as an entrepreneur. It made it easier to transition into different job roles, to figure out the intricacies of new industries and modes of work, and taught me be to be unafraid of trying something for fear of not being good at it. (And I’ve been very bad at a lot of things I’ve tried.) This is not to say there’s no value in specialization, of course, but I think there aren’t a lot of models for working and living in a way that encourages pursuit of multiple disparate interests and disciplines.

The Renaissance Man is rare, and where he exists, he’s often derided as a dilettante—a soft pejorative that connotes a lack of seriousness but originally meant a person who practices a discipline as a non-professional. Or an amateur, which can be an innocuous word in some senses but also has the same negative connotation. And I tend to project that onto non-professionals myself, even though I’m aware of the bias. I only feel comfortable self-identifying as a writer and an entrepreneur because I’ve been professionally compensated to do both. Which is silly and speaks to my own insecurities, but nonetheless…

In Jack Hitt’s book, Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, he argues that amateur-ism is an essential part of the American experience and that we can point to plenty of innovations in the arts and sciences that were the products of tinkering by non-professionals who were simply passionate about their subjects. But most of us don’t take the physicist-moonlighting-as-a-novelist seriously until the book sells and it’s on the Times Best Seller List, pace Alan Lightman.

And why is that? I don’t think there’s one answer, but here are my theories:

Our educational systems are fundamentally engineered toward specialization, especially at research universities, no matter how many departmental programs describe their curriculum as “multi-disciplinary”.

We are type A individuals who don’t see the point in spending time and effort on something at which we may not excel.

We think narrowly about skill acquisition as something that is valuable only in a direct professional context, despite the fact that continued learning has a variety of benefits (potentially increasing neuroplasticity, feeding creativity through cross-pollination, etc.) that are additive indirectly, both professionally and personally.

It’s very difficult to structure a commercial institution—especially a large one—in such a way that pre-defined roles are flexible enough to accomodate and exploit (in the best sense) different skill sets and encourages employees to develop disparate skill sets.

I don’t have any brilliant solutions about how to change that, but it’s something I think about as a manager and sometime mentor to other people. (If you have brilliant solutions, please send them to me!)

When J-school kids ask me for advice, I always tell them to pick up a skill that has nothing to do with journalism. Learn to code. Learn Mandarin. Learn to poach halibut in olive oil. Learn something else! I tell them it’s a practical thing to do. If this journalism doesn’t work out for you, I say, it won’t be the only thing you’re capable of doing. And if you’re the rare bird who can code, write a great feature story and then translate it into Mandarin, there are going to be a lot of opportunities for you.

But the truth is, I just think it’ll make them better journalists. Learning to code will make them think about logic and argumentation in a different way. Learning Mandarin will force them to more closely examine the structure of language. (Granted, learning to poach halibut in olive oil may not make you a better journalist, but I can tell you from experience that it’s a good way to wind down after a rough close.)

And if they pursue those things with passion and really enjoy them, I just think it will give them more personal satisfaction and a greater understanding of the world around them. And no one needs a professional rationale for that.

I. M. H. O.

The Editorial Page

    Elizabeth Spiers

    Written by

    Founder, The Insurrection.

    I. M. H. O.

    The Editorial Page

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