Deliberately Dilettante

There certainly is a case to be made for experts. When it comes to heart surgery, I absolutely want the doctor to be a specialist, an expert, and to know what he’s doing. I wouldn’t want to have it done by a heart surgery enthusiast that discusses days and nights in online bulletin boards about what scalpel to use for the cut, but doesn’t have the practical skills it takes to get the job done, i.e. my life saved.

On the other hand, not everybody wants to be a heart surgeon. Nor does everybody want to specialize in drinking water treatment or nuclear power plants. And while there definitely exists a justified need for experts in these and some other areas, if everybody in society decided to specialize in just one thing, we would be doomed pretty fast. People would get so involved in their respective fields of expertise that they wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other anymore, resulting in what the Germans call a world of “fachidioten”: Specialists that know more and more about less and less, and thus have difficulties to work in teams that treat larger issues.

So probably, there’s also a case to be made for enthusiasts, amateurs, and dilettantes, and it’s my hypothesis that it’s a great time to be one.

10.000 Hours of Dilettantism & 80% Greatness

The word “dilettantism” comes from the Latin “delectare”, that simply means “to delight”. Originally referring to a lover of the fine arts, a connoisseur, its neutral or even positive meaning nowadays got widely replaced by a deprecative one: The term dilettante is used as as an insult for someone dabbling in an art or field of knowledge outside of his main activities, and implies he’s doing it poorly.

Of course it’s true that you have to put a lot of effort into any given field to become good at it. Widely known is the “10.000-hour rule” presented by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Gladwell claims that to excel in something, you have to put the hours in – that is, approximately 10.000 of them. If only after so many hours you become a master in a field, this is truly a strong argument for a world of experts.

Or – isn’t it? If we break it down, 10.000 hours can mean that if you do just one thing for ten hours a day for nearly three years, you’ll become great at it – but you could also put in only two hours a day into five different things and need less than 14 years to become a master in all five. Now, while you’ll get certainly even better in that one thing by doing only that for all 14 years, getting 80% great in many different fields may be an interesting alternative at least to some of us.

While there’s nothing wrong with studying an issue in depth (I did that for over a year with the creation myths of a Colombian indigenous community, becoming at least 1/3 of an expert), the world also needs people who are able to associate different areas of expertise and look at the wider picture. Maybe you’re one of them because the idea of doing one thing (and one thing only!) in your life just seems a bit too boring. Or maybe you’re aiming to protect yourself from falling victim to uselessness in the moment you get sacked from your present job: If you only know about the narrow tasks related to your current position, finding something new in case of dismissal can become difficult. So it’s probably good to widen your knowledge and become a happy amateur in different fields, not caring about the insults that you might have to suffer. But whatever your reason may be to become deliberately dilettante, chances are you fear not so much to be labeled as a one, but to die of hunger because of not knowing how to make a living.

The Dilettantic Blogger (And the Money Question)

Originally, dilettantes weren’t distinguished from professionals and experts by the quality of what they did, but by doing it without pecuniary interest. Dilettantic artists generally were noblemen that just didn’t depend on earning a living with their endeavors – which neither did mean that what they did was bad, nor ruled out the possibility of making some money anyway.

Nowadays, the money issue becomes more pressing. Most of us don’t have any castles to live in without financial problems, and while normal jobs may bore us, a monthly paycheck can be quite attractive. But in recent times some great opportunities opened up for dilettantic bloggers, artists, micro entrepreneurs and career renegades, resulting in a cult of the amateur that some see as an evil thing – while I personally couldn’t be happier with it. (While the naysayers worry about us being stuck in a world of dilettantes, my only advice would be to avoid jerks that call themselves experts while in reality just being … well, jerks. But that’s true for consulting companies all over the planet and certainly not a problem of web 2.0.)

Being a blogger often is a typical dilettantic occupation: We follow our passion and become active just because we want to express and discuss the things that occupy our minds and hearts. Interestingly, many bloggers have managed to convert their passions into hard cash, and this is something that fascinates and motivates many of us even further.

The thing with making money as a blogger of course is that it generally requires a specialization in itself: If you focus on a niche it becomes a lot easier to congregate an audience of potential clients. But the good thing is that you are the person to choose your niche. It can be anything that interests you, even if you’re not (yet) an expert. Also, you can write in more than one niche – ideally on different blogs. You can earn money with blogging itself, or rather use your writings to support your micro business. You can launch several products in several areas, as long as you have the willpower and the time. You don’t have to become a professional blogger or entrepreneur right from the start – or, for that matter, ever – either, as you can take it on while being employed, doing freelance work in other areas, or studying and living at home.

This means that you are free to decide upon your personal approach to pursue and how to integrate dilettantism into your life deliberately: Following the broader approach of 10.000-hours mastership in different fields outlined above would be just one of them. You could also excel in one field – and be a dilettante in some others, like Jacob Burckhardt suggested. Or you could even mix two fields of knowledge and become an expert dilettante in the combination of them.

Life as a Dilettantic Experiment

For me, the most important point of being a dilettante is the great opportunity to experiment without fearing the consequences – other than dying of hunger because of lacking a backup plan, that is.

On deciding to cut a path of dilettantic location-independent lifestyle design, I never know where I’ll be in a year, or even in a month. But at the same time, I am able to work towards my goals “from a whole bunch of angles in a whole bunch of ways” and have a deep trust in that something will hit. (If I end up starving on the road, I’ll let you know in a tweet!)

While it probably isn’t in line with the recommendations of your vocational counselors, this and other dilettantic approaches to life provide a great opportunity to live joyfully, instead of working as a money making machine for some shareholders you don’t really care about.
Especially thanks to recent developments on the web, dilettantes have a big level playing field and can make weird products, texts and artworks no company or gallery would ever back, without making bigger investments. Learning by doing has never been so easy.

As a dilettante, you work with a complete openness of results, like only few professionals do in well-financed lab or office contexts. But while a scientist has many lab rats to experiment with, the thing about life is that we only got one. This often prevents us from trying the things we are interested in, due to perceived danger. I think that taking a dilettantic approach towards it is what allows us to abolish what sociologist Richard Sennett calls “the great modern taboo”: Fear of failure.

On the one hand, a dilettante knows very well that he will suck at anything when he’s just starting out. On the other hand, even ultimate failure in one field won’t be the end of the world, because he always has other areas he likes to engage in, and other things that call his attention. Quite the contrary of the fear-paralyzed society, a dilettante can enjoy failure, because it allows him to refocus, learn something and further develop himself as a person. While he is indeed able to put all his energy into one thing, it’s not as if his life depended on it. Dilettantes are free to try, free to do, and also free to discard a thing if it doesn’t work.

In the end, if you achieve stunning results in an area, that’s great – if not, you’re also fine, as long as you are able to sustain yourself somehow. When Cody McKibben writes about living a great life for little money in Thailand and I ramble about how to have a great time in the Caribbean on a 200 dollar budget, we’re exactly into this field of experimentation that I find to be so valuable.

Because of being open towards whatever may result, inventions, discoveries and ideas created by dilettantes can well bring a positive change not only in one limited area, but in a much broader sphere. In this sense, dilettantes may be the real experts of experimentation. If you have not already tried to live deliberately dilettante, why not give it a shot and dabble into something new today?

Comments 17

  1. Nate January 18, 2010

    I think this approach is good as long as you are doing what you are doing for the right reasons. I guess that’s a bit vague, so maybe it could be better stated that you are doing something with heart.

    I’m certainly all for experimenting, especially if you’re not entirely sure what you want to do or what you’d be good at…and more importantly, enjoy doing. It’s by experimenting that we can find that. Having said that, when you have found a passion, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with specializing in it 100%.

    As Oliver Wendall Holmes said, “All life is an experiment.”

    Cheers to that!

    • Fabian January 18, 2010

      Sure thing, Nate! But even if you found your “thing” it’s probably good for many people to go ony trying new stuff, too… just to keep moving! But if you don’t, there’s surely nothing “wrong” about that, either! :)

  2. Oscar - freestyle mind January 19, 2010

    Great post. Remember that you don’t become an expert if you do the same thing for 10k hours. You become one (based on that rule) if you do it creatively.

    • Fabian January 19, 2010

      Absolutely true, Oscar! Also, creativity is what makes the process fun!

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  4. Tom January 20, 2010

    Fascinating post Fabian! R.W. Emerson was also critical of the trend towards specialisation. In The American Scholar he described society as being in a state in which: “the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, — a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man”.

    Your post really chimes with my feelings on the subject, especially your enthusiasm for experimentation. Life is so much more enjoyable when you have a Renaissance passion for exploration.

    • Fabian January 20, 2010

      Thanks Tom, also for the quote! I’m always interested in new input, and as I haven’t read The American Scholar yet, I’ll put it on my list. Emerson was a great thinker for sure.

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  7. Tim March 16, 2010

    Hitching, traveling, and living on the road has been on my mind for the past day or two. It’s been stuck in my head, gaining momentum for a good couple of years now, though. But I haven’t really done much about it yet.

    It’s the whole fear of starvation and death that motivates me to stay put, but that sucks. It’s the idea of being caught in a social trap and having to stay where I am that keeps the desire to travel alive.

    I bought a backpacking backpack yesterday. The first step to a wider tomorrow.

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