The Dilettante’s Tapestry

How does the dilettante compete with the expert?  How do we turn our depth of experience into something that might provide a viable alternative to a highly specialized and focused expertise?

I suspect that in order to compete with the experts we need to find a way to turn our multifarious interests into a unified whole.

Suppose we consider our dilettante from yesterday, who had 1,000 hours of deliberate practice in each of math, dance, drawing, history, and meditation.  If she tries to compete with say mathematicians on the same single axis who have maybe 5,000 to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, then she is going to have a tough time keeping up.

But if instead of competing with them directly, she combines her interest in math with her interest in drawing to help those other more specialized mathematicians in her department visualize their work, or turn their abstract concepts into a visual that lay people can understand, now she has a real value-added skill that bridges people who work in one domain with those who work in another.

She can use her interest in history to use examples from the past to deal with problems in the present, or use them as allegories that both technical and nontechnical people can relate to.

She could use her interest in dance to build the social capital of the groups with whom she works.  I mean let’s face it geeks don’t often dance.  But once they overcome their fear of dancing by someone teaching them how to dance in a safe place, not only will they find themselves having fun but will discover another avenue for relating with people.  It builds teamwork.

If she shares her interest in meditation with her group, she could both increase their collective ability to concentrate and to deal with stress, making her team much more happy and productive.

Just look at all the value our dilettante has added to her place of work!  And just by venturing out along each axis of her interests and finding ways to bring them into her work, she has taken leading roles in her company.  By looking for ways to weave the threads of our interests into a desirable and useful whole, we can satisfy the needs of others as well as our own.

The Dilettante’s Practice

How does a dilettante turn the 10,000 hour rule into a viable practice for herself?  The dilettante’s dilemma is that she is too interested in too many things to devote herself to only one of them.  She is a liberally educated vocational ignoramus.

Take heart, those of you insulted by my last remark; I walk among you, am one of you.

In one of Ericsson’s papers on deliberate practice and expertise, he gives a graph of expertise which looks logarithmic to me.  That is, the levels of skill that result from the accumulated hours of deliberate practice appear to me to be logarithmically related to the number of those accumulated hours of practice.  Intuitively this makes sense to me; our skill level tends to increase rapidly in the beginning, but then begins to plateau.  Even so, the logarithm is a monotonically increasing function.

Suppose that this function is in fact logarithmic.  The base ten log of 10,000 hours is four, while that of 1,000 hours is 3.  In other words, if this relation were in fact to hold true, then 1,000 hours of deliberate practice would yield 75% of the skill level of an expert.  Might this level of skill be competent?

Now consider our dilettante again.  Suppose she were to practice in domains orthogonal to one another; that is, one domain casts little, if any shadow upon another.  For example, math casts quite a long shadow on physics, but hardly any at all on dance apart from rhythm.

Suppose she had four or five of these orthogonal domains of practice in which she was “competent,” that is, had one thousand hours of deliberate practice in each; say math, dance, drawing, history, and meditation.  Consider what her experience of the world is like, its richness and depth, versus the world of the violinist who has given 10,000 hours of her life to the deliberate practice of the violin.  Could it be like the difference between Flatland and the world we live in?

What price glory?

The Dilettante’s Dilemma

I am, without doubt, a dilettante.  I would prefer to be a polymath, but have thus far lacked the determination and resolve necessary to attain mastery.

My life has been very circular as a result of this nature.  I find myself picking up and laying down the same tools over and over again to learn the skill required to master them.

I plow for a season and begin to plant, but then grow frustrated when the seeds I’ve planted don’t seem to grow.  Then I neglect my furrows and let them run wild with weeds while I go looking in the mountains to see what’s growing there.

On the other hand I’ve made peace with myself in this regard.  I accept that I am interested in many things, and won’t be content to focus on one.

Now I find that once again I’ve lost patience with my labors, and doubt whether this blog will ever generate an income, let alone a living.  My fear drives me to consider plying other wares such as modeling or building social capital or hiring me out as a temp.

But even without an income, I like the fruit this blog is bearing.  It forces me to synthesize my thoughts, to wrestle my demons onto at least one page of written text on a regular basis; and to expose them to public approbation or ridicule.

Nor do I need to give up those other fields.  I may not be able to plow them as hard as I could if I focused on one.  But an ecology needs many different plants and animals to be systemically healthy – and so do I.

So I will try to hew a triune path through the wilderness of my desires: of blogging, modeling, and building social capital.  Three I hope will lead to mastery, and blessings to those along my way.