In defense of dabbling
I used to think of myself as a quitter. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been diving headlong into new pursuits, declaring them to be My Most Favorite Thing Ever, then dropping them like they were just Some Interest That I Used to Know. Dance class? Quit. Brownies? Stayed with it through the two weeks of Twinkies, had the crossing over ceremony, quit. Preschool? Quit.
Kindergarten? I had a fabulous time at the orientation day, exploring the play kitchen and the art corner, rocking dollies, comforting the kids who were crying for their Mommies. I loved it. When I found out I was expected to go back and repeat the same experience daily, I told my mother thanks, but I quit. Unfortunately, Mom had the law on her side, which is the only way I managed to graduate from high school.
I went on to college after being accepted into a highly competitive Public Relations degree program. I went to a few classes. Then I quit. I quit my very first full time job after one day, which was a smart move (it was an aggressive door-to-door sales gig). I stayed with the next few for progressively longer periods, as long as I was getting promoted to new positions yearly. In between, I thought I would try being married. It was lovely, like playing house that day in kindergarten. When it got real, I quit.
I went on practicing Girl Intteruptus until I became a mother. Turns out that’s really hard to quit. So is a not-pretend marriage. One day, I looked around and realized it wasn’t accurate to characterize myself as a quitter anymore. I’ve stuck with some big things, personally and professionally. I’ve been blogging for six and a half years, if you can believe it. I wrote a book, and I can’t believe that. The word no longer fits.
Still, it can throb like an old wound sometimes. The thing is, quitting was usually never a problem for me. I was generally okay with moving on once I felt like I had gotten what I needed to get out of an experience. I was happy dabbling. But I hate disappointing people. It’s my Kyrptonite. That’s where the shame came in. I’ve always been able to bring others into my make believe or my passion du jour. Being married to Patrick has taught me that not every soul changes costume as quickly. It can be annoying, exhausting and sometimes devastating for people in my life to buy into my enthusiasm, only to be left holding the magic beans when I’ve moved on.
I’m learning all the time about the power of finishing, and that’s a good thing, but I was recently reminded of the beauty of dabbling by an essay extolling the virtue of letting your creativity play the field. It was so apt that this lesson came to me in the form of a knitting newsletter, since knitting is one of the areas where I’ve been training my sideways brain to do things sequentially, one at a time, through completion. This knitter said that having the freedom to take up new projects and drop old ones is a key part of keeping her invigorated and inspired.
…recognizing that creativity is fluid, I want to keep a steady stream of new experiences flowing with as many different kinds of projects as I can manage.
It’s such a permissive, generous attitude. And so countercultural. I bookmarked it right away, knowing I wanted to think and write about it.
Yesterday, Austin Kleon asked, How do you succeed as a generalist in a world that fetishizes specialists? and mentioned the concept of T-shaped creativity, which means possessing deep knowledge in one area (vertical), and a broad familiarity with subjects that might intersect collaboratively (horizontal). He mentioned technical skills, but I was thinking about how much broad life experiences contribute to deep knowledge of word craft in writing. Think of all the great authors who were specialists in writing, but dabblers in humanity. Trying–and quitting–a little bit of everything.
Then this morning, I was scrolling through my Babble Moms folder, and I came across a blog post titled, So I Gave Up. It was a response to the writing prompt, “Tell the story of trying to learn a new talent or hobby that you only pursued briefly.”
Last Summer I decided I was going to become a gardener. I wanted a hat, some matching gloves and I wanted to walk around with a watering can as giant tomatoes bloomed.
I smiled in recognition, as I read through the list. I’m not the only one who goes through rapid mental costume changes. It didn’t occur to me to label the writer as a quitter, or a dilettante, or anything but an interesting, curious person with a wide array of interests. Perhaps her husband and mine should talk.
It got me thinking about that proverb, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” But is it really? Dangerous? Why are we warning people against sampling lots of interests? Sure, in nuclear medicine, a little knowledge could be hazardous. Certainly, we should make and keep serious commitments. But we can’t be expected to go deep into every pursuit. The world needs specialists, but maybe it also needs dabblers–people who have grazed the length of life’s buffet. Sometimes one bite is plenty. Two weeks of being a Brownie might be just right for some. One day in a horrible job is more than enough for anyone.
And, Mom, I’m pretty sure I learned everything I needed to know about kindergarten on the first day of kindergarten.