In life you can choose to grow your skills horizontally or vertically. Vertical growth involves specializing in a field while ignoring others. Horizontal growth involves gaining cursory experience in a wide range of fields while remaining an amateur in them all.
We live in a society of hyper-specialization. Some astronomers study planets, others study gas giants. My college offers hundreds of majors for very specific subjects, and it gets even more specialized at the baccalaureate level. Man’s knowledge is so vast that it is a necessity to choose a narrow direction. Conversely, there are connections you will miss if you overlook history, classical literature, music, theoretical science, religion, or other fields. Don’t dabble in a dozen different trades, but if you’ve been a cooper, branch out—start a blog about barrel making.
I had a great Spanish tutor in high school (I was home-schooled by my father), but I never put forth effort and I’ve forgotten my Spanish books and everything he taught me. Because my mother is Chinese, friends suggest I learn Chinese. Employers want fluent Spanish-speakers because we have a lot of Mexicans in Florida. I’ve never learned a second language. I know English and I know it well. You could say I’m an English specialist, because I’ve written hundreds of posts on this blog, I always spell words right, and most of the time I use proper grammar. My language growth has definitely been vertical.
Students taking foreign language courses in high school often lack English skills. They are fluent in chat speak, not real words. They use “literally” in place of “figuratively,” for example: “I literally died laughing.” Apostrophes are to be used in contractions (“it isn’t so”), for possession (“Richard’s camera”), and to clarify (“12 students got A’s on the test”), yet half of America’s teenagers are dumbfounded. They resort to inserting apostrophes into their papers willy-nilly. These students should not be taking another language. If you want to learn a whole bunch of languages, it’s best to become an expert in your country’s language first. Start out with a solid base of vertical growth before expanding horizontally.
Music is another field where specialization should precede dabbling. When you become very good at the piano, it is much easier to pick up the guitar, the harpsichord, or even random string instruments. You understand sheet music, keys, chords, scales, rhythm, and tone. These skills carry over to other instruments. However, if you try learning six instruments at once as a newbie, you will fail, unless you want to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on them all.
On this blog I am a dilettante. While I am focusing on releasing new art photos, I’ve spent many hours in fields I have little experience with. I’ve written novelettes about technology, personal development, photography advice, and what I call “photography ramblings.” Even these fields are vague: for technology I’ve written about memory card readers, programming languages, computer monitors, flash drives, printers, and other items. Many of my posts cover a whole bunch of disconnected topics in a haphazard way. Not many people read them. Last month, a commenter said I “try to make too many points and [I] go into too many directions which are hard to follow.”
I pay a high price for my dabbling. While I have the advantage of having my activities under one roof (this site) rather than multiple sites, I’d be better off focusing on a narrow range of specific topics. I talked with Melody Anglin, who was hoping to find technical articles on my site because my Twitter tweets are often about computer problems or cameras. Instead she found articles like Transcending Limiting Beliefs, philosophical articles written from a position of little experience which she described as “not useful.” Unfortunately she’s right.
Old habits die hard. Even in this essay I’m all over the place. Focus! Specialize! Creativity is nothing without discipline.
Four years ago I stopped playing the piano, instead spending hours each day taking photos of mundane objects. My parents and grandparents were disappointed because they’d invested so much in my music. My Grandma used to talk of me going to Stetson University to be a concert pianist—abandoning music for photography made no sense. At 14 I gave up something I was fairly good at for something I had no talent for but which gave immediate rewards. Like many other teenagers I found piano boring and unrewarding while I could instantly share photos on deviantART and have them seen by dozens of people.
My shift worked out well. I’m playing the piano again and I’ve become good at photography. However my decision last year to write about personal development has not been so good. I’ve written posts that have value, I’ve defined myself, and I’ve gained writing experience, but I could be making good money from this site if I applied myself to marketing and technical writing instead of airy-fairy posts about beliefs and goals.
There’s a quote by Steve Jobs that I like: “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” You may have to dabble in a half-dozen careers before finding your calling. Many times you will pick a path and hit a brick wall, and you will do this again and again. The true danger is not lifelong amateurism—the true danger is never picking a path. Never taking that first step. If you want to be a composer, you have to compose music. If you want to be a writer, you must start publishing your writing, in a blog, the newspaper, a book—whatever. Just set goals and get something done. Most of us make inefficient use of our time. If you are committed you can always make progress.
But if you are a habitual dabbler, just call yourself a Renaissance man and be done with it.