Are you a specialist or a dilettante?

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. :grin:

16 thoughts on “Are you a specialist or a dilettante?

  1. I guess there’s nothing wrong for being a dilettante. It’s your way of being with respect to your passion or inclination to something. It doesn’t mean that you are less professional when your are dilettante. Being true to one’s passion is something more than being professional in every field as it express more of your freedom, and just to be true to yourself. you can’t be great in everything at the same time.

    I was entertained with this post. While you consider yourself a dilettante, pretty well that I consider you a professional writer. This is a job best done! Keep it up!

  2. Interesting piece. Your dedication to the English language is commendable. And I think you’re right that there are many students out there who need a stronger foundation in their native or first language before trying to branch out into a second one. (The misuse of “literally” also drives me crazy!) However, I can also say that nothing has taught me more about English grammar and usage than learning foreign languages. Often our native language is so familiar to us that we don’t think critically about it. For some like me, only when we have something to contrast it with (inflection, idioms, cognates, preposition usage, etc. in a language that varies from our own) do we truly understand things as basic as tense, direct vs. indirect objects, and so on. But perhaps, as Ursula suggests, this training should start well before high school. Thanks for the great read! SD

    • Wow, your blog is “Spanish Dilettante,” which is very relevant! I’m sure you’re right. In English we often put the adjective first, i.e. “red house,” while in Spanish I think it would be “house red” (casa rojo or something). Most people wouldn’t think about that unless they studied other languages. But not everything can be done in school… some things are better researched on Wikipedia or YouTube on your own time. :wink:

  3. I like these lines of your post “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.” and i agree with your idea. Nice informative post…In the situation when you want a more stable solid investment in coins then of course you struggle looking at habitual gold coins… You have found the best place for the information on undated 20P coins

    • Thanks Luis. A lot of words in English are borrowed from Spanish, French, Greek, Latin, etc… English is a melting pot.

      If I wanted to invest in coins I’d buy a one-ounce gold Krugerrand. But that’s over $1000 now! I’d prefer a new lens for my camera, a new computer, or something else I could use now.

  4. Meant to say here and there, not here in and there… it’s late and I’m tired – don’t mind my unedited comments! heheheh :wink:

  5. Love this post – and you’re absolutely right! Actually, initially when I first visited your blog, I was also confused as to what your blog was about… I know it’s a hassle to have multiple sites/blogs to manage, but in the long-run, it’s definitely better for traffic and monetization.

    This article is definitely an excellent segway into specialization, and by the way, I agree with you completely on the points you made!

    1. People definitely need to learn to use apostrophe’s more appropriately!
    2. People should become experts in their primary language before learning another one (unless you’re a child – children pick up on languages much more quickly than adults, and are able to learn the grammar rules for multiple languages simultaneously).
    3. Dabbling here and there does not make you an expert on anything, but choosing your specialization is not always easy; you really have to analyze and decide for yourself what you enjoy doing and go from there.

    I do a bit of dabbling myself (part of the reason I have 3 blogs at this point – potentially 4 in the future), but I try to keep them separated from each other… this also means that I have less time to concentrate on them all – I usually go through phases where I’ll work on one for a while (currently my web/blog design site) and sacrifice another for a time (my music blog/site/composing/etc.), but then my interests will shift again. I think you’re a little like me in that you’re able to learn relatively quickly and pick up on a variety of different things, which makes it even harder to stick to one thing… in this type of case, I recommend specializing in what you enjoy the most and go from there! :smile:

    I really would like to teach myself some more html, css, php, sql, etc., but finding the time for it is quite challenging for me, so I’m admittedly not an expert in those areas, but I’m learning slowly as I go. :smile:

    • Thanks Ursula! Children can pick up many languages if they’re around family who speak them a lot when they grow up… for us older folks, no such luck. :neutral:

      I tend to shift interests a lot like you! The past month I haven’t taken up any new interests (except a new job). It’s been hard sticking to my guns with photography, music, blogging, and college, but I’m doing it and spending fewer hours mindlessly reading Wikipedia articles. Though that is fun. :cool:

      There is another problem with separate sites… many people only go to one of your sites! If I was starting over I’d probably still pick a single site, though it’s not as good from a professional standpoint.

      If you need help with HTML / CSS / PHP / MySQL / JavaScript email me! I have experience as I developed this site (WordPress). I know our blogging alliance hasn’t gone anywhere… at minimum it’s just commenting on each other’s blogs. I do that occasionally.

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