“My father comes from this classic English amateur tradition, where you should do lots of things and none of them well.”
This came from Malcolm Gladwell in conversation with Robert Krulwich on the excellent Radiolab. It’s not one of Gladwell’s more famous quotes, but it is among my favourites because it resonates with me very strongly. Although it’s not my father I’m thinking about in reference to this quote, but me.
I love hobbies, and I have had many. I find lots of things fascinating, and enjoyable, and so I find myself taking short, deep dives into many different topics and pastimes.
Currently I am flying power kites, working on a kit car, and (though this is notionally a business it currently lacks the revenue to justify that grouping) looking to launch an atheist T-shirt brand. I am working my way through the collected essays of Richard Dawkins, and the complete history of 90s sci-fi series Dark Angel. This is all alongside my more long-term hobbies: the usual fiction, films and music, snowboarding, cooking, gadgets and general geekery, and DIY.
In each of these things I acquire knowledge and skills to a greater or lesser standard, but I will never be truly expert at any of them. That, as Gladwell has asserted in his book Outliers, would take 10,000 hours practice or study.
But do I need to be expert to enjoy these things? Not at all. There’s a huge amount of reward to be had from achieving even basic competence or understanding. If it matters to you (and I concede that it probably does to me) just having that basic level of competence sets you apart from 99% of the rest of the population. More importantly, it gives you a connection with each member of the 1% who do have those things as their primary hobby or focus.
I’m hoping that my kids share my desire to learn about lots of different areas. I’m looking forward to taking them horse-riding, ice skating, clay pigeon shooting, fishing (if my vegetarian wife will let me), to galleries and museums, libraries and workshops. Better that than pushing them to excel in a single discipline (unless they want to).
After all, most of us will eventually spend at least 10,000 hours becoming expert in something: work. If you are over the age of 25, chances are you have already invested 10,000 hours in developing your career skills and knowledge. Unfortunately the working day for most of us is so varied that it takes much longer than that before we can nail a single specific skill to expert level.
But at 32, I’m pleased to say I’m pretty confident in one or two aspects of my typical working day. And that is quite enough expertise for me.