Sunday, December 18, 2011

What's Wrong With Dabbling?

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that becoming a world-class expert at anything is not just a matter of having innate genius. To become a great athlete, writer, musician, or even a master criminal, he argues, requires a minimum of ten thousand hours of practice. Even Mozart—who most people mistakenly believe sprung out of his mother’s womb a musical talent—spent much of his early life honing his musical gifts before he wrote his most impressive works.

If someone like Mozart needed ten thousand hours to become an expert in his field, then you can bet your sorry ass that you and I need at least as much time engaged in some consistent and intense sort of practice before we should even think of calling ourselves “experts” in any field of human endeavor.

Ten thousand hours. That’s a hell of a long time to spend focused on anything. Maybe that’s the reason why really talented people have such unbalanced lives: they’re so intent on perfecting their skills that everything else falls by the wayside. Relationships, fun little hobbies, family, the simple pleasures in life…all get tossed aside in the expert’s fanatical quest for perfection in his or her field. Experts also tend to be jerks, because with that ten thousand hours hanging over their heads, how could they possibly find the time to think about social niceties (as a case study, see “The Social Network”)?

If this is what it takes to be an expert, please forgive me, but, for now at least, I prefer to remain a devoted dabbler. There are simply too many fascinating things to explore in this short life of ours for me to have to commit myself exclusively to any one. I suppose that my career might have been more successful if I was able to focus on any one of the jobs I held since I began my professional life: high school teacher, campus minister, director of religious education, director of service-learning, director of international education, director of the first year experience, professor of philosophy and ethics, and now publisher. Perhaps if I had committed myself to any one of these positions—or at least spent Gladwell’s ten thousand hours perfecting my skills at any one of them—I might be renowned in at least one field of human endeavor, instead of “being all over the map,” as one very charming administrator at my college so aptly put it.

I should also confess that, even when it comes to my hobbies, I’ve demonstrated an equally passionate fear of commitment. In my adult life, I spent years at a time studying (not in any particular order of importance) Franciscan spirituality, photography, the Beat Generation, Roman intellectual thought, web design, ecotourism, zoysia propagation, veganism, Eastern religion (including, at one time or another, Zen, Vipassana, Tibetan Buddhism, and Vedanta), the Counterculture, Augustinian eudemonistic theory, 1930s screwball comedies, the Venician art of the cicchetti, Belgian beer production, Buddhist iconography, perennial plant science, abstract and minimalist art, acid-alkaline food combining, the music of Bob Dylan (for four entire years!), communitarian theory, voluntary simplicity, and book design. Whew! It took a lot to get all of that out.

I guess you could say that, if anyone fits the bill of a consummate dabbler, then that would most certainly be me.

Now, Gladwell probably would argue that this lust for pursuing whatever fancy caught my attention throughout the years came at a tragic price: because I never spent enough time perfecting my skills in any one area, I never really developed the mastery required to become an expert at anything. And he’s probably right about that.

But I think that there is an advantage to being a dabbler that Gladwell overlooks. Dabblers often can be proficient enough in so many areas that they can move almost seamlessly from one to another as needed in life or in their careers. Experts can’t do that. If you are an expert, as we’ve seen, it means you probably are inept in most other areas of your life because of the time commitment involved in attaining mastery. That’s no problem if you have a career that pays well, is fairly stable, and brings you long-term happiness. But, if any of these turn out not to be the case, the expert is screwed. He has nowhere else to go.

The dabbler has another advantage that the expert lacks: he may have a perspective on a broad spectrum of human thought and experience that makes him a go-to guy when the experts are puzzled. Many problems that we face in the 21st century are so complex and so interconnected that it often takes someone with the kind of expansive vision that comes from dabbling to see how all the “pieces of the puzzle fit together.” That’s precisely the kind of vision that the expert most decidedly lacks.

So consummate dabbling may not be as much of a problem as some people make it out to be, and it may, in fact, have certain advantages over maniacal specialization.

This position seems to be supported by the philosopher, Plato. In the Republic, Plato maintained that his Philosopher-Kings would only be chosen after the age of 50, when after a lifetime of education and rich experience, they would be in an ideal position to rule the polis—to become political experts, in other words. Plato’s Philosopher-Kings, then, would spend the first fifty years of their lives essentially dabbling. Of course, they’d be studying philosophy intensely, but the educational program that Plato provided for them insured that they’d probably be fairly well versed in just about every other subject imaginable as well. It is precisely this sort of broad training that guaranteed that the Philosopher-Kings would have the wherewithal to govern competently, while their philosophical expertise guaranteed that they’d govern justly.

I’ll be turning 50 myself in a few years (heavy sigh!), but until then, I plan to heed Plato’s advice. I’ll continue to joyously dabble, as I’ve always done, study subjects that interest me at any given time, learn any skills that I think might benefit me or my students, and write about whatever damn well pleases me. If I ever get appointed Philosopher-King, I’ll leave my dabbling behind and grudgingly become an “expert,” if that’s what’s required of me. In the absence of that sort of mandate, I might very well remain an inveterate dabbler for the rest of my life.

Who knows: I might even become the world’s first expert dabbler!


  1. we wouldn't be able to solve any serious problems at all if there weren't at least a few experts around. i agree that experts can get trapped in their own areas of specialization, but sometimes you need specialists to solve big problems. i don't think dabblers for example are going to solve the problem of climate change.

  2. You know who you are describing, don't you? Newt Gingrich. Here's how he is described in a recent New York Times article:

    "People who have worked with him say that he can't do justice to any one initiative because he can't hold any one thought. There are too many others rushing along, and he must pay each proper reverence, because no matter how eccentric it is, it's his."

    I think you've found your next presidential candidate to support!

    Gary (aka Narcissus)