Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Advice for the purposeful dilettante

I ran across an article in the Economist lamenting the decline of the polymath. The article described the traditional polymath as a person with comprehensive knowledge of all or many fields. The article also briefly profiled prominent polymaths of the past and then discussed how difficult it is in the present for one to be a polymath. The main problem is that the sum total of knowledge has grown exponentially. Our era is one of specialists.

The article also described the phenomenon of specialists trying to keep generalists out of their field. When a newcomer arrives, the specialists often deride him as a dilettante. The dilettante is meant as a pejorative term. A dilettante, or dabbler, is considered beneath contempt because he has not paid his dues. Nevertheless, it is this dilettante whom I wish to defend.

Before I go too far, though, I should describe what I mean by purposeful. No question, there are aimless dabblers who never accomplish anything. But I do not want to completely disparage such dabblers. I often am one myself. Sometimes aimless contemplation after some hard work leads to serendipitous discovery. If it involves only a minor portion of your waking moments, a time of playful reflection refreshes one's labors.

And failing to accomplish something can be a distracting accusation. I have rarely been persuaded that accomplishment praised by others is necessarily most important. If I seek to understand a particular field to a greater extent than I did before, what business is it of the world whether I accomplish anything objective in that field? If my purpose is personal edification, then I have accomplished that goal. I have also laid a foundation for future building.

The key is "purpose." Random dabbling without a purpose is a waste of time. Psalm 90:12 is a prayer that God would "teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." Certainly this should be a primary goal.

One of the creation ordinances is to subdue the earth. This implies work, focus, and diligence. Those three factors, I believe, provide useful guidance to determine whether your dabbling is purposeful.

Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were called to tend and keep the garden. By extension and express command, we are called to tend and keep the earth. This means that we are to learn whatever we can about creation. It is obvious, being finite beings, that we cannot know everything there is to know or do everything to be done. But the division of labor implied by our commanded task does not mean that we are to ignore everything but our own little sphere of interest. The purposeful dilettante, as a generalist, attempts to keep up with the broad understanding of all his fields of interest. Because there are too many details, he must be a master of succinct summary.

One advantage the purposeful dilettante has over the specialist is that he can remain below the radar, as it were. He is not defending his lofty position from other competitors. If the purposeful dilettante can remain sufficiently aware of developments in his chosen fields of interest he can see what is being ignored. He can apply insights gleaned from other fields to unworked ground. By building a modest body of work in a neglected area, the dilettante may actually end up being considered a specialist. Should the dilettante be able to do this in several different areas, he may be consulted as a comprehensive genius. So, while the purposeful dilettante may not be driven by ambitiously craving objective accomplishment, diligent and focused work may lead to it all the same. The crucial point is that he is driven by what interests him, not what he thinks can bring him acclaim. Acclaim is a pleasant potential byproduct.

I have read that it only requires roughly 10% more effort than average to accomplish significant things. That figure may be high. I have observed in my own life that adding one half hour each day to a particular and focused activity provides me good progress. A half-hour is only 6% more of an eight hour workday. Yet, by using a half-hour per day for only a matter of weeks, I was able to learn the Hebrew alphabet and a significant amount of Hebrew vocabulary. After a month or so of consistent half-hour periods, I had learned enough Hebrew to be able to read the Hebrew Bible at perhaps a fourth-grade level. I'm still progressing.

Similarly, in the past, one half hour of consistent practice on the organ or harpsichord has yielded remarkable progress (for less than talented me). I can say the same thing about calculus, physics, Greek, and many other fields of endeavor. Consistent half-hour periods of focus allowed me to understand computer programming, complex software, political history, theology, and many other areas of knowledge.

I also know that a half-hour of dictation yields something around 1000 words. Of course, these words require editing and that requires additional time. But the thoughts are down on paper and available as material for further work. The only thing that limits my edification and growth is failing at diligence. And here is the other key point: native intelligence and brilliance are less important than diligence. I cannot change my native intelligence, but diligence is completely within my control.

So, in the end, the purposeful dilettante is purposeful because he is diligent. Advice for the aimless yet restless: follow whatever interests you. Follow it diligently. Ignore the name-calling from the specialists and press on. Your passion and your work is the reward. Should external recognition arrive, it is a blessing from God.


Lauren said...

Well, from a once and eternal fellow dilettante, I say this is precious exhortation, as well as vindication.

Sadly, I have known many specialists who simply lack the breadth to attain the agenda of competence. Competence is necessarily a comprehensive thing, and this is something vastly underestimated in our specialized world.

Jerr Dunlap said...

Thank you for your thoughtful post. I'm a jack of all trades and while many are more accoplished than I, my skills are appreciated precisely because I give good, sound advice and work that doesn't need redoing. I think the poo-pooing you mention comes from small people. I couldn't agree more with your putting steady work into something extra and I've been gaining results from that as you are. I'm looking forward to following your blog.
Excellent comment on competence, Lauren.
- Jerr