Focus; Not Focus
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
–Robert A. Heinlein
After my last stay in the hospital, I (and the Therapist Who Abandoned Me) decided I needed to focus on how to “get out of my head by using my hands.” We hoped that doing so would, not-so-coincidentally, help me take a few steps down the path of enjoying process more and worrying about product less. My inability to just enjoy doing something without worrying about becoming really good–if not the best–at it was not just crippling, but potentially lethal. Not only is all the enjoyment sucked out of an activity by the unnecessary pressure to be great at it, but even that was short-circuited by my debilitating worrying about whether I even had the potential to be great at something.
The complete cycle goes something like this:
- Discover something cool; interest engaged.
- Deep exploration and research.
- Start trying it myself.
- Seek out communities based on my new interest.
- Become obsessed over equipment and materials.
- Make/do less and less; read, research, purchase more and more.
- Realize pretty much everyone else out there is better than I am.
- Make/do even less.
- Realize even the mythical 10,000 hours of practice aren’t likely to result in me being as good as I want to be.
- Fade to black; move on to something else.
The logical fallacy in my thinking is obvious–how can I know what my potential is and what I might be able to accomplish if I spent those thousands of hours practicing and working?–but I still have a hard time escaping the cycle. Head, meet heart.
A good part of the problem is ego. I want to be known (and remembered) for something; I don’t want to be just another failure who never lived up to his potential (whatever that potential might be).
But another, related part of the problem is a widespread dismissiveness about being a generalist. Unless you are in that 1/10 of the top 1% brilliant, being a polymath (much less an autodidact polymath) is a failure not a mark of distinction.
How often do you hear the title “Jack of All Trades” used in an admiring way, even if the rest of the phrase, “Master of None,” is left out of muttered under one’s breath?
Does it have to be that way? Should it be that way? Being called a JoAT used to be a good thing. While there are many variations on the aphorism to be found, the complete phrase actually goes:
Jack of all trades, master of none,
Certainly better than a master of one
Given how much more information there is around us, how many more opportunities for engagement there are, and the increased ease with which we can explore and become part of multiple communities beyond those in which we live physically, isn’t there a good argument to be made for the increasing importance of the generalist?
It’s certainly more realistic. Scott Adams, who is no slouch, writes:
“If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:
- Become the best at one specific thing.
- Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.
The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.
The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort.”
Perhaps if there’s a final grand reckoning–some intellectual rapture–the specialists will be seated at a higher table than the generalists and have to work that much harder to fend off the attentions of the intellectual groupies. But for now, on this corporeal plane, I need to deal with the realities of who I am and the task of quieting (or throttling) my egomaniacal inner critic.
Tim Ferris, who I know very little about beyond his being the author of some books I’ve irrationally resisted reading, caught my attention with this tidbit:
“Be too complex to categorize.”
Perhaps the “real” reason I’ve always been–and will probably remain–a JoAT is I simply lack the talent to be a specialist. Other possible reasons: I’m naturally slothful, I’m afraid of success, or I’ve been cursed.
Whatever the reasons, being a generalist is not the same as being a multi-specialist, which is where my head tends to want to go. Wanting the best of both approaches leads to living in the worst of both worlds. I started writing this thinking I needed to focus because I’ve been feeling a bit like poor Bilbo Baggins, bearing the hidden weight of the ring:
“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
I too am feeling stretched out and thin. But now I’m wondering if the answer isn’t to be found not in focusing on one thing, but in focusing on learning to accept not focusing.
There’s nothing wrong with having many interests if I can allow myself to enjoy them. It’s OK that I am, by random turn and flurry, interested in origami, coffee, baking, fountain pens, bookbinding and paper art. I don’t need to pursue something “significant” to the rest of the world when I can pursue many smaller somethings that are of interest to me and allow me to spend more time living and less time wishing I were dead. I can be complex without being significant…if I can squeeze the life out the feelings that significance is all that matters–the feelings that creep up and ruin a perfectly good hour, morning or day with despair-inducing questions like “why does this matter at all?”
The idea of focusing on not-focusing has the irresistible, pleasant air of Zen-koan-like impossibility about it. So it is resolved. I will become a specialist in generalism. I will ease up on myself and let myself enjoy what I enjoy…even if in doing so I’m not “going anywhere,” and even if those pursuits seem silly and trivial to other people.