Saturday, July 23, 2016

In Praise of Dilettantism; Or, Going Through "Phases" As Therapy

Those of us with wide-ranging interests can hit a wall at a certain age. As our career takes a greater share of our time, it becomes more difficult to escape noticing that some of our interests actually pay off in ways that directly improve our lives (like interest in the subject matter of our careers), as opposed to mere curiosity in things with neat-o factor but that are basically intellectual consumption goods. At a certain point, curiosity, praiseworthy though it is, just isn't good enough. It's against the backdrop of this conflict that some of us adopt and discard not just curiosities, but investments in communities and skills. Some of these quickly-jettisoned phases make it under the wire initially because they offer improvements to our perceived weaknesses, and while that is good enough at first, soon enough we encounter diminishing returns.

I'm posting this because this conflict engenders the adoption of certain kinds of new skills and activities at a certain age, and if this seems familiar, read on. (Intellectual mid-life crises? I won't say it but you can if you want.) For a concrete example: not long ago a retired friend of mine was going through a higher math phase. He was learning a lot of difficult, dense stuff that he'd always been interested in as a younger man - and I've had exactly the same urge on occasion - but he admitted to me a year ago that he was starting to question the rewards and his motivations in the first place. (I don't know if he's stuck with it.)

And I closely identified with him. Two years ago, I went through a chess phase. As with my friend, this was something I had wanted to do since college, and only once I was a couple months in to the daily games and studying did I begin to contemplate the massive amount of time and effort required to properly develop such a skill. After a beginner's bump, my Elo rating was frustratingly inert.

I revisited my motivation for learning chess, with renewed honesty. First, I thought the learning and improving at chess would improve my strategic thinking generally. Second (something which I could finally admit to myself) I could dump my long-standing inferiority complex around my ability to learn strategy games. As for the first point, I went looking for evidence that learning chess would in fact improve strategic thinking in some ways. What I found were some scattered results that there was an improvement in academic achievement in children learning chess, but nothing like general improvements in strategic thinking in a grown-ass man, other than at chess (duh). (Note: having done this kind of research for several such activities, one of the patterns that has emerged is that efficiencies in our thinking mostly do not generalize outside very limited, concrete domains as much as we would like to think. Even the famous N-back results for improving working memory have not generalized well.) As for the second point, I then asked myself if learning chess would only make me better at chess, did it really matter?

I am proud to say I quickly made the decision to quit, and have not played a game in almost 2.5 years. More importantly I'm not troubled that I made this decision. I'm actually quite proud, as you might guess by my taking the time to write about it in public. And in fact it's not the only recent instance of gleeful hobby-abandonment: I had a very similar experience with learning how to really hit a baseball for the first time at age 42. I hired a former pro to teach me for five lessons. Ridiculous? Maybe. Did I get much, much better at hitting? Yes! (Have you ever reliably hit overhand pitches from a pro? Didn't think so bro.) At this point, am I good enough to join even the recciest of rec leagues? Probably not. But most importantly, do I get mad thinking about how I could never hit a baseball when I see people playing baseball, or hear them talking about playing baseball? No, not anymore! And THAT is what I wanted. Who knows if I would improve my coordination or definition in my arms from hitting; I bet not, but anyway there are better ways of doing that.

A reader might think, "Well that's super, this guy is celebrating being a dilettante and/or quitter." For chess and baseball, yes, quitting is worth celebrating. And really, what would be the most contemptible outcome here, celebrating quitting, or a 40-year-old man suddenly deciding he's going to put his heart and soul into chess and baseball, activities for which the window of opportunity is long closed even if I'd ever had some innate advantage for either? (The fact that I don't is the whole reason I did these things.) There are more important things to commit to - in direct opposition to the flakiness described above, I take my marriage and my career very seriously and almost every day I literally measure how I'm improving at those.

My own focus here is that these (mercifully brief) phases let me jettison my concerns about things that, once I do them and improve a little, show that I did get better, but they weren't that important. I mostly want to recommend similar liberations to my fellow humans, since this process has certainly benefited me.