Pluripotency

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’m personally pretty invested in pluripotency: I like doing intentional/deliberate practice to get somewhat better at a lot of different stuff. This limits my ability to be excellent at any one thing though, forming a trade-off.

One recent example for me is digital painting. It is highly likely I’ll never be a great artist. But I find the process of improving at it super compelling anyways. But not dedicate-myself-to-it-for-life level of compelling.

It’s hard for me to say no to learning fun new things. This comes at the cost of depth. Generally, I’d rather spend 100 hours by spending 10 hours on 10 topics each, than 100 hours on 1 topic. There’s a possibility that noticing patterns or analogies between topics might help make them easier to learn, but I doubt that kind of analogy-forming process produces more expertise than simply spending more time on a single subject.

I do have things I focus on more than others, of course. Let’s say total devotees could spend all their time on one thing. The complete other end of the spectrum would be “spend a fraction of a second per day on each skill that exists”, which is absurd. In the real world, everyone occupies the middle.

Most of the progress people make is at the beginning of learning something. Going from Mary Had a Little Lamb to Fur Elise is easy. Going from Fur Elise to Fantaisie Impromptu is harder. Going from Fantaisie Impromptu to Carnegie Hall is incredibly difficult. I personally am most motivated while making tons of progress, and my need for novelty generally outweighs my desire to feel like I’m good at things.

All of this means I tend to spend a lot of time hanging out at the lower parts of many different learning curves. Maybe there’s something to the idea that finding connections between them has helped me transfer knowledge from one area to another? It’s nice to have the option of either struggling through a math book or expressing myself creatively through a mediocre drawing, but hard to pick one to give up, in order to make the other a better experience.

It seems like most “great” people are only great at one thing. Clearly, there’s a sort of time limit on improvement. If it takes many years to get great, it’s going to be tough to be great at more than a few things. This seems especially true the more specialized into niches the world gets (my vague impression is that specialization is increasing, but I have no real evidence of that).

Experts are impressive, and expertise is hyperspecific. I think broad-but-shallow can be impressive in its own way. However, breadth is mostly impressive in fields like dating, where well-roundedness is more helpful, since dating involves being interested in a whole person. It’s less so for careers, where typically skills at a relatively specialized task are what’s most important. It’s hard to imagine a job where being sorta-good at a bunch of different skills is required. For example, normally artists do art and programmers program, and if you want both, you hire two specialists rather than one half-artist half-programmer.

I don’t exactly know where the narrow expertise vs. broad dabbling spectrum falls for doing something great in the world. I’d guess that the people who “do something great” tend to be relatively narrow experts. However, from within the context of living a single life (as we all must), it seems somehow more appealing to dabble in many things. Nobody is completely focused on one skill, but the levels of skill inequality internal to a single person seem to vary significantly.

There’s a gulf between mediocrity and expertise, the crossing of which (in some field or other) could possibly make my life markedly better. However, it’s also hard to justify that kind of hunkering down vs. enjoying a variety of new things. I think I rarely take an interest far enough to have the kinds of opportunities experts have, but of course experts also generally only take one single interest far enough.

There’s another tough question here: how can people pick a single skill to focus on? If I haven’t focused on something, how can I know whether I’ll be able to focus on it? Do people really just pick what to focus on throughout their lives haphazardly, going off very little information?

Would things be better if I picked one thing and got great at it? I’m not sure. This is kind of the classic battle between enjoyment and improvement, except the enjoyment is wrapped up in low-level improvement (so it doesn’t feel like a waste or easy to give up, like, e.g. watching mindless TV all day).

Just some broad-yet-shallow thoughts on an interesting trade-off. I’m not an expert.