We Don't Respect Dilettantes

Published April 29, 2019

A few years ago I was in the midst of a long walk through an area north of the Arctic circle. In the evenings I would read before falling asleep and I’d like to share this passage about a dream Rosanne Cash (singer/songwriter) once had which has stuck with me ever since:

Just as I was beginning to record King’s, I had read an interview with her in which she said that in committing to artistic growth, you had to “refine your skills to support your instincts.” This made such a deep impression on me that I clipped the article to save it.

A short time after that, I dreamed I was at a party, sitting on a sofa with Linda and an elderly man who was between us. His name, I somehow knew, was Art. He and Linda were talking animatedly, deeply engrossed in their converstion. I tried to enter the discussion and made a comment to the old man.

He turned his head slowly from Linda to me and looked me up and down with obvious disdain and an undisguised lack of interest. “We don’t respect dilettantes,” he spat out, and turned back to Linda.

Cash writes, upon awakening, she was filled with humiliation. She had written a few songs with some success but it felt false somehow. So, she changed her approach. Back to this in a bit.

I had many silent hours to answer questions as I walked. Was I actually good at the things I felt good at? Did I deserve to feel prideful of any of my life? How much time had I put into it? Will I be happy with the results in five years if I continue with my current habits?

Picture of the Kungsleden, which I took on my first walk in 2016

In the spirit of honesty the short answer was, “No.”

Up until that point, my life was a series of deep obsessions yet I didn’t feel steady in any of them. I was a dilettante, and like Rosanne, I wanted to change my tactics.

True mastery is hard. It doesn’t take a random 10,000 hours. It takes a very specific 10,000 hours and even so, 10,000 hours is a median not a rule.1 You can be the person who takes 20,000 hours or 8000 hours and there’s a statistically large possibility you aren’t going to be the cream of the crop.

The 10,000 hours require you to pay attention to how you learn. The harder the challenge, the more you learn. Except… we’re wired to stay comfortable. People remain in the same spot for years in sports, academia, and in the professional realm.

I strongly believe this after years of being a lifelong student: if you are comfortable, you’re not learning. As my friend Ilia said to me last week, “Comfort is a bitch.”

Back to Rosanne,

From that moment I changed the way I approached songwriting, I changed how I sang, I changed my work ethic, and I changed my life.

The strong desire to become a better songwriter dovetailed perfectly with my budding friendship with John Stewart[…], [he] encouraged me to expand the subject matter in my songs, as well as my choice of language and my mind.

I played new songs for him and if he thought it was too “perfect,” which was anathema to him, he would say, over and over, “but where’s the MADNESS, Rose?” I started looking for the madness. I sought out Marge Rivingston in New York to work on my voice and I started training, as if I were a runner, in both technique and stamina. […]

I started paying attention to everything, both in the studio and out. […] Instead of toying with ideas, I examined them, and I tested the authenticity of my instincts musically. I stretched my attention span consciously. I read books on writing […] and began to self-edit and refine more, and went deeper into every process involved with writing and musicianship.

I had awakened from the morphine sleep of success into the life of an artist.

Rosanne is talking about something which a lot of us are afraid to address: if I’m being honest with myself, am I a dilettante? I think we often hide from the responsibility of mastery with excuses which seem reasonable in isolation yet fall apart when examined as a pattern.

I, myself, had done a very good job at going deeper than most but not going deep enough in anything. I went shallow-deep into beauty photography, management, writing, bodybuilding, and a host of other subjects but I never applied myself to the fullest extent I knew I could have.

In the past few years I have pushed myself further and further into discomfort. I am determined for the next phase of my life to reflect my commitment. It’s not for the respect of an old dream-man named Art, though, it’s for me: I don’t want to live a life of a dilettante.

1 Let's not even get into Malcolm Gladwell misinterpreting the 10,000 hours study itself... something acknowledged by the author of the paper, Anders Ericsson.