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Master of none: on coming to terms with being average at everything

On Monday I lay awake thinking about people who score two million on Nuts![1], the mobile game where you run a squirrel up a tree that never ends in search of stolen picnic items.

On a good day with a well-rested squirrel, I luck out at 2,000 points. I am terrible at it. But two million? You don’t score two million on Nuts! by accident. It takes a keen mind and a special diet. It takes a coach and a regimen. These people wake at four every morning on a mission to be the best in the world. They down their protein shakes, stare into the mirror, and chant their mantra: “We are young. We are free. We’ll put squirrels up a tree!”

I picture the weary savant piped into his food tubes and waste disposal unit, running squirrels up an infinite tree for five straight years. He squints as reporters crowd him and flashguns fire. “Why do you do it?” one of them says. “Why run squirrels up a tree?”

“Because it’s there, man.” he says. “Because it’s there.” The guy doesn’t need a reason. The best in the world do their thing until they can’t not do it. Until it hurts to stop. Until the bits everyone else finds boring become fascinating: a crash-bang-wallop of tiny-crazy puzzles to solve on the path to cash out or burn out; ultimate wisdom and blinding stardom a hair’s width away from it all being a terrible distraction. A wasted life.

And suddenly I feel better again. Better for being bad at it. Better for not having dedicated my life to a digital tree rat; for stepping off the razor’s edge; for having space for something else. I confess: I am only just learning, at 35, what that something else might be. But one thing is certain: it has everything to do with not putting squirrels up trees.

Why not me?

I have always been fascinated by the chemistry of success. Not enough to actively excel at anything, you understand, but enough to admire the successful from a safe distance, where their genius is in no danger of rubbing off on me. Every rising star adds to my list of quandaries — how does a kid become a chess grandmaster at the age of 13? How can you decide to be an astronaut aged five and go on to make it happen? How can an indie author appear to go from nothing to a million dollar book deal within a year? Why aren’t any of these people me?

The answer is often that they had help from a young age, they practised a lot in the company of people who were better than them, their field is one that rewards such practise, their small victories were fun enough not to give up, and they found the right people to grow and break out. But there is more to it than that, otherwise we would have more Mozarts and Musks, and fewer people who feel lost in life: there is the question of why they become consumed by that thing at all. How did they know that was the thing for them? What stopped them skittishly adopting other pursuits their whole life?

A minor factor that prevents me from being the best in the world at any one thing is that I am hopelessly fickle.

I’m familiar with the look from friends and family as I announce each new pursuit: “It’s like I was born to do it,” I tell them. “As soon as I put on the leotard, I knew.” Each time the response is the same. It's an expression that says, If only he would commit to one thing. Maybe then he wouldn’t be such a terrible failure.

Whenever I start to get good at something — the point normally characterised by someone leaning over and whispering, “you’re getting good at this, you know – you should keep at it” — I will question it mercilessly as if they seek to trick me, and invariably I’ll give up. “Maybe I could be a chess grandmaster,” I’ll think. But why chess? Why not badminton? Or the ocarina?

By the time you get so good at something you realise you need to push other things out of your life to get even better, it is hard to shake the feeling that spending that much time on any one thing is insane. And this idea — this brain snake of a notion that intense dedication is unhealthy in some way — soon becomes seductive. It becomes a convenient excuse not to practise. To do anything instead.

A Dilbert cartoon. Dilbert says, 'Studies say it takes ten thousand hours of practice to be great at anything'. Dogbert replies, 'I would think a willingness to practice the same thing for ten thousand hours is a mental disorder.' Dilbert says, 'That makes me feel better about my mediocrity,' to which Dogbert replies, 'You're welcome'.
DILBERT © 2013 Scott Adams. Used by permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.


Writer and poet Robert Twigger goes further:

There is often something rather obvious about people with narrow interests — they are bores, and bores always lack a sense of humour. They just don’t see that it’s absurd to devote your life to a tiny area of study and have no other outside interests. [3]

There is a more generous term than “bore” for this — an idiot savant — a “person who is highly knowledgeable about one subject but knows little about anything else”[4], and it’s bestowed on characters we admire in spite of their ignorance. Here is Conan Doyle’s description of Sherlock Holmes through the eyes of Watson:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the Earth travelled round the Sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.[5]

It is easy to seek validation for our lack of focus from cartoons, to label the dedicated as boring, or to giggle at those who hold huge gaps in world knowledge through choice, all in an effort to make ourselves feel better. But let’s be bolder. Let us explore the idea of dedicating our own lives to a thing, like those folk who seem to have their shit together. Because they are the ones who often exude a sense of wonder and joy for life — a joy you are free to find irritating or infectious at your leisure.

Why not just pick something?

What makes someone pick a thing and keep going with it? Don’t they struggle with their identities too? Yes! Vincent van Gogh called it, “the soul’s struggle of two people”:

I know the soul’s struggle of two people: Am I a painter or not? Of Rappard[6] and of myself — a struggle, hard sometimes, a struggle which accurately marks the difference between us and certain other people who take things less seriously; as for us, we feel wretched at times; but each bit of melancholy brings a little light, a little progress…[7]

I envy Van Gogh because I often find my own soul in a struggle of as many as 12 people. To have a simple binary choice of, “am I a painter or not?” instead of a lengthy iteration over, “am I a painter or doctor or lawyer or…” would be glorious! But it is warming to see others going through the same crisis; to learn of hidden conflict in folk who seem outwardly clear of their purpose; to find doubt in those remembered because they kept going and never “lost interest in the third act”, to use the words of Milton Glaser[8]. Anyone who carries both doubt and superhuman persistence is not a bore to me — they are fascinating and worth studying and celebrating.

That quasi-brain-dead desire to persist found in people who spend their lives getting good at things feels like part of the secret to a rich existence. How to imitate it? The cellist Pablo Casals, asked at the age of 80 why he still bothers practising every day said, “Because I think I am making progress.” [9]

The same gentle wisdom pervades film and literature too. Here’s Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump:

“They just couldn’t believe that someone would do all that running for no reason. I figured, I got this far, I might as well keep on going.”

There is magic in the Gump philosophy — it suggests the trick is not to question “why painting?” or “why the cello?” or “why practise at all?” The trick is to recognise the effort you’ve put in so far — and, if you still find it interesting — to keep going. To take one more step. To find “a little light” in every victory. To compound progress into what others may come to misconstrue as genius.

But what if it’s wrong?

To move from good to great, it seems you have to embrace the idea that, yes, there are a thousand pursuits that would merrily vacuum your free time, but your current focus is as irrational as the others — at the scale of a dot on a chunk of molten rock, at least. Provided it does not make you or others ill or destitute or otherwise miserable, you may as well keep at it rather than start afresh as a beginner in something else.

The idea is at the heart of So Good They Can’t Ignore You[10] by Cal Newport:

I am suggesting that you put aside the question of whether your job is your true passion, and instead turn your focus toward becoming so good they can’t ignore you. That is, regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.

This is compelling because it frees you from chasing rainbows. But the advice to “do what you do, but better” can be hard to swallow, at least for me. What if I might have a more natural affinity for some other pursuit I have not tried yet? Are some pursuits not more noble than others? What if I get to the end of my life only to find I’ve dedicated it to the wrong thing entirely? Or to something that did more harm than good in the world? And what of the great polymaths of history — the Da Vincis and the Goethes, who appeared to achieve greatness at many things? Will I regret leading a one-track life? These conundrums can paralyse, but they need not. Khaled Hosseini offers this:

They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.[11]

If we can accept that we may not know what our life was for until the end anyway — that discovering your passion is a reflective act emerging naturally from exploration and self-discovery, and not a daily question you should feel pressure to resolve — then perhaps we can forgive ourselves for not dwelling on the decision; for having the courage to embrace a thing when it captures our interest, or a small handful of things. If we like, we can pretend we were born to do those things so that we might convince others of the same — so that we may even come to persuade ourselves.

How to choose?

“Well that sounds fine”, you might say, “but how do I pick something to start with?”

The answer seems to be to sample things, and then commit to something — a thing you like better than other things that feels worthy of your time.

Gary Vaynerchuk was asked what people should do if they haven’t found something to do with their lives. “Taste, taste, taste,” he says:[12]

What you need to do is taste everything. It’s kind of like food. You don’t know what your favourite food is if you only eat one food. …try to taste everything, play with everything, figure out what you might be good at, and then you make a decision. [13]

The Stoics had a similar take, substituting tasting for testing:

For self-knowledge, testing is necessary; no one can discover what they can do except by trying.
— Seneca

And here’s Van Gogh in that rambling, beautiful letter to his brother again:

What shall I do now? The common phrase is, “What is your aim, what are your aspirations?” Oh, I shall do as I think best — how? I can’t say that beforehand — you who ask me that pretentious question, do you know what your aim is, what your intentions are?

Now they tell me, “You are unprincipled when you have no aim, no aspirations.”

My answer is, I didn’t tell you I had no aim, no aspirations, I said it is the height of conceit to try to force one to define what is indefinable. …

Live — do something — that is more amusing, that is more positive. In short — one must of course give Society its due, but at the same time feel absolutely free, believing not in one’s own judgment, but in “reason” (my judgment is human, reason is divine, but there is a link between the one and the other), and that my own conscience is the compass which shows me the way, although I know that it does not work quite accurately.

And this:

If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter,” then by all means paint, boy, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working. He who goes to friends and tells his troubles when he feels like that loses part of his manliness, part of the best that’s in him; your friends can only be those who themselves struggle against it, who raise your activity by their own example of action. One must undertake it with confidence, with a certain assurance that one is doing a reasonable thing, like the farmer drives his plough, or like our friend in the scratch below, who is harrowing, and even drags the harrow himself.

A plan emerges, then: Accept that you cannot know your purpose — you cannot know what you want to be, only what you want to do for now. Those you revere grasped a thing that meshed with their core values and beliefs and their sense of what is fun and worthwhile. So pick something and attack it confidently, find pleasure in getting good at it, find mentors, and surround yourself with people going through that same struggle so you might elevate each other. You will doubt yourself, but working at becoming better may help to quieten the inner critic.

And “live — do something”. Let life in! Taste and test. Then find the courage to commit to a thing, fully accepting that it is not necessarily the thing but merely a reasonable thing, in Vincent’s words.

Richard Feynman — a man who passionately played the bongos in between lecturing and winning a Nobel Prize in Physics — offered much the same advice. Like so much of his teaching, he puts it in a way that is so plain it feels obvious:

Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.

And if you never truly master one thing? So what! At least you can live a life doing things you enjoy in the company of others who love those things too. What a gift that is.

But those idiot savants and squirrel chasers are not nuts after all — they just fell in love with a thing and kept running up that tree, and running, and running, and…

  1. Nuts! by Limbic Games, for iOS and Android. ↩︎

  2. For an interesting counterpoint to Gladwell’s oft-quoted “10,000 hours to mastery” idea, I recommend Peak, which suggests that getting good is more nuanced than focussed practise for a set time. ↩︎

  3. From “Master of many trades”, an essay extolling the virtues of blending multiple hobbies and disciplines. ↩︎

  4. Definition of idiot savant from Merriam Webster. ↩︎

  5. From A Study In Scarlet, Chapter II. ↩︎

  6. Anthon van Rappard was a Dutch painter and friend of Van Gogh. ↩︎

  7. Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother, Theo, via WebExhibits. ↩︎

  8. Milton Glaser speaking in an interview for Adobe by Hillman Curtis. ↩︎

  9. Via Quote Investigator. ↩︎

  10. So Good They Can’t Ignore You — “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love”, by Cal Newport. ↩︎

  11. From “And the mountains echoed” by Khaled Hosseini. ↩︎

  12. Gary Vaynerchuk in “The Key to Finding Your Passion”. ↩︎

  13. Gary again in “Try New Shit”. ↩︎

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Nick Cernis

About the author

Nick Cernis is a software developer writing about code, web culture, and surviving the internet age. Contact him here or learn more.