You’ve heard it before: Don’t be a dabbler. Don’t be a dilettante. You need to specialize to offer something differentiated and stand out.
Without the refiner’s fire, the decades long perfection of technique, can there be value in understanding the simple conceptual basis for a given practice or skill?
Yes, in some sense there’s an infinite upside from doing so. I’ve found that a vast gulf exists between understanding the orienting principles of a discipline and knowing nothing about it. Maybe you feel gun shy about jumping into a new domain, feeling that you’ll never be able to master it and there’s no point in taking a half-measure. Even though I pride myself on being a jack of all trades, I know I’ve felt that before. Our feelings are leading us astray.
Nobel prize winning scientists are 2.85 times more likely than regular scientists to have hobbies that have nothing to do with their work. Having access to a wellspring of analogies and concepts gives you more ammunition to apply to your core discipline. It’s also fun, generative, and can transform your perception of the world in striking ways.
Here are some examples of how understanding a few basic concepts dramatically improved my ability in a given domain and provided me with rich generalizable principles, even if I fell short of ultimate mastery:
If you’ve ever tried jiujitsu you know how arduous and challenging it can be. It’s human chess, it’s a completely alien feeling when you start, you spend countless hours being choked out by people smaller and weaker than you, and there’s an infinite number of techniques you need to master in order to be competent.
But one orienting principle from the renowned John Danaher totally changed my game: Capture and maintain majority inside position.
One simple concept, but the shift in orientation you gain from knowing it is vast. It allows you to reason through scenarios that occur dynamically without prior technical knowledge. Will it make you a black belt? No. Technique is still essential. But does it dramatically shift your perception? Yes. It also has broad applicability. Does your company have a greater ability to move and maneuver than your competitor? How many points of control and leverage do you have, and what can you do right now to increase that number?
In programming, understanding a core concept like DRY — do not repeat yourself — informs and guides you in new scenarios. It won’t make you Donald Knuth, but it certainly unfolds a world of modularity, scalability, readability, and elegance, and informs the structure and functionality of your programs.
Again, the principle is broadly applicable. Where are redundancies, inefficiencies, and points of stasis in the rest of your life? Can you continue your workouts if a pandemic hits and the gym closes? Can you make a healthy breakfast for yourself on a business trip? How modular and scalable is your personal financial system? Can it handle an influx of cash?
Understanding that image-making involves the composition and decomposition of form into atoms of color, shape, line, light, and shadow is transformative. It doesn’t make you Rembrandt, but it does teach you a lot. It shows you that visual complexity arises from simplicity, that the brick and mortar of image-making is line and value, and that if something doesn’t look right there are several levers you can manipulate to climb the gradient towards an aesthetic maxima.
Basically, don’t be afraid to jump in and learn the basics of a new discipline. At the minimum, you’ll learn how to learn, cultivate beginner’s mind, and grapple with generative challenges. At best, you’ll learn orienting principles that change your perception of the world, make you much better at your core discipline through analogical enrichment, while making you infinitely better than you were at your tangential interest.
I was inspired to write this article by thinking about my experiences learning a range of skills in light of the book Range by David Epstein.
Let me know in the comments what you gained from your experiences with learning tangential or esoteric skills outside your core discipline.
And check out my website if you want.