“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”
In the not so distant past, it was often said that “A jack of all trades is the master of none”. That was when specialization was highly valued in society, and individuals were rewarded for their expertise in a single domain.
The times they are a-changin’, as more and more research suggest that the biggest creative breakthroughs can be traced back to the generalists — People who, while they may have their “main” domain that they work in, they are also good in other things and have a wide range of interests.
As David Epstein suggested in his book, Range, “Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. Our most fundamental thought processes have changed to accommodate increasing complexity and the need to derive new patterns rather than rely only on familiar ones.”
Having a multitude of skills allows you to make new connections between the different domains, thus enabling you to see things from unique perspectives. That is how you develop your own authentic voice.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, jumping back and forth in different domains helps to prevent burnout, and it keeps the mind going in a healthy way. In the ancient days, that’s what leisure meant — Putting your work down when you feel exhausted, and occupying yourself with a hobby for you to find ease and comfort in. Today, the word “leisure” probably just means binging on Netflix or sleeping 20 hours a day.
That’s why it’s important to have hobbies, or as Austin Kleon put it, “Something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy.”
Just to make yourself happy. When you eventually make creative discoveries, it’s a by-product of that.
It’s no accident that a great majority of the most successful people we know are generalists.
The Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov was a full time medical doctor who wrote in his free time. Just as he would examine a patient with such care, he observed human nature in great depth. The doctor and writer in him worked together as he approached his writing scientifically — Structuring them into stages and working out a methodology for the artistic execution of each part.
Shedding some light on his seemingly double life, he said, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other. Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity.”
Winston Churchill, who lived an overwhelmingly busy life in politics, took up painting, among many other hobbies. He credited having his moments of clarity to the patient art, as he said, “If it weren’t for painting, I wouldn’t live; I couldn’t bear the extra strain of things.”
Albert Einstein was famous for his love of music, as it often helped him when he was stuck in formulating his theories of relativity. As his wife, Elsa said, “He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.”
John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s creative beginnings were not only in music, as they would play their guitars head to head, learn new chords, watch and criticize one another. The biographer Hunter Davies noted, “They also wrote short stories together, which indicates that their creative urges were not solely directed towards pop songs. John of course was writing nonsense verse, jokes and cartoons from an early age — Many of which later emerged in his books of poems.”
Dexter Holland, the vocalist for the punk rock band The Offspring, is also a PhD holder in molecular biology, a licensed pilot, and owns his own hot sauce brand, Gringo Bandito. Even though he wrote songs about hating school, he graduated from high school as class valedictorian, and was the top student in mathematics in his year, as he found it “just as exciting as punk rock.”
The author Ryan Holiday believes that writers live interesting lives. They open themselves up to crazy new ideas and experiences, and that’s how they have interesting things to say. And that’s true, no matter what domain you’re focused in.
Try to give yourself the humble start of picking up a new interest outside your main domain. Learn to cook, even if you’re still afraid to turn on the gas stove. Learn to play a musical instrument. Gain even a tiny bit of knowledge of a domain you know next to nothing about — Maybe it’s finance, economics, or engineering. You get the point. Keep experimenting, because that’s really the only way to know what you like or don’t like.
Keep all your passions in your life, and just keep spending time with them. “Let them talk to each other,” as Steven Tomlinson said. “Something will begin to happen.”
And throughout it all, be brave.
There’s a great chance you’re going to fall on your knees when you try to create something unique that’s borne out of your interests and passions, and that’s alright. It’s all part of learning anyway.
Chuck Palahniuk once shared a story about what he learned from Brad Pitt on failure. He said, “When we were making Fight Club, Brad Pitt had made some movies he wasn’t particularly happy with — One was Meet Joe Black — And he said every movie is the antidote to the one you just made; that the real blessing of failure is that it is the only thing that gives you the isolation and time to reinvent yourself. If you’re moving from success to success, you don’t have that daydreaming period that will allow you to come up with something new and unique.”
So keep daydreaming, and of course, never stop creating.