The Dangers of Dabbling

You may be good at several things.  You may be one of those “creative types” who cooks and weaves and writes poetry and plays the ukulele. I’m there. I am a dabbler in all sorts of things. I love plunging into new skills, learning the basics of HTML5, then editing film, then painting with gouache, then roasting a chicken.

But I know, not even that deep down, that I am not getting all I can out of any of these skills. That I am still envious when I see someone doing something truly great at which I am only marginal. I know they are getting far more out of this art than I am.

Being great at something takes work.

Doesn’t matter how talented, how smart, how connected you are, you have to focus and work to refine you skills and your vision. That can be painful at times; how much easier to find another meadow to graze in.

Here’s an interesting phenomenon: the famous, would-be poly-tasker. Michael Jordan leaving the NBA to play baseball for one dismal season. Eddie Murphy recording a disco album. Fame brings opportunity: who was gonna tell Allan Iverson not to record a gangsta rap album? When Picasso read his poetry at Gertrude Stein’s salon, she said “Pablo, stick to painting.” And then there’s James Franco. But being a genius in one field doesn’t effortlessly make you Leonardo.

I wonder how many people get sidetracked from their true calling by the fact that they have talent to excel at more than one artistic medium. This is a curse rather than a blessing. If you have only one option, you can’t make a wrong choice. If you have two options, you have a fifty percent chance of being wrong.
— Twyla Tharp

I’m not saying, “Stick to your knitting.” It’s quite possible you don’t need to excel at at one thing, that you are content playing the field. For you, creativity is just a hobby, and you don’t want to invest in any particular medium or metier. If so, good on ya — but know what you are giving up. When you focus on the thing that you were born to do, work hard and really push yourself, you will find new pleasures, deeper, richer, more fulfilling experiences that dabbling will never provide.

Do some self-examination and listen for your true calling. What do you feel in your marrow? And are you investing all you need to to achieve your own personal form of Greatness® there?

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53 thoughts on “The Dangers of Dabbling”

  1. Ouch! I’m an insane dabbler -no! I don’t dabble I plunge right to the bottom of every pool that beguiles me. I stitch, I paint, I clown. I fall head first in love with every new shiny thing. I’m 63. Am I likely to change? Some things I stick to -my writing, my drawing, my photography and my Buddhist practice. The rest come and go in seasons of fancy – the year I knit 43 hats, a quilt on a frame, teaching myself the piano. Now I’m relearning how to ride a bike. I taught myself how to make pasta, hand rolled. I have a fear that I’ll run out of life before I’ve tried everything I want to. When I was 12 I went with my family to the Mexican border. We traveled into Tijuana and saw a glass blowing factory. A large family, all men, from 8 to 90, all dedicated to one craft. I was gobsmacked. Loved it, but I think I knew, even then, that wasn’t my road. Could it be that while others might see me as a dabbler I am in truth a highly accomplished life artist?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I hear you !! I have a two year lead on you and I’m still trying to learn one new art or craft that’ll be my calling !

      Like

  2. This is a really interesting piece. My brain is curious about a range of things and my creative brain similarly splits itself between a number of things. However, in the past few years I really have found myself focus more and more on my drawing (I work primarily in ink) so I’ve pursued that. Even then, however, I’m a dabbler: trying out mixed media, trying to improve my painting skills. It’s like my creative brain defies me when I try to focus it. Now that I’ve read your blog article I wonder if I’m subconsciously being “Jack of all trades and master of none” out of some degree of fear – what if I find I have no actual talent? What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m wasting my time? Thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s me. For the last five years my tubes of paint have been turning into rocks while I’ve learned to play the guitar. At 70 I know I’ll never become a vertuoso but I don’t care, I love what I’m doing now. I write poetry, I write songs (with melodies that were not stolen from Marvin Gay) and still dabble in art. Sometimes when I’m stuck on finding the right words, a little time spent sketching helps me out. But I’ve always been this way. Maybe it’s because I’m ambidextrous too. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’ve been a dabbler most of my life, and dabbling in drawing for about the last 4 or 5 years. I couldn’t figure out just what it was I wanted to do with my drawing until I just recently realized, after taking the Storytelling klass, that I already have a purpose for it. For the past 3 1/2 years, I’ve been illustrating all of the envelopes and most of the postcards I send out to penpals– around 200 pieces of mail so far. I realize now that the illustrated envelopes weren’t just “something I did with my drawing”, but were the reason I drew, and the reason I learned new techniques, and provide me with the thing I enjoy most: doing a drawing, and then sending it out into the world.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I don’t think it is that simple. Of course you need to practice to be good at something and I believe in the thousand hours of practice at your trade. But some people have the personality to do one thing or draw one thing only while others need to do a variety of different things. Is one better than the other, I do not think so. We used to only have one career, you chose a job or company and stayed with that for your whole career. Not any more, most people will have two or more different careers in their life and no one seems to think they will not do well at them. I am just coming to terms with the fact I need to vary what I do, to remain interested and vibrant in my work, regardless of what it is. This is a facet of my personality not a fault and I have turned it into a plus. So I agree with Jan, we are all different in how and what we do and that is a great thing.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Danny, isn’t “dabble” a synonymous for “amateurish” and this comes from “amateur”
    (Wikipedia: “An amateur (French amateur “lover of”, from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, “lover”” )
    and so an amateur is a LOVER, someone who is LOVING what he/she is doing – and that can’t be wrong, huh? 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  7. this post really resonates. I am 37, still a young mom and have been creative for the past 10 years. I started with scrapbooking, now I sew a lot. But for the past months I have been drawn to painting and drawing. drawing is something I did a lot as a child. Until I was about 12. But then I stopped and never thought about it until recently. I think I thought it was not very serious for an adult to draw, or paint. But I feel this calling again. However I have doubts. What if I was never good at it? what if I stopped sewing for something I will never be good at? I want to pursue that dream of becoming a good drawer but I don’t know if I am pursuing an illusion. If you have more tips on finding one’s true calling, I am more than willing to take them!! love your work, Danny! you are so inspiring!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Why do you think I read your blog and many others? I get a strange feeling that I have completed something new without adding to the HOARD of new materials, supplies, JUNK that I’ve been accumulating in quilting, photography, scrapbooking, mixed media and now book making. I have found my true calling and am cleaning up the nuclear fallout but can’t let go easily. I still see the things I had begun and want so badly to finish them. But my heart has found a new home and it is a forever home and I just can’t throw all that away. So, instead of dumping it to work freely on my passion, I walk the halls of memory, breathe in dust of yesterday, and spend too much time there dreaming of tomorrow. Your post is YELLING at me to grab today and get my passion on. Thank you for the heads up.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The fallacy in this piece is that it sets up a dichotomy between really concentraing on your one true calling and ‘dabbling’ ( I prefer the less pejorative ‘ exploring’ or ‘enjoying’ in a lot. In fact, the creative process requires that we bring lots of experiences back to the plavce of our one true calling to give us more ‘dots to join’ as Steve Jobs would have it. It may be right to allocate more time to one main atea of creativity but to stop doing everything else that tickles your fancy is to starve your creative brain of oxygen.

    My main area of focus is mixed media textiles but i explored a few semesters of Sketchbook Skool. I am never going to soend my life keeping a visual journal and drawing my breakfast but I am now adding sketching into my mixed media sketches,albeit I translate the pencil into thread. And the idea for doing that came when I was learning to bake a new cake. Trying different thing is not dabbling and wasting your true talent. It is, as long as you do balance your time, feeding your brain.

    Its also called enjoying life, which is an art in itself!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Jack-of-all-trades comes to mind…that’s me. But I don’t necessarily dabble. I jump in with all my effort and means. I just love to try! Life is too short to not try something new (at least to me). Take the road least traveled and that makes all the difference. Like Yogi said “when you come to a fork in the road, take it”. Who knows where it takes you but who cares…..

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Well a piece that this time may push me to analyse myself and my creativity more deeply. Having been a primary school teacher all my working life I used to class myself as a Jack of all trades and master of none. But I don’t know if I’m prepared at present to close any doors as I like the excitement of learning in all its forms. I have however pared down in many areas and with drawing, lino cuts and sewing concentrate now on black and white and with watercolour stick to one style. Perhaps I am on my way at last. Thanks for your continual gentle pushes to move me along my creative journey.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dabble. Onomatopoeia? I think so. I like that… a term that blends writing and painting. Not having thought about this for more than it takes to brew a Moka pot of espresso, I am declaring myself a serial dabbler. And, I am declaring, I am good with that. To dabble for me follows in a vein like the stages of loss… I try something – non work-related writing. I deny talent. I write more stuff, get workshopped and frustrated… I am not as good, as creative, nor as grammatically correct. I take a class, try a different style, a different length, a different genre. I chafe (more onomatopoeia?). I cycle back to frustration and take another class, join another group. A couple people respond to an odd piece that resembles a poem but needs an illustration. I try something – plein air watercolor painting on an island in Lake Superior. I deny talent. I paint more stuff, get workshopped and frustrated… I am not as good, as creative, nor realistically correct. I take a class, try a different style, a different medium, a different process and chafe some more. I stop and write about my process. I put words to my painting. I paint scenes to my words. And, here I am closer to acceptance that dabbling is my process. I declare this… acceptance.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Yes, Items to be a dabbled, but I thinking attesting out possible media. Once I run the gambit, dabbling is over. Thanks for bringing to my attention that site time to settle in.

    Like

  14. As usual, Danny, you put in words what many of us are thinking. I agree that focus will bring out the shine in that particular pot of gold that is our passion, but it is hard to find what that is sometimes, when the modern world presents us with such a wonderful smorgasbord of creative outlets. I’m always distracted by creative butterflies. Approaching my 60s, I have this need to find that pot of gold so I can leave it for someone else to enjoy and remember me. That does mean focus, but I think our other interests don’t have to be completely shelved (unless of course you are tripping over boxes of rubber stamps, as I am). Look at blogger Jane LaFazio (who commented earlier) who combines a love of watercolor and quilting, and blogger Jennifer Edwards, who is a master of watercolor and knitting. Perhaps just picking two interests and sticking to them will provide an interesting crossover for each. But I agree that chasing too many butterflies will just leave you with your head spinning and nothing too show for it.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. The thing you were born to do. If one was born to do something, that something will get done. Dabbling may be part of the journey. If there is ONE thing one is to be great at, when they get into it a relationship is born, activity and thinking are focused and eventually fruit is realized.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. The choice of one thing to be really great at, does basically rule out the others. Unfortunately or fortunately, I am at the point where there has to be that choice, or suffer mediocrity as a consequence. I have to let go of the other things and focus on that one thing in order to reach the level I want to get to. I know I won’t regret it.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. There’s a middle ground between dabbling and intense focus on one specific passion, and that has to do with timing. When I left all of my other artistic interests to focus on painting, I did that pretty much exclusively for eight or nine years. Now that I feel that I’ve got a little bit of a handle on painting, with close to 1000 pieces done, I allow myself the time to take breaks working in the garden, or cooking. It’s restorative and part of the balance of life. But when getting one’s focus established, yes, that’s when you have to put the other distractions aside. Timing.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Have I spread myself too thin?: SBS (1, 2, 3, 4, Bootcamp, etc.); quilting: workshops at Asilomar and online plus my own designs; drawing and painting with Val Webb and Jack Laws, the Tuesday morning painting ladies, and inspirational PALS; 52 weeks of online photography with Ricky Tim; and volunteering at the deYoung! Then there’s reading, gardening, visiting my grandsons and daughters, and, of course, staying connected with friends! I didn’t add the usual life needs: grocery shopping, laundry, etc., etc. Well, I too am reassessing my need to do ALL things REASONABLY well! Danny, thanks for the reminder! Too much and then burnout!!!!

    Liked by 3 people

  19. I have left my painting for a sketchbook because its just simple . I need simple. Don’t be so hard on yourself Danny. Maybe its just the thing that makes you happy to be busy busy busy? Take care

    Liked by 1 person

  20. How true Danny ! I’ve abandoned the knitting, sold the ( brand new, never challenged) sewing machine and as for Mary Berry and her 1001 cake recipes…..don’t go there !!! My dabbling is all to do with pencils, pens, paint, breadcrumbs ( for texture !) and all other bonkers accessories. My sketchbook is my guardian angel when it comes to hanging onto sanity and always having a friend in my bag.
    I feel free to explore now that all the hecklers have gone………but I really do love to roast a chicken !!!And it’s very, very good !!! Thanks Danny, x

    Liked by 1 person

  21. There are a many angles to the contemplation of the tinkerer vs. the master…for the majority of people it may well be a lifelong meditation. Perhaps tinkering itself is a mastered form of being, passed along from generation to generation, as a necessary skill for survival, and the “master” is the limited one, wishing for more variety? The Japanese peasants tinkered over their boro fabrics, never dreaming that over time they would become collectable works of art. I tinker in the garden, making jewelry, in taking photographs, and in the kitchen. I love my family and friends and community, and I am intrigued with people and poetry and music and memorable moments that help define my understanding of things. My sketchbooks have become my boro fabrics, hopefully passing on the richness of my being, and the spectacular lovlienss of simple everyday life around me. I do often wonder what if…., but then I stop myself and consider all the possibilites in tomorrow. I believe the most important thing is to stay engaged and curious.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Thanks Danny. I truly admire drawing but can’t seem to let it be me. I stitch, in a sort of sketching way happily and painting and true drawing/ sketching don’t. So I need to do the thing that makes me happy. Thanks for the reminder.

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  23. Macramé, crochet, knitting, photography, quilting, art quilting, mixed media, drawing, painting, art journaling …. my life can be spelled out across a map of different crafts I have “dabbled in/done well enough to suit my fancy” over the years! I do not feel compelled to be the BEST in any of them. Each one has given me pleasure when I was INTO it. If that means I am mediocre, so be it! I am HAPPY and FULLFILLED and dying at end of my life with all those feathers in my cap, that is a good enough legacy for me!

    Liked by 2 people

  24. LOL There is a reason my home (wherever I happen to be living) is called “Restless Muse Studio”. There were so many times when I thought it would be so much easier and better if I could just find one totally consuming passion…But I have come to realize that I’m just not made that way, and, especially when I passed 50 yrs, that I don’t need to be…I don’t “dabble” I dive full in, I am passionate about everything I explore, until I’m not, and then I move on. Sometimes I circle back. Besides, if I can’t decide what I want to be when I grow up, then I don’t have to grow up 🙂 !

    Liked by 1 person

  25. I used to bemoan the time that I thought that I had wasted on a variety of creative media but after many years I realize that those investigations have “informed” and given me an aesthetic basis for the mixed media sculpture that I do now. Hasn’t your business background in advertising helped you in developing SBS and getting multiple creative books published? I think that all of these skills end up being helpful to us in ways that are not immediately apparent. Breakthrough ideas usually come when one is doing something else. After all, Leonardo’s sketchbooks were full of investigations about botany, cadavers, imagined flying machines,etc. Thanks for your thoughtful posting.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. It can be dangerous to look at this topic in such a black and white way. Devote all your time to the ONE important thing, the one calling, and you will maximize all of that potential. Spread it out between two interests, or among many, and that is dabbling and somehow not efficient. But is that really true? I enjoy making art, and playing the flute. There are distinct and separate times when I am able to do each activity. Very early in the morning, when it is just me and the birds? Drawing, reading an art book or practicing some watercolor, sometimes listening to flute or chamber music at the same time! During the day, when I have time to myself? Flute practice is part of that time. When I am with my family? Sometimes drawing, especially if we are out of the house, on a train, or waiting for a child’s activity to end. At home, I play my flute in duets with my daughters at the piano. How the joyful practice of more than one creative pursuit, making the most out of the time available to each, can be viewed as a 50-50 chance that you are making a mistake is not logical. I guess my vision or definition of pursuing a calling is not as intense as others’ definitions, because it involves more than just myself. And it honestly does not mean I do not want to “invest” in one or the other, because I do. Missing out? Nah–life is full and busy and creative, and time I could perhaps be investing in a particular skill if I were a single person is often spent “investing” in creative family time, at least at this stage in life. (Oh, and I admire Twyla Tharp a lot, but only having ONE choice can also lead to burn-out, injury and/or abandonment of the activity!)

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Oh my. I saw the title and was afraid it was a personal letter to ME!!! Many moons ago I was “only” a quilter. I kept on quilting for years and then came to a screaching halt. I moved away from my quilting buddies and somehow never found that fire in my belly to go back. I found , too, that I wanted more. I knew that I loved texture and fabric, yet what else could I do that would be as fulfilling? Enter Fabric art pieces embellished with all sorts of lost and found goodies. Mount and frame them , give them as gifts, sell them. Make book covers. But if I make book covers then I need to make books. And on it goes. And now it is sketching and watercolor and journaling.
    I believe that every new adventure I dive into embellishes every other thing I have learned over the years. I have yet to unpack my concentrated watercolors I saw you, Danny, use in your Art Before Breakfast Book!

    Maybe I am crazy. But I think not. I think that my mind has just expanded to try and do and learn more and more. What’s the worst that can happen? I spent some money and disliked it.

    I will say that sketching in my journal and watercolor is most definitely a passion I will pursue more than others. Danny, you intrigue me with your style of sketching and enthusiasm for the same. This past winter I put together my canvas bag with sketchbook and watercolor supplies and carried it everywhere. I saw so much more than in any other hobby I have. I really SEE when I practice sketching. . Not just “look”. I love this and am hoping that nothing else jumps in my path too soon to distract me!!
    Karen

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  28. This post reminds me of an existential psychology professor who said that inherent in the very act of choosing is the existential turmoil created by the “not chosen” which on some level evokes the reality of death (i.e. If I choose THIS, I am not choosing THAT; THAT therefore “dies” as a possibility for me.). Given that many of us would rather not face this symbolic experience of death, we cope by simply refusing to choose…WE CHOOSE EVERYTHING! We keep all possibilities open…and are thereby unable to tap our fuller life potential through that one chosen thing. This notion always resonated with me and your post amplifies the net effect of not choosing on the artist. As a knitter and a cook and a therapist and a writer and a visual artist I can relate…many thanks.

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  29. To cast a wide net or to dig deep?

    May I suggest it is not either / or but both / and !

    All things in moderation… including moderation!

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  30. I was burning out, no I think I was burned out. I know it’s a cliché, but I did have way too many pans in the fire. Even my website name tells the tale. Three art forms make up my URL. I was on the executive of three non profit organizations. One organization took over my life. It was run by a brilliant woman. She accomplished great things.

    However, to do this she would manipulate, delegate, ask and sometimes even pay others for their help. Most often she solicited volunteers. I’m sure some would say that’s the sign of a great business person. She always got the help, but sooner or later people would grow weary and distance themselves.

    Living in a small community I feared being blackballed if I resigned. I needed to say no. Then I was shocked into reality. My baby sister announced she had cancer. It woke me up. Life is way too short. I had to extract myself from this crazy life I’d woven for myself. It was not easy.

    Thankfully I was able to train people to take my place, and resigned with grace. I think many workaholics suffer from the idea that the organization just can’t run without them. Trust me they can, and they will go on without you at the helm. If they don’t then the organization needed to come to an end.

    I thank you Danny. I was getting involved again, and your timely message has brought me back to reality. I have set aside many of my volunteer activities. I do keep one, that is organizing weekly locations for my plein air painting group. I love to paint, but my self motivation is zilch. By inviting others it motivates me to keep working. Fortunately, organizing the group is almost automatic now. I just say where I’m going and when and people show up or not. But, even that was getting to be a job when members wanted to do multiple group shows. Doing what you love, and involving other people is both a blessing and a curse.

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  31. It’s so good to know I live dangerously. I am a master dabbler. When you like this and that and the other, it can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Not to mention the squeeze that all that liking can put on your personal space. My husband calls me a hoarder. Not true. I can now tell him I am a dabbler. I think that as you change so do your interests. Thank you Danny. You should add philosopher to your resume.

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  32. Danny, you always cut right to the heart of the matter. I love this path you’ve chosen! I believe some people dabble because they honestly have many interests. Good for you guys! I find my interest shifts when something I’m working on ISN’T working. Three words, Danny: writing class PLEASE!!!

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  33. Danny has posed an interesting question that has many possible answers. Many people, including some who have reached greatness are intentional “dabblers”. Peter Drucker who is known as the foremost business author and consultant of the 20th Century, a truly great man, had a habit of picking a subject and studying it deeply for five years and then moving to another subject. He felt this practice was important and brought freshness and depth to his work because he could approach a problem from many perspectives. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia Clothing Company and also a well known climber, environmentalist, fly fisher – said he was an 80% kind of person. He said he would much rather be accomplished in several things than a master in any one area. Winston Churchill, who many consider the greatest political figure of the 20th Century was also a wonderful writer, historian, and painter. For many personal satisfaction comes from exploring all the variety that life has to offer. So all of us dabblers can feel good about our wanderlust.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is very true, I don’t think my time has been wasted, although it is painful to see other artists on a well defined path and watching myself going in a million different directions but I’m convinced that everything we learn is a building block.

      Liked by 1 person

  34. Wow, I was just talking about this! I have such a tendency to try to do so many things and am then displeased with the result. I resolved to do my best to step back and focus on just one or two things at a time – it’s scary, but good 🙂

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  35. This is my curse, definitely. I have done it all and sometimes I wonder if it’s because I need to impress outsiders with my “learning capacity” or if I really am interested in the things that I want to do. I started to seriously draw last year and in the summer I registerred for sketchbook skool… I have been drawing since. I dropped everything else.. but then a whole other can of worms opened: should I sketch, should I go digital, should I do watercolors, gouache, should I illustrate? do urban sketching? and I started to dabble in all that stuff.. now I finally think I’m getting to the point where I’m developing something that is mine. I hope I don’t get sidetracked again. The “shiny new object syndrome” lurks everywhere.

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