I have been doing a new thing and it has been fun, so I thought I would tell you about it in case you’re not doing it but it would be fun for you too.

It started when I read Traveling Sprinkler, and something about that book made me want to read it sitting next to my computer so I could keep looking up things like bassoons and Debussy. I found I enjoyed that experience of lightly sampling a bunch of new things, and I wondered why I hadn’t been doing that all along. So when I was reading The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey, for example, I watched part of the ballet Swan Lake on YouTube.

But I didn’t watch ALL of Swan Lake: I watched about five minutes, then skipped to another part and watched another five minutes. Just like I didn’t watch the whole intro-to-bassoons video, I just watched part of it, and then watched part of a video of four bassoonists playing Somebody That I Used to Know. Because in all those examples, that’s where my interest stopped. And this, THIS, is the key to why I’m doing this now and wasn’t doing it before: I connected the interests thing to the Drops IN the Bucket thing.

I’ve been wishing I had More Interests, but I think I was feeling like if the interest weren’t a Grand All-Consuming Passion, it wasn’t worth pursuing. I didn’t think it out like that, but it was as if I were saying to myself, “Watching ten minutes of Swan Lake on YouTube is stupid: you have to watch THE WHOLE THING and it has to be LIVE and you have to study it ahead of time so you know what’s happening.” But no! That is the same misplaced perfectionism that makes us think there’s no sense wiping the stove-top unless we’re going to get EVERY SINGLE SPECK and also clean the drip pans and the dials. Giving the stove-top a fast, half-hearted, water-only, nowhere-near-complete wipe with the other side of the same washcloth I just used to wipe a child’s face makes a significant and mood-lifting improvement in the way I feel about the whole kitchen. Watching ten minutes of Swan Lake on YouTube makes a significant and mood-lifting improvement in the way I feel about LIFE, as well as adding a new layer to the book I’m reading. If I wait to clean the stove until I’m going to do it PERFECTLY I’ll never do it; if I wait to see Swan Lake live in a theater, I’ll finish the ballet book and return it to the library and lose interest and forget all about it and never go. Whereas if I watch ten minutes of it, it might lead to an actual ballet attendance later on; and if I give the stove-top a quick wipe, I might be so encouraged by the improvement that later I’ll also give the counters a quick wipe.

Now that I’ve noticed this additional example of Unhelpful Perfectionism, I’m seeing it all over the place. I went to the library today and I saw a book I was kind of interested in, and then I thought, “Eh, I don’t think I’m interested enough to read a whole book on that.” Pardonnez-moi, but who said anything about having to read the whole book? I could understand being in a book store and saying, “Eh, I don’t think I’m interested enough to buy that book”—but when it’s at the library and I can take it home for free and read not one word more than I want to, WHAT may I ask is stopping me from doing so? Do I imagine I am…WASTING the book? Am I imagining that only people pure and strong of interest may check it out?

What IS this drive towards ALL OR NOTHING? If we’re a little bit interested in Albert Einstein, we don’t have to read his biography and also a whole book about the theory of relativity: it is perfectly acceptable to skim a Wikipedia article, if that’s as far as our interest goes. Maybe we will read in the Wikipedia article that Einstein was visiting the U.S. when Hitler took power and he just STAYED here: left everything behind. Imagine doing that! Imagine being on vacation to, say, France, and there’s a shift in political power back home so you abandon your house and all your possessions and you never go back, starting a new life in a new country with only what you packed for your trip, and everyone thinks you’ve lost your mind until it turns out actually you saved your life. Anyway, maybe that idea will stick with you and you will think about it while you’re making dinner and that’ll be a whole lot more interesting than thinking about how you don’t think you can stand to make this meal even one. more. time. Thinking about something interesting > thinking about something boring. Overall minor life improvement achieved.

And if that anecdote about Albert Einstein makes you want to get an Albert Einstein biography out of the library, you can skim a few pages at the beginning and then start skimming around a bit in other chapters, and then read the one chapter that tells more about the day he decided to never go back home (did he have relatives sell his house? did he try to make them come to the U.S. too? how much stuff did he have with him?), and then look at the photo section in the center, and then RETURN IT TO THE LIBRARY! There will be no quiz on the material! You can read the amount you’re interested in and then STOP.

Or let’s say you read a book in which one of the characters keeps doing Tarot cards for other characters, and you find a little sprout of interest is rising. It is not necessary to research the most legitimate type of Tarot cards and/or choose among different methods, and then seek out the set with the artwork that is most YOU, and then find someone to teach you how to do Tarot cards correctly, and then practice until you are a fluid and impressive expert at it—nor is it necessary to give up the whole interest because you don’t want to do all these things. You can buy a used pack at a yard sale for 50 cents, and you can lay out the cards with lonnnnnng pauses as you read the instructions and say “Wait, wait, that’s not right,” and you can attempt to read the cards for yourself and for a couple of other interested family members, and then you can offer the deck on Freecycle because it turns out that was the limit of your interest and you don’t want to make it your new party trick.

I have a page-a-day art calendar that fits well with this. I have a small interest in art—but just small. I don’t feel like getting a membership to an art museum or taking an art appreciation class, but a casual look at one piece of art a day is PERFECT. Some days I look at a calendar page a dozen times, and then look up the piece online to get more information, and then look at other pieces by the same artist, and then read a little more about the artist’s life and about what style of art that is, and then click through to another artist who paints in a similar style, and then look around online to see if it’s possible to order a print. Other days I glance at the picture once when I flip to that day’s page, and that’s it. Most days are somewhere in between. I don’t have to declare an interest in art or think about whether this interest level counts as “being interested,” I can just be this level of interested in art.

Or, or! Let’s say John Green mentions a list of the ten books he thinks are the best. I don’t have to be COMPLETIONIST about it: I can read the ones that interest me and skip the ones that don’t. And if I try one and get about 30 pages in and really dislike it, I can return it to the library unfinished.

Interests are not commitments, and they don’t have to be powerful driving forces, and they don’t have to turn into time-consuming hobbies. It is possible to PEEK. It is possible to DABBLE. It is possible to VISIT. It is possible to investigate something with an interest that is mild rather than avid. It is possible to start with one thing, such as a book, and turn it into many, MANY things by investigating or trying different things mentioned in the book: foods, songs, TV shows, movies, liquors, hobbies.

It didn’t work at all to think, “I should be interested in more things”; it’s working very nicely to keep an eye out for flickers of interest and then follow up on them lightly, without expecting Grand Passions. Interests are flitting butterflies: pursue those little suckers—and when one disappears from view, switch to another one. Don’t expect to actually CATCH one—but if you DO catch one, pin it cruelly to a board and enjoy it forever! …Or switch at that point to a more pleasing metaphor.

32 thoughts on “Dabbling

  1. Melissa H

    I love everything about this. I find Wikipedia is just PERFECT for the “flickers of interest” as you aptly describe them. I know a good bit more about containerized shipping thanks to wikipedia. A surprisingly fascinating topic.

    And the library! also perfect. So many books/magazines to explore for free.

    I did not know that about Einstein either.

  2. jen

    I didn’t finish a book several years ago and for months I felt…guilty maybe? About not finishing a book I didn’t like. I had never not finished a book before. It felt wrong. I think now it wasn’t wrong. It was just a book a bunch of other people were reading and talking about and I felt left out of the conversation, I suppose. But I detested that book. Or the 50 odd pages I read of it.

    I am always looking up little things like “What kind of bird is that on the tree out there?” and my husband thinks I’m a bit odd to spend 20 minutes Googling like crazy trying to find out what kind of bird it is. But I don’t have to be a birder? bird enthusiast? to enjoy knowing that the little grey and black bird is a wren.

    Swistle, I like the way you think.

    1. Another Heather

      I felt the same exact way about the book “The Inheritence of Loss” (apologies in advance if anyone on here loved it). It was a total Oprah book club darling, had so many positive reviews, and everyone and their dog seemed to think it was a must-read. I absolutely hated it! I soldiered through about a third of it and never picked it up again. I felt like Elaine from Seinfeld in the episode “The English Patient” trying to explain why I disliked it so much. (But ok, for one thing, a poor immigrant could not afford a decadent lunch on a rooftop in war-torn 1940’s London. It just wouldn’t happen. I don’t even think you could get a decadent lunch on rations, let alone eat it ON THE ROOF. In bombed out London. End rant).

      1. Holly

        I was about to whole-heartedly agree that it’s silly to keep reading a book you don’t like. And then I realized I am reading this exact book, don’t really care for it, yet I still pick it up every few days and read a few more pages! Ha. That’s it. I’m done. (Swistle: I also think I have the perfect job for a dabbler… being a reporter, I get to be an expert on a variety of topics for a day or so and then move on).

  3. Another Heather

    Thou art wise Swistle. I’m a big fan of the tour bus approach to learning. Sometime you really don’t need more than a drive-by glimpse of and a few supplemental facts about something to feel like you’ve satisfied your curiosity.
    This whole discussion makes me feel better about the afternoons when I get a bout of “I should really figure out this religion thing before we have children…” Researching religions that peak my interest can be very educational and a lot of fun, but I can’t say anything’s ever stuck. And that’s ok.

  4. Shawna

    Lately I’ve been perusing TED talks on the TED app before bed and it’s a lot like what you describe. I pick one that may or may not interest me, and if the answer is “not” when I read the description, but the topic in general interests me, I click onto the description of one of the “related” talks. I might get 4 or 5 talks into the chain before I see one I want to watch, but if I get that far along without seeing anything that piques my interest, I go back to the newest section, or to the talks I’ve already watched and start the searching chain again. I often end up watching talks on very interesting, diverse topics.

    From time-to-time I search out everything they’ve got on a certain topic, or watch all the talks by one person who was interesting the first time I saw a talk they gave, but other times I just think “huh, that’s cool”, then move on to something else.

    1. Matti

      This is why I love podcasts in general. Enough to be listening to something interesting while I’m putting the baby to bed, or making, dinner. But, not a commitment. And, lots of times, I might go on to read a book they mention. Or not.
      I just love this whole idea Swistle! It’s like when you tweet some topic from wikipedia. Or from the Learn Something account. It’s either just enough, or it’s not enough because I WANT to know more. Not because I have to or I’m not a true fan/reader/patron/whatever.

  5. Maggie

    This is probably going to sound ridiculous, but I think one of the biggest gifts I’ve given myself in the (mumble mumble) years since I turned 40 was permission to just stop reading a book I don’t like and return it to the library without guilt. It was like once I turned the corner, I was free! Don’ like the book? Stop reading it. Lots of other things to read. Life is short etc. It’s been great!

  6. Lawyerish

    YES. YESSSSS. I realized as I was reading this that this precise thing, this ability to just DABBLE in things and be satisfied with passing interests, is something I love about being an adult. How TEDIOUS it was to go through more than TWENTY YEARS of schooling, which comprised little other than compulsory reading and learning about every single thing someone ELSE decided you had to read and learn about. You couldn’t just DECIDE not to be interested in Calculus and therefore not do the homework. And this was true for EVERYTHING.

    I mean, I get that we all need to learn certain basics to be functional human beings, and I am a fan of the liberal arts education and advanced degrees and education in general. I get it. That’s how the system works! But how many times did we all have the joy sucked RIGHT OUT of a subject because we had to read about it ad nauseum, then do a book report and make a diorama and an oral presentation about it. Ugh. SO MANY TIMES. And I’m a very curious and studious person! But still: so much learning became JOYLESS because of the obligation aspect of it.

    But now! Now we’re done with all that and we can DABBLE. We can skim or selectively read or not-finish books! We can YouTube stuff to get a sense of it, and then move on.


  7. Kalendi

    I love this! This is why Mr. Google is my husband’s and my friend. We’ll be talking about something and one of us will say google it. Or one of us will be reading something or someone refers to something and we’ll google it which will sometimes lead to something else. I like the idea of dabbling…plus I’m really into trivia and now I have something trivia about Einstein!

  8. lakeline

    I ADORE this. And it is totally the same reason why I’ve finally actually gotten somewhat serious about learning German – I was playing with Duolingo and Memrise and suddenly realized that toddlers have to learn ENGLISH with nothing but CONTEXT CLUES and when they mess up we all think it’s adorable. So I can learn enough of another language to fumble my way though niceties with a waitress on my next trip. Just because I’m not going to be able to read a German newspaper or have a debate about philosophical theories with a grad student there doesn’t mean it’s not worth learning more than I currently know. (and if you’re into language learning, that’s also the philosophy of this book that I really like http://www.fluentin3months.com/book-us) I spent so much time feeling like I’d never be able to take 4 years of college classes on it, so why try at all. Then just realized WAIT, SCREW THAT I DO WHAT I WANT. ;-)

  9. phancymama

    So what DID happen to Albert Einstein’s house and stuff? Now I’m so curious. (Will there be a major uptick in Einstein searches today as we all look it up?)

    In college I worked in the library, reshelving books in the stacks. I don’t typically like to read biographies or nonfiction, but I kept coming across such interesting ones while at work. So I would flip to the center photos and read through them. That was a great way to learn bits about all kinds of people and things. I highly recommend giving yourself an hour to go to the library and just read the photo sections of interesting biographies. Maybe this is what I will do the next time I have a “off” afternoon.

  10. Gigi

    Ever since Google and smartphones have come along; I find myself looking things up randomly while I’m reading. But the realization that I don’t *have* to finish a book that is not interesting? Mind blown!

  11. shin ae

    Yes. I think I was very much a grand passion/finish the book sort of person until I was forced out of it when I began to home school my kids. I dabble in order to find information and answers for the kids, and it has carried over into my own time and my own interests. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until I read this, though, and have been feeling a little frazzled and unfocused. Looking at it from your perspective removes the reasons I would feel that way, so I think I will dabble even more deliberately and see how it goes.

  12. sooboo

    You put words to something I think about a lot. I like to think of dabbling as being well rounded. I hate this notion that you have to an expert in order to appreciate something. You don’t! There’s too much amazing stuff in the world to be able to appreciate and experience it fully. And as an artist, I so appreciate your dabbling in art appreciation. Most people think you need a master’s degree to understand art so they avoid it. All you need to have is a little interest to take the time to look a little.

  13. Sarah

    Swistle! You’ve done it again. I love this post. I love the term Unhelpful Perfectionism. I am purposed now to be on the watch for this in my daily life, cos OH BOY do I have a whole lot of Unhelpful Perfectionism swirling around in my brain, kind of like the “I shouldn’t bother halfheartedly wiping the stove top” thing you mentioned. If I don’t have time to deep clean a room right down to wiping the baseboards, I shouldn’t bother! And that’s… just stupid. Drops! In! The! Bucket!

  14. Kate

    I love this! It is such a liberating way to think about my interests. I like that it gives me the freedom to enjoy growing vegetables and knowing a little bit about some flowers without the pressure to be a Gardener or the type of person that reads seed catalogs in November. This year I have subscribed to a poem a day emails from the Poetry Foundation and my experience has been much like yours with the art-a-day calendar. I have read some beautiful poems that I have saved in my email and have read over and over and others I have glanced at and deleted. Your post reminds me of an interesting post at Wandering Scientist that raises some similar ideas (but is quite different at the same time) . http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2012/05/scanning-my-renaisance-soul.html

  15. allison

    So now every time I just need my husband to clean the kitchen enough that I can make dinner for the six people arriving that evening and instead he tries to clean out and disinfect the entire fridge and all the cupboards, I’m going to bellow “UNHELPFUL PERFECTIONIST” at him before ordering pizza.

  16. Maria

    I just want to tell you… this post may very well have changed my life. I’m not even being overdramatic. I think school drilled it into my brain that you can’t just learn a little about something. It’s: learn about it to the point of exhaustion and complete hatred of the topic, or fail. I never realized that as an adult, there are gray areas. FUN gray areas. Thank you for this!

  17. DawnA

    I agree-it doesn’t have to be all or none. I used to force myself to finish every book I checked out of the library-even if I really did not like it. Not anymore. There are too many books that I would enjoy to trudge through one I don’t like. I’ll give a book 3-5 chapters and if I’m not interested it goes back.

  18. Tracey

    This reminds me of something a former boss taught me: “Perfect is the enemy of good.”

    1. Swistle Post author

      AH HA!! I was trying to remember what book it was that made me want to learn Tarot! YES, it was The Night Circus!

  19. Rah

    Oh, Swistle, this post–it’s as if you wrote it especially for me (not to be egocentric). I don’t know which I like better, “completionist” or “people pure and strong of interest.”

  20. Court

    Swistle! This is why you are the most awesome person on the internet! Thank you – this is totally me and I used to feel bad about it. But you’re right – interests do not have to be commitments. Revelation:)

  21. Sally

    This whole thought process was a big part in my losing over 100lbs a few years ago and largely maintaining it. For years, I would start a DIET and not eat anything “bad” for a few days or even weeks and then when I’d eat a cookie or whatever and say “I’ve ruined this DIET, To hell with it!” and binge and hate myself for my weak will power. I just couldn’t deal with forgoing cheesecake and fries forever when I love them so. Eventually, I learned I could have two bites of cheesecake (and really savor/taste/enjoy it instead of just cramming it in) or a few fries off my kids’ plates and be satisfied. (Not FULL – which is another of my Jedi mind tricks: listen to your body and don’t eat only because its “lunchtime”) You don’t have to have a perfect diet or exercise routine to be healthy and lose weight. Shocking how hard it was to learn this lesson but oh so useful!

  22. hydrogeek

    I am a thwarted perfectionist. It’s why my house is always a wreck and I never get started on projects. Because what if I don’t have time to finish it perfectly today?! I have seen the issue, yet cannot seem to take very many steps to fix it, although I have been employing the “drops in the bucket” method to the house and it is helping!

  23. Erica

    I am a (frequently miserable) completionist. I’ve gotten SLIGHTLY better than I used to be, with half-assedly wiping things down and such, but I’m still reading All Creatures Great And Small because it comes before All Things Bright and Beautiful and I want to make one scone recipe from All Things Bright and Beautiful. That’s 400 extra pages! I’m not even crazy about scones! Wow, it sounds a lot worse when I actually write it out like that. And thus concludes this week’s session of Erica Conducts Her Own Therapy in Swistle’s Comments Section.

  24. Ashley

    I love love love this idea. Your whole “drops in the bucket” idea is a major life saver for me, in fact more often then not as I lock up the house and I look around I think, “hey at least those drops are IN the bucket” I even count them, it has so changed the way I think about my house and cleaning and myself. I shall now start thinking about my interests in the same way.

  25. amy

    I love this! I’m so anal-retentative about things that it usually makes me give up on things because I can’t DO IT ALL. I’m going to adopt some of this!!

  26. Nicole Boyhouse

    Yes! I love your “not all or nothing” posts. You’re right, it’s okay to be a dabbler and dilettante. And I actually did know that about Einstein (wikipedia!), how crazy would that be to leave home and never go back?

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