Focus isn’t the Answer to Having too Many Interests

Categories Cultivating Creativity, Goal Setting, Personal Development, Time Management
A focused purple flower with a blurry pastoral landscape

There’s this insidious little rumor going around that having too many hobbies or interests is a bad thing? 

Here’s the spoiler, if you’re not one for long intros: you can’t. 

I don’t give a shit what anyone tells you. I don’t give a shit what anyone believes. There are no rules, spoken, written, or otherwise, that say you have a limit to the number of hobbies, passions or interests you can have ever or at one time. Nor, will anything bad happen to you, your family, or friends, if you do. 

Still, a quick look around the interwebs tells me something different. I’m finding people that are frustrated and confused. They seem to think that too many interests are the same as a lack of focus? The feel they need to specialize, choose, buckle down on something and really get after it. 

It’s like being curious is a sign of scatteredness. 

Hell, I even saw one that suggested that having multiple interests can lead to suffering!

Suffering? 

Apparently being fucking boring is better for your mental health?

Ok, maybe I’m being a little over the top. 

There might be some drawbacks to having a lot of hobbies. Maybe. 

Also, if you look deeper into some of the Reddit comments I was reading, you’ll see people saying things like, “I try something and never get very far before I try something else.” OR, “I never get anywhere with anything because I keep changing my mind.” 

Cool, I get it. I’ve even been there.

So here’s what I’m going to do today.

First, I’m going to talk about why people think having multiple hobbies is bad. The corollary, of course, is why they’re wrong.

Second, I’m going to show you why lots of hobbies aren’t the actual problem, and what you can do to break free from these frustrations! 

Sound good? Here we go.  

Hobbies and Their Frustrations

Here’s the deal. There’s nothing wrong with having lots of hobbies. In fact, I’d argue it’s indicative of a creative and curious mind. And if you know me, you know I like it when people are being creative and curious. 

And frankly, I think people are healthier and happier when they lean into that inherent curiosity. It’s the reason newness enters the world, be it through technology, business, or art. 

However, we’re flooded with stories about these monomaniacal visionaries. The Steve Jobs or Stanley Kubrick’s of the world who, with intense and unbending focus, bent the world to their will. 

Think about all the stories you heard growing up of great men and women doing great things. What are some of the adjectives that come to mind? Determination, will, focus, consistency. 

You know the storyline. You’ve seen the movie. They sacrifice everything from love, family, and normalcy to see their vision come to life. 

So the logical conclusion is that you and me, we need to focus, right. 

I call bullshit.  

While this story works in your summer biopic., it’s not really the whole picture. 

Far from it, most of these visionaries take a profound interdisciplinary approach to their life. 

Jobs cited a calligraphy class he took for Mac’s commitment to typeface, and Kubrick never made 2 movies in the same genre. Even Einstein played the violin.

The reality is that these great people arrived at their “greatness” through scattered curiosity. 

The human brain is a special thing. It seeks out patterns. Curious minds intake massive information across a variety of fields and locate convergences. 

I’d argue that THIS is the power of a curious, passionate mind. 

Curious, rounded, interdisciplinary, maybe even “scattered” people change the world. 

But, unfortunately, that’s not the whole picture. I’m not going to let your dilettante ass off that easy. 

The trick, like always, is a managerial one. How can I have all these interests while still getting what I need from them? How can I progress on my many passions simultaneously? How can I pursue each passion to the appropriate depth and still have time to sleep?

That is to say, how can I prioritize and use my passions in a way that will lead me to feel fulfilled about my life and development?

That is where the true frustration lies. 

What is a Scanner?

Probably the most venerated speaker on the topic of multiple interests, and the issues therein is lifestyle coach Barbara Sher.  Sher has written about these issues both online and in a full-length book on titled Refuse to Choose. (full disclosure, haven’t read the book).

She bases her idea around a personality type she calls a “Scanner.” She outlines this “scanner” in an online post  entitled “Are you a Scanner?” 

For Sher, a scanner is identified by their “Intense curiosity about numerous unrelated subjects.” She goes on, “Scanners are endlessly inquisitive. In fact, Scanners often describe themselves as being hopelessly interested in everything.”

Sound familiar?

If you’re reading this post, probably. 

She goes on to talk about the Scanner as someone who picks up a hobby as quick as they drop them. She writes, “A Scanner might be fascinated with learning how to play bridge or bocce, but once she gets good at it, she might never play it again.”

As well as their greatest weakness: “The problem is, Scanners are starving in the candy store. They believe they’re allowed to pursue only one path. But they want them all. If they force themselves to make a choice, they are forever discontented.”

So I guess for her having only one hobby causes suffering. Can’t win in the world.

Why Barbara is Wrong

I like what Barb is saying, but I think where my thinking really diverges from hers is on this scanner trait being unique. 

She seems to believe that many people skip between hobbies, but most are simply looking for that one thing to settle down with. To be clear, this is different from a scanner who is forever seeking. 

But I don’t know. I don’t buy that. 

I don’t think being a creative and multifaceted individual is a “personality quirk”. Something that is unique to a few. To the contrary, I think we’re all scanners.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think a lot of people settle down to a single center of focus, but I can’t help feel that this might have more to do with the constraints of their life than the location of their one true purpose. 

And while I’m sure there are a few people here and there maniacally focused on a single task, I find it a fundamental rarity to find anyone that has not even a passing curiosity about a variety of things.

It’s normal.

Think back to when you were a child. This isn’t hard for me, I have kids in elementary school. They bounce between a billion tasks, interests, and intellectual pursuits on any given day. They’re either building houses out of legos or cardboard box, drawing pictures, playing games, asking questions about nature, singing and writing songs, making comic books. 

It’s play. 

And we accept it as play.

And you know what, I can’t think of a single time either one of them told me “Hey, I really need to buckle down and focus on one of these hobbies.” or maybe “After drawing that picture, I think I really found what I want to do, just draw all the time.”

They might have spurts where they double down on a hobby, but more often than not,  interests come and go with the seasons.

And does this sound unique? Are only some kids like this? 

No!

So why do all kids play, but adults are “scanners” or some other type of human? 

Because adult time is seen as possessing more, inherent value. Adult time is work, and work is not play. It’s meaningful and consequential. Right? 

The Myth of Specialization

We are taught, at least in America, that time is money. This roughly translates to time being a fundamental unit of work. But what is work? 

Well, work is the performance of tasks that generates value, right? Pulling that factory lever, selling that widget, balancing that budget sheet. These are units of work. 

And in our economy, to perform these units of work, you have to have skills. You’re not just a worker, comrade, you’re a marketer, a sales-person, a miner, a construction worker, a fork-lift driver, or a burger flipper. 

I’m talking about skill specialization.

You can’t just be a professor, you’re a professor of medieval literature. You’re not a doctor, you’re an oncologist. 

And you know what, this system works fine for the economy we all function in. It makes sure we have our bases covered. I mean, I need someone who knows how to fix my 2013 Honda CRV when the brakes start squeaking. 

The problem is when this priority of specialization pervades other areas of our culture beyond the economy. It’s when we start seeing specialization as intrinsically holding greater value, as opposed to a broader, generalized skill set.  

Jack of all trades, master of none, right? 

I’ve talked about a similar problem regarding competition here. 

Anyways, Sher agrees. She identifies the negative aspects associated with this mindset towards specialization, and links it to a shift in cultural mindset during the cold war: “University faculties turned into specialized training centers; science and technology — the realm of specialists — reigned supreme. Departments of literature, the humanities, even history were seen as irrelevant luxuries.”

Thanks, Barb, agreed.  

Now I’ve written about this shift towards specialization in the 20th century before. You can check that out here.

But if you don’t have time to read that, the short version is that you’ve probably been feeling this pressure towards specialization your whole life. Your parents asked you “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Your advisor asks you “What do you want to major in?” Your boss asks you “What’s your 5-year plan?”

As aforementioned, our culture, right or wrong, celebrates specialization and focus. And to be fair, there’s a lot of productivity that can be squeezed out of a hyper-specialized workforce.

But that aside, I think the biggest takeaway is that the feeling of inadequacy, that invisible push people with multiple interests have towards focus, that trepidation of taking too many things on at once, has a whole lot to do with a society that rewards specialization at the cost of generalization.

The converse, of course, is that specialization holds no true authority in the realm of hobbies, passions, and interests. That is to say specialization, focus, whatever you want to call it has no intrinsic value in your spare time. We’re simply layering one area of our life onto another without critically examining why.

Long story short, “focusing” is overrated. 

I believe Sher underestimates the power of the specialization myth, leading her to erroneously labels “scanners” as a personality type. 

My gut tells me that Sher’s grouping of non-scanners, those that “seek until they find,” are simply submitting to the power of the specialization paradigm. It’s not that they don’t have multiple hobbies, passions or interests. It’s that they feel an overwhelming need to focus that they, in fact, do just that. 

But this isn’t a trait. It’s choice born of a mindset. 

And minds can change. 

Qualities of a Successful Scanner

So, we’ve slain the insidious myth of specialization. What now. Here you are, you have all these things you want to do: write books, play basketball, master french horn.

I’d argue that instead of worrying about scanners vs not scanners, a better way to look at it is to think of everyone as a scanner. Then the question becomes, what traits discern successful scanners from unsuccessful scanners.

It’s always easier to describe a thing by what it’s not, so I’ll start with what an unsuccessful scanner might like.

You know you’re an unsuccessful scanner if you:

  • Can’t stick with a hobby long enough to see the predetermined gains you hope to get out of it.  
  • Feels guilty they can’t focus on a hobby.
  • Continues to work on something even after they have fully lost interest in the project. 
  • Replaces instead of adds projects out of fear of over-committing.
  • Blames time, life, and a host of other things for their lack of committal.
  • Fails to prioritize and schedule time to make continued improvement across all their fields of interest. 
  • Is scared of being labeled a dilettante.

Now. let’s talk about the qualities of a successful scanner. This person:

  • Explores different hobbies and interests in a meaningful way until they feel confident they received the value from the experience they needed
  • Sets tangible goals for each of their interests. 
  • Doesn’t worry about specialization, only the drive that leads them to new areas of interest.
  • Sets aside projects that feel stale or done, but only on their terms and within the framework of their goals.
  • Is always working on something.
  • Understands that interest will rise and fall, but always provides time to entertain his or her burgeoning interests.
  • Consciously and meaningfully sets aside time towards their varied interests.
  • Is unencumbered by the societal pressures associated with play.

If it isn’t clear, I believe the key difference between a successful and unsuccessful person with many interests is a commitment to think critically about each of these interests. 

At the end of the day, the successful scanners ask, “What do you hope to get out of this?” “What are meaningful goals that I can set to explore this interest?” And most importantly, “How will I schedule these different hobbies to ensure I’m putting the time in all of them in a way that makes sense to my life?”

I think if a person can do that, the amount of hobbies or passions they have is almost irrelevant. Instead, it’s a question of the quality of their experience interacting with these different disciplines. 

Takeaway

We’re living in a crazy and magnificent time. With the democratization of information thanks to the internet (yeah it’s still going on) we’ve been opened up to an enormous wealth of information. 

As the internet continues to transform itself into an educational tool, combined with being an archive of memory, we’re truly wading into an unprecedented time. As different disciplines and movements cross-pollinate, our world and culture will continue to enrich. 

That is, of course, if we’re brave enough to follow our varied passions. 

I, personally, don’t think an environment like this has occurred since the printing press, which ultimately leads to the Renaissance.

But, just as it was a hard slog going from the dark ages to the Renaissance, the charge will be difficult. It requires people to not just use the tools at their disposal but to break free from our embedded cultural narratives. In this case, those narratives that discount a breadth of knowledge in exchange for hyper-specialization.

The trick is that we have to understand that a lot of our natural instincts are held in check by these narratives. 

Honestly, all we have to do to take advantage of this special time is open ourselves up to our natural inclinations to play.

Only once we do that, and accept we’re all “scanners” to a part, will we start to explore the real value of interdisciplinary play that our current world allows.

On top of that, it’ll be a lot of fun.

(P.S. If you’re interested in a way to better prioritize your interests and schedule your goals, sign up for my free 6-day email course: Goal Setting Boot Camp)

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There are no rules, spoken, written, or otherwise, that say you have a limit to the number of hobbies, passions or interests you can have ever or at one time. Find out why by clicking through.
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My examples: writing, music, musing, birdhouse building