Is having too many interests a bad thing?
How good are you at resisting the next new thing that comes your way? Or maybe the question isn’t how to resist every new thing that catches our interest but do we even have to?
After all, there is so much in this world to see. And feel. And experience.
However, we are constantly inundated by the new shiny objects, reflecting at us from everywhere, our screens, our friends, the shows we watch. And we want it all: be on the new social media platform, read the latest bestseller, try that new diet and that new gadget, learn how to code.
I can’t even begin to imagine what the generations of twenty-somethings seem to need to want nowadays.
But how do we discern between the next new interest worth trying out and the next new shiny object calling out to us?
Is It My True Interest, or Is It the FOMO?
The fear of missing out is probably more potent than ever, due to our way of life, even without the pandemic. We hop from one trend to another with our ever-shorter attention span.
I hold (too) many and everchanging interests, currently gravitating towards anthropology, social history, psychology, astronomy, digital scrapbooking, blogging, yoga, Ayurveda, the law of attraction, hard science fiction, writing personal essays.
But I rarely finish much of anything (in the traditional sense), and I rarely use any of it in a straightforward, single, uphill way. Like we imagine careers to be.
I used to feel guilty about this, self-berating for every unfinished course because I lost interest too soon, every new hobby I picked up and abandoned, every new (and unrelated to the previous) degree I signed up for, knowing deep down that I will never finish it.
There Is Always a Book to the Rescue
Until, over a decade ago, I came across a book by Barbara Sher, called Refuse to Choose.
Sher calls people like me Scanners. We dive fast into multitudes of interests, we go in with great passion and excitement, and then…we move on to something else.
We are the Renaissance Souls, up there with the likes of Aristotle and Da Vinci, dabbling into many things, not necessarily being an expert on any. Sher says:
“But what few people remember is that both these men were complete amateurs. They lacked any kind of credentials that would get them respect or even a job today.”
She goes on to assure us that it is ok to scan through our interests and abandon them guilt-free when we are no longer interested.
“You see, you’re not someone without direction; you’re an investigator, and the whole investigative process consists of learning a little bit about everything that looks interesting to you.”
It is counter-intuitive in this day and age, where specializing is the way to go and becoming something that you will later be able to define yourself by is a norm.
But Scanner’s success is having been interested in a particular pursuit at all.
“Your wandering may have given you more marketable skills than you realize,” she says and personally, I have come to cherish my versatile experiences.
Refuse to Choose Tips
Sher advises us to just…try it all. And to keep a detailed record of our pursuit in, what she calls, a Scanner Daybook. By keeping a thorough record, we will, eventually, start to see patterns and “the hidden theme” in everything we love.
She gives us a way to honor our interests by advising us to open a separate binder or a box for every new interest and to fill it until we get whatever we need out of it. And then to give it an ending when we are done with it.
Sher calls it the Scanner Finish.
“…some version of the Life’s Work Bookshelf. How about a collage of all your certificates in a large, framed picture to show off what you’ve learned? Add photographs of the things you’ve done and the places you’ve been to remind yourself that you’re not just a helpful person who’s good at a lot of things—you’re a highly accomplished person in your own right.”
How simple and yet so liberating.
I am lucky to be living in the time of Evernote and similar apps (the book predates that) and my collection can grow digitally without cluttering my home. (minimalism, uncluttering, and organizing is a reoccurring interest of mine)
Most importantly, pursuing our many interests can result in, but doesn’t have to be linked to any monetary advantage. This is a refreshing viewpoint, I think, because most of my adult life, the most frequent comment to many of my pursuits was “can you earn money from that” as if it is the only way to put value on anything.
I recently wrote a blog post about the meaning of success.
Sher says: “”Let’s end the notion that ideas have no value unless they turn into a business or have some other practical use. Save them all in a beautiful book like Leonardo did. You might want to give them away someday, perhaps to someone who needs an idea.”
Too Many Interests as A Life Value?
While I still admire my friends who can focus on one career or one or two interests in their life, after reading this book, I no longer felt guilty that I can’t. (and don’t want to)
I embraced my ability to be passionately interested in many things, even if for a short time. And even if nothing (tangible) came out of it.
In fact, pursuing my different interests is one of my life values and I take it seriously.
And if my children are like me, I want to teach them that it is ok. As long as they are happy and fulfilled. They do not have to struggle and feel guilty for their inability to choose just one.
Having freed myself from the guilt of having too many interests and being a jack of all trades, master of none – as Sher predicted, something significant happened.
Stop Dreaming, Start Doing
I stopped dreaming about things, I stopped making bucket lists and plans – but I started doing things and in the process, narrowed down what I am truly interested in.
- I wanted to hike to Machu Pichu – I went to my local mountain first. (you may have done this, dreamed big, without trying small) The experience taught me that I have much to learn about hiking and that I can get the enjoyment of it right now where I am.
- I started writing (and finished that novel) instead of imagining myself in a beautiful setting with all the time in the world to write. (still working on actually sending it somewhere to try and get it published)
- I took a photography class (and, as a result, decided that being a photographer isn’t my dream job)
- I took a yoga teacher training (which helped me deepen my practice but made me realize that I probably won’t ever teach classes)
- I became a feng shui consultant (and realized that my interest lay in feng shuing my own home and not in some in-depth pursuit)
- I took some piano lessons with my son and realized that I do not want to put the effort and energy into learning how to play.
You get the gist.
If you take any action towards your new interest, I now believe that even after a few hours of dedicated pursuit, you will know if it is something that you want to keep on doing. Or maybe you will consciously leave it for later.
“Start small. Start now. It’s time for you to know the whole process: Start small. Start now. Start everything. And don’t bother to finish any of it,” Sher says.
I no longer have a list. I don’t need one.
I didn’t do most of the things that used to be on the list, because in the process of following my interests guilt-free and not leaving it for some magical moment when I have more time, more money, a skinnier body… I realized that many things on my list were borrowed from others. They were not my true desires.
I was distracted by the new shiny objects. The things I saw people doing and I wanted it all.
It Is Ok to Be a Renaissance Soul
Now I have a system not to get caught up in the new shining objects but still pursue my real interests.
If I want to do something, I let it sit for a little while, and then I do some research on it. I journal about it. I imagine trying it out or going at it on a deeper level. That is where it usually ends.
If it doesn’t, I open a new Evernote notebook and do what I can right now.
That is the key. Doing it now in any way possible, rather than building it up in your head by waiting for it.
But by trying out right away most of what I wanted taught me some valuable lessons. I am not genuinely interested in everything. There was a pattern to my interests, just like Sher says we will discover.
I still have too many interests and there are new ones on the horizon, but I welcome them now. I pursue them and leave them be.
I learned that no knowledge is for nothing! It may not have a straightforward or tangible effect on my life right now, but as you move on, you will know that the time invested in your interests is never wasted.
Experiencing this world with passion and a sense of wonder is what some of us see as our life purpose.
There is a wonderful book called The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine.
I read this book before I read Refuse to Choose and I loved its message. But it didn’t stay with me over the years as much as Sher’s book did. (I keep returning to my Kindle Highlights of it) I think it is because Sher’s book offered real, tangible solutions (even if a little outdated now, but easily translatable into the 21st century, see my Evernote screenshot above as one example)
But if you can spare the time, I wholeheartedly recommend both books.