So – what is a Dilettante and what does he do?
Well, that depends on who you ask.
Actually, it depends on when you ask. As in what historical time-period.
You see, it used to be that the word “dilettante” meant someone with a lot of interests and the means to pursue those interests (whether that be time, money, energy, curiosity, etc.). And this was looked at as a positive attribute.
Word Origin and History for dilettante (n.)
But nowadays, in our specialized and organization-driven society, we look at one with various and seemingly unconnected interests as a bad thing. A distraction and a dilution of brain-power.
The current definition of the word “dilettante” implies a dabbler or an amateur (more on this word in a second) – someone who pretends to have knowledge but only possesses cursory knowledge that he passes off for deeper understanding or intelligence.
I believe widely-known social psychologist and author of the NYT Best-seller, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes the issue with the greatest clarity:
“There are two words whose meanings reflect our somewhat warped attitudes toward levels of commitment to physical or mental activities. These are the terms amateur and dilettante. Nowadays these labels are slightly derogatory. An amateur or a dilettante is someone not quite up to par, a person not to be taken very seriously, one whose performance falls short of professional standards. But originally, “amateur,” from the Latin verb amare, “to love,” referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly a “dilettante,” from the Latin delectare, “to find delight in,” was someone who enjoyed a given activity. The earliest meanings of these words therefore drew attention to experiences rather than accomplishments; they described the subjective rewards individuals gained from doing things, instead of focusing on how well they were achieving. Nothing illustrates as clearly our changing attitudes toward the value of experience as the fate of these two words. There was a time when it was admirable to be an amateur poet or a dilettante scientist, because it meant that the quality of life could be improved by engaging in such activities. But increasingly the emphasis has been to value behavior over subjective states; what is admired is success, achievement, the quality of performance rather than the quality of experience. Consequently, it has become embarrassing to be called a dilettante, even though to be a dilettante is to achieve what counts most—the enjoyment one’s actions provide.”
In naming my site “The Dilettante,” I am doing three things:
- A somewhat rebellious or mischievous “up yours” to the conformist advisors. The people who told me, “the worst thing you can be is a ‘jack of all trades.’”
- Promoting an (old) idea in hopes of starting some of the conversation.
- Helping to inspire and encourage my personal goal to become the older definition and not the current definition – as I am still caught somewhere in the middle. In fact, I am not a professional, but rather a dilettante writer.
To be clear, I am very familiar with the position that one who tries to learn everything ends up learning nothing. I’ve read the famous Russian proverb: “the man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” And I do not necessarily disagree.
But I am also weary of a single-minded, specialized approach, as I believe that it potentially creates a creative dead-end or tunnel-vision. Adam Grant, Wharton Professor and two-time NYT Best-seller says: “Originals don’t tend to have the deepest expertise in their field; they tend to have the broadest experience.” What Steve Jobs called a different “bag of experiences.” [click here for more on Grant and Originals].
Perhaps the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. Maybe having your one main pursuit and mixing in different smaller projects or interests in your free time. Or maybe it’s having multiple major pursuits sequentially. So five years in tech, five years in movies, five years in academia, etc.
Unfortunately, I have no idea, nor do I have any credibility, having not actually “done” anything. In fact, I probably still fit the current definition.
Would love to here some thoughts on this.
-The Dilettante – J