In this post, I’d like to try to raise the relative status of the casual polymath, at least insofar as it motivates an individual to decide what she should work on. It seems likely to me that pursuing expertise is overrepresented in career-advice-giving contexts, and that we should try to reframe not being an expert in a more positive light. We fetishise a very specific sort of expertise – A Beautiful Mind, 100-hours-a-week, obsessional expertise – as the gold standard for living meaningful intellectual lives. I’d like to suggest that there’s an alternative approach.
So here’s my reframing: more of us should try to be enthusiastic amateurs.
Firstly, as should be clear to anybody who interacts with me, I am not an expert at anything. And it’s quite possible that I’m telling this story to coddle my psyche; to bolster my self-confidence as I cling tightly to µ; to sit more readily on my averagely-comfortable chair, drinking Nescafé, as I type on my mid-range laptop with my average-sized hands. I will never have the temperament or talent to be world-class at anything, and I’d still like to be able to sleep at night.
However, I think the life of an enthusiastic amateur is not only a good one, but that cultivating it is also often the rational choice for somebody to make.
At the very least, the expertise norm is overrepresented, and that there’s value to be gained by exploring an alternative.
Who are enthusiastic amateurs? Enthusiastic amateurs are people that work hard to see the world through as many lenses as possible. They care less about being great, and more about being good enough. They aspire to be polymaths, but recognise that the definition is wanting.1
How do they compare to experts? An expert is a hedgehog; an enthusiastic amateur is a fox. An expert relies on precision; an enthusiastic amateur relies on scope. An expert is tenacious; an enthusiastic amateur is mercurial. An expert toils; an enthusiastic amateur plays.
There are obvious trade-offs to chasing expertise, and the world obviously needs people willing to make those trade-offs (an enthusiastic amateur isn’t going to engineer a rocket good enough to get humans safely to Mars, although one might build a company capable of doing so). The trouble is, you don’t really know if you’ve got the capacity to be an expert at anything until you already are one. Mozart is the exception, not the rule. Unless you feel the gods have conspired to put you where you are, expertise is the sort of thing you need to work very, very hard to achieve.
From a position of uncertainty relative to one’s own abilities, then, deciding to pursue excellence in one thing seems like a risky strategy. You could chase expertise, drill, rinse, repeat. Develop slowly a garrison of discipline and knowledge and finely-honed tools for solving the more abstruse problems in your field. Learn deeply, and feel engaged in some sort of higher purpose; luxuriate in our collective teleological hangover.
That’s the success path. There’s a failure path too. You chase expertise, drill, rinse, repeat. You spend early mornings and late nights playing your scales. You run up against your natural limits, and you don’t push past them. You continue to push, because you’re told there are diminishing returns and you need to keep working. But you never actually get past that point. You learn to work around your limitations in various ways in order to make this Sisyphean effort seem worthwhile, but you’re really just fooling yourself into thinking you’re getting more competent. Or, even if you are improving, you might never close the gap between you and your nearest competitor. There are a lot of dedicated, hard-working, decidedly non-expert people. There are far fewer who will meaningfully change their field.
You’re probably not going to become an expert. And if you’re probably not going to be an expert in the one or two things you care enough about in order to try, you’re more likely than not setting yourself up to fail. Failing can be a pretty unpleasant experience, and fighting through failure is so often a pyrrhic victory. Being irredeemably bad at something isn’t fun. This is an important psychological cost to factor in before you dedicate your life to something. (Expected value theory might be useful here: what’s the cost of failure multiplied by the probability that failure will happen? If you’re honest with yourself, it’s not likely that that number will be a ringing endorsement of pursuing expertise.)
As well as the psychological cost incurred when you wrap up your identity in a métier and then fail to live up to your own expectations, the pursuit of expertise has high opportunity costs, too: the costs incurred by not doing the other things that you could be doing while you pursue expertise. What you enjoy doing often changes, so if you spend the time becoming an expert, slogging over the plateau, it’s likely that you’ll miss out on a bunch of possible fun that you could have were your focus more elastic.
Another cost: I’m not convinced that there are always diminishing X-returns for X-ing, but there is a subset of Xs for which there are certainly diminishing social returns. You don’t need to be a Master of Wine to impress most dining companions: even if they are Masters of Wine, most other people are so far away from even passably knowledgeable about wine that a middling level of understanding can yield the majority of the benefits – the signalling power – that you can get from knowing about wine. In other words, you don’t need to be an expert to be impressive, even in the eyes of other experts.
If there are less obvious costs to being an expert, there are also less obvious benefits to being an enthusiastic amateur. It’s easy to underrate the benefits to being competent at a lot of things, especially when they’re compared to being excellent at one thing.
The world can often seem set up to reward experts more and reward enthusiastic amateurs less: academia seems to be a 1000-year experiment to institutionalise this model. But such entrenched reward systems often offer the opportunity for arbitrage. Being good enough at lots of things means that you can often see connections between subjects that experts, siloed into their conceptual schemes, can’t.2 Phillip Tetlock argues that being a fox makes you, on average, a better predictor of the future, for much the same reasons. Academia is famously siloed, but some of the best papers I’ve read are clever precisely because they apply techniques from one field to the problems of another. There is such a thing as gestalt knowledge, and I’d wager that enthusiastic amateurs are better at finding it than experts.
On the other hand, there’s definitely some class of problems which require deep expertise to see and understand and solve. Some problems need smart people to sit and think very hard about for a long time. But I think we generally over-index on this sort of expertise, both institutionally (via the peer-review process) and in a more broad sense, culturally.
Being good enough has another interesting corollary: being good enough at a range of things creates interesting intersections at which you can be an expert. I might not be an expert programmer, or the world’s best philosopher, or the world’s foremost authority on wine or US politics or any of my other interests. But I’m probably in the top 1% of the general population at the intersection of those things, simply by virtue of the rarity of that intersection and my enthusiasm in pursuing them. By cultivating wider interests, and by getting good enough at a broad range of things, you can carve out interesting niches which give you both the ability to be world-leading in that niche and also emerge naturally from the explorations you make, rather than because of your dogged pursuit of decisions made a priori. In other words: being an enthusiastic amateur doesn’t mean you need to give up your edge. (As long as there are only a few enthusiastic amateurs, being an enthusiastic amateur might itself be an edge.) And, nowadays, niches can pay.
One of my smartest friends pointed out that the pursuit of enthusiastic amateurness is a very Theory of Action-driven thing. That is, it suggests answers to the question “what should I do next?” rather than “what should I do in order to achieve XYZ?”. He’s right, of course, but a priorly-formed want to achieve XYZ is the hallmark of a wannabe-expert, and therefore not per se the sort of thing that enthusiastic amateurs will be concerned with. The sort of long-term goals that Theories of Change point toward are often, at least at the subject-level3, underspecified or weighed inappropriately in the more general calculation about how one should live one’s life.
The same friend also pointed out that advice is often written for the wrong people, that being an enthusiastic amateur might also incur costs. One potential cost here: it might make it more challenging to signal your commitment to a group, and therefore make it more difficult to be embedded in a community of peers. He suggested for this reason that to the extent that one can choose their community, it’s better to be more specialised (and therefore expertise is rewarded proportionally). I don’t disagree. It might be. But presumably groups of enthusiastic amateurs – LessWrong? Interintellect? – interested in how best they can be enthusiastic amateurs, exhibit the same sorts of dynamics. If you’re looking to signal your commitment to a group, “enthusiastic amateurs” might not be a bad group to join.
Enthusiastic amateurs aren’t sloppy, or dismissive of expertise. The point is not to be bad at lots of things. It’s to recognise that expertise isn’t the end of the story, and that being good enough at a lot of stuff is often so much more rewarding than being really good at one thing. For many people, expertise is just out of acceptable reach. Whatever you’re good at, there is likely a Chinese toddler doing it better than you could ever hope to. Some people are born with the requisite interest and determination and tenacity to pursue excellence at one big thing. Many, many people are not. I’m pretty sure that a lot of what becoming an expert in something and sustaining that expertise is a slog, and that a lot of people don’t enjoy it as much as they think they should, and that their response to being uninspired is to accept being mediocre, and that this shouldn’t be where careers advice leads. As a result, I don’t think that traditional expertise-oriented career advice is especially good advice for the median person.
Being ‘good enough at X’ for many Xs is completely attainable and, I think, can often set you up to be rewarded socially and commercially. There are lots of people who should know, be emboldened by the fact that expertise is one way amongst several to slice the pie. You can have a rich and rewarding intellectual life without demanding of yourself that you know what you’re destined to do from an early age, or even be destined to do anything. That you can indulge your broader interests without it immediately being written off as procrastination. It’s also playful, in an earnest sense. For many, the life of an enthusiastic amateur is, I really, truly, believe, a lot more fun.
I don’t, for instance, think that the piano-benefits to becoming an expert pianist diminish with more practice. As far as I can tell, being able to play a complicated piece marginally better does unlock new modes of expression and new value in the piece, and, moreover, that seems to happen proportionally to the amount of work you put in. Once you’re an expert, small variations can produce outsized results. This seems especially true in competitive zero-sum games that get repeated over time, like two tennis players facing off regularly. Relative to me, Federer’s marginal training session likely won’t change the outcome of our match. Relative to Nadal, it seems, that extra practice might make all the difference. ↩
For some examples, see David Epstein’s Range. ↩
I’m not quite sure about the meta-level. It might still make sense to pursue expertise at goal formation, or productivity, or something. Enthusiastic amateurs tend to be quite productive, relative to the mean. But maybe that’s because a lot of what they do is amongst the lower-hanging fruit, rather than because they’re productivity experts or aiming to be such. ↩