In Defense of Dabbling

Updated: Jul 22, 2019

There’s value in trying things without commitment

Liz Krieger

As I write this, there’s an almost-new guitar sitting in my parents’ basement, a pair of slightly scuffed tap shoes in my closet, one mostly deformed ring holder on my dresser, and a dwindling supply of handmade thank-you cards — well, somewhere in my apartment, I think.

Collectively, these items tell the story of a decade’s worth of short-lived forays into new hobbies. Over the past 10 years, I’ve taken five guitar lessons, six tap-dancing classes, eight pottery-wheel classes, a two-day letterpress workshop, and two beginner ballet classes. And this ragtag collection of souvenirs is all I have to show for it all. There are no photos of me onstage at some sweaty-palmed recital. I don’t have a side gig selling pinch pots.

I loved those classes. I don’t regret a dime spent or an hour filled. Each one scratched an itch I was having, taught me something, or filled time in a pleasant way. But I still can’t help but feel a little sheepish whenever I look at my tap shoes. It’s hard to shake the nagging suspicion that I’ve somehow failed.

The world doesn’t look too kindly on a dabbler. In fact, there’s another, even less positive word for it: dilettante. It’s a word that connotes a blithe carelessness, a flightiness, a lack of seriousness or depth.

“Our society is overall a very goal-oriented, competitive culture,” says clinical psychologist Ariane Smith Machín, founder of the Conscious Coaching Collective in Raleigh, North Carolina. “So when we engage in something, we evaluate it in terms of our success, which is usually assessed in what we have achieved.”

By that logic, doing for doing’s sake, with nothing to show for it, is a waste of time. Kids are encouraged — sometimes subtly, sometimes with a heavy hand — to get a leg up in college admissions by getting their 10,000 hours underway on a hobby or sport (based on the idea, first introduced in a 1973 psychology paper and later popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, that 10,000 hours of practice can be a pathway to expertise). But being a generalist has gotten a bit of a bad rap.

And our culture of self-improvement only perpetuates this notion, says Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin whose studies focus on the Buddhist concept of self-compassion. “There’s this pervasive sense that we aren’t okay as we are. That we need to be better, better, better.” Going deep on one thing at a time is a way to do that. Skimming the surface of many things, not so much.

That’s too bad, says David Epstein, author of the recently published Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. In the book, he makes the case that many of the top people in elite fields (sports, science, arts) are actually super successful because they did so much dabbling before they found their calling — not because they honed in on their niche at an early age.

We worry about quitting things we’ve already sunk time into rather than cutting our losses and bailing on something that’s just not working.

Epstein highlights the importance of what he calls “match quality”: the idea that whatever you do should fit with your interests and abilities. If, say, you take a few guitar lessons before deciding you don’t care to continue, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lazy or lacking grit, a buzzword that seems to be on everyone’s minds these days. All it means is that the match quality is poor — in which case, quitting should be seen as a success, not a failure. And if you want to be serious about something, dabbling allows you to find the best match quality before committing. (Indeed, Epstein himself earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science and astronomy before pivoting to journalism in graduate school.)

Research backs this up: Studies have shown that we tend to overvalue the desire to not waste time. As a result, we worry about quitting things we’ve already sunk time into rather than cutting our losses and bailing on something that’s just not working, which would likely make us happier and less stressed.

Some research even suggests that dabbling can help shape you for the better. Levels of openness — one of the so-called “big five” traits that psychologists use to assess personality — tend to go down as we age, but trying new things can help slow that decline. One study published in Psychology and Aging of elderly people doing sudoku and crossword puzzles, for instance, found that even those who never mastered those little grids still became more open just by trying.

That’s not to say that your dabbling has to be some quest for self-improvement. One thing that often gets lost in our conversations about hobbies and commitment, Machín says, is just plain fun. Pleasure. Happiness.

“For example, when I turned 40, I finally decided to buy myself a good camera and signed up for camera lessons, which I totally loved,” she says. “It was something I always wanted to do but never made time for it.” Exploring a new pastime simply because you want to should be reason enough.

Of course, quitting an activity you’ve started can sometimes be a mistake, and if quitting things becomes a chronic habit, that could be a sign of some sort of dysfunction. To determine the difference between dabbling and quitting, examine your intention from the outset. If you signed up for that basket-weaving class with a specific goal of making the centerpieces for a friend’s wedding or of meaningfully supplementing your income with a basket business, then bagging it halfway probably isn’t a great idea (and might lead to some ugly centerpieces).

But if you signed up to reawaken a creative side that’s felt a little dormant lately, a quick dose might be all you need to get your groove back, and you should walk away when you feel you’ve gotten what you want out of the experience.

Neff’s advice is to appreciate it for what it was and how it fulfilled your basket-weaving needs. “If doing it satisfied your curiosity and if going back might not have been fun,” she says, “then you did it just right.”