I have come to accept that I have a wandering nature and lust for new experiences. Over the past few years, I have lived and traveled in many different countries, worked a few different jobs, and studied half a dozen languages. There are still so many more things that I want to try. For the next few years, I have planned out the top destinations that I wish visit, jobs that I want to work, and experiences that I want to seek. In essence, I hope to continually broaden my horizons by exploring the world and its people.
Sounds like an exciting plan, right? Yet one recent experience has given me pause. Or rather, this experience clarified for me a nagging doubt regarding this plan.
During one of the evening video discourses at the Vipassana meditation course that I have discussed elsewhere, the venerable instructor S. N. Goenka was making a point about the study of various meditation techniques. Referring to foreign tourists in India, he cautioned against too much “shopping around” for meditation schools. Whether one chooses Vipassana or another meditation technique, one should keep practicing that technique, rather than continually jumping from one to another.
The metaphor he used was of a man digging a well. The man begins digging, but after burrowing a few feet into the Earth, he stops, moves a few feet away, and begins digging another hole. A few feet into that hole, he stops and moves again. After awhile, he will have a field full of shallow holes, but no well from which he may draw water.
Since that evening, I have thought about this metaphor a lot, and worried about the extent of its relevance to my own life. I fear that I may be becoming the perpetual well-digger. Moving from country to country, language to language, skill to skill. Jack of all trades, master of none. A dabbler; staying through the honeymoon period, but quitting when the going gets tough.
Musical instruments? Bought a keyboard and songbook, messed around for a few weeks, then let it gather dust for years. Similar story with the guitar. Languages? I know several at an intermediate level, but none (besides my native English) fluently. Sports? I’ve dabbled in boxing, krav maga, swimming, and others, but become highly skilled in none of them.
My Australia Project is a good example of this problem. I came here, to an English-speaking country, looking to take advantage of the opportunity to expand a variety of skills that I’d previously flirted with. These included swimming, stand-up comedy, improvisational comedy, salsa dancing, kettlebell training, writing, video editing, meditation, tantra, and massage. While here, I have followed that pattern of pursuing all of them to varying degrees, but getting truly good at none of them.
Ah, the pathetic nature of it all. Is there no ray of positive light in this morass of unfulfilled commitments?
Of course there is. In my time in Australia, I have gotten a much better idea of which skills I want to pursue further, and which I am content to let go of. I have sunk my teeth into life, met a wide variety of people, and challenged myself in a number of diverse ways. I have clarified my mission and purpose in life, and have a much better idea of what I want going forward.
I believe this to be the answer to my conundrum. It is possible to be a successful traveler, wanderer, “liver of life”; going from place to place, continually pushing the limits of one’s comfort zone, and broadening one’s horizons. To continue the original metaphor, although one is moving from place to place and skill to skill, living such a life can still amount to digging just one well. Fulfillment can be found in both 30 years in one place, and 30 years in 30 places. “Renaissance Man” is a noble goal for which to aim.
However, the catch is that in choosing such a life, one walks a fine line in not being a perpetual quitter. Whenever one starts a new undertaking, the beginning is challenging, but in a good way. It’s new and exciting and fun. But soon the grind sets in, and that’s when most people quit and move on to something else. As I pointed out earlier, I have been guilty of falling into this pattern many times in my life. It’s ok to quit, provided that you are doing it because you genuinely want to apply your time and effort to a different endeavor, rather than because you’re too lazy to see through your current commitment.
(For a far more in-depth and eloquent explanation of this subject, check out Seth Godin’s wonderful book The Dip. And for a practical application about learning the violin, have a look at this great article by Tynan.)
Furthermore, I think a balance must be maintained between trying new things, and effectively learning new skills. As I’ve said, opening oneself to new experiences both enriches the quality of life and helps to decide what destinations, languages, instruments, skills, or professions one is truly interested in pursuing.
However, once those skills that one wants to improve are identified, the same scattered approach now becomes a hindrance and a waste of valuable energy. I have been inspired by writings on productivity that encourage full dedication to one project for a short period of time before moving on to the next skill, rather than tackling several projects at once. In other words, say that you wanted to learn to play guitar, dance salsa, and speak French. You would learn each of these skills better and with more lasting effect if you intensively studied guitar for three months, salsa for three months, and French for three months, rather than spending nine months taking a few classes in all three.
A similar criticism of multi-tasking as being an inefficient use of time is one that can be found in other productivity guides, and the practical benefits of the single-goal approach can be seen in the endeavors of Benny Morris and Tim Ferriss. I am excited to try this approach out in the near future, and will be documenting my results here.
I am confident in my plan going forward, yet at the same time the weight of my past mistakes sits heavily on my mind. I will continually strive to walk that line between enslavement to one endeavor and flirting with too many. On that line lies my well. Follow it straight down, and I will find my water.