While it's perfectly okay to dabble in a variety of interests to discover what you enjoy, if you really want to get good at something, a serious commitment is required. Dabbling is great for experimenting, but it's lousy for long-term skill building. To master a skill, move beyond dabbling and make a serious commitment to your craft.
Dabbling vs. Committing
I remember reading about a study which showed that for students learning to play musical instruments, progress was measurably faster for those students with the greatest commitment levels. For the filtering mechanism, students were asked how long they felt they'd be playing their instruments. Answers like "I don't know" signaled low commitment while answers like "for the rest of my life" signaled high commitment. The students that expected they'd be playing their instruments for years to come progressed much faster than their less committed peers, even with significantly less practice time each week.
This makes perfect sense to me. One of the key lessons I learned from Paul Scheele's PhotoReading course is that the most important thing I can do to improve my speed and comprehension when reading a new book is to clarify my purpose for reading that book. If I read with good purpose, I can digest a book quickly and with solid comprehension of the points that are relevant to my purpose. But if I read without a clear purpose, I'll remember very little of that book just a few weeks later. I now use this approach with audiobooks too, asking myself, "Why would I listen to this? What do I want to learn or gain from this?" even before I purchase it.
I used this approach when learning professional speaking. I sought out local professional speakers in Las Vegas that I could network with and learn from, but I also made a long-term commitment to improve my skills. I wasn't just dabbling. When I started on this path, I decided to really go for it — to be in it for the long haul. And so I worked hard and learned quickly. Now I'm able to earn more from public speaking than many of the people who initially mentored me on this path.
By contrast I have many friends that have been in Toastmasters for years — even decades — yet their speaking skills remain fairly amateurish relative to how much time they've invested in their craft. They treat speaking mainly as a hobby and a social outlet, so they've never made a serious commitment to improving.
A Decade of Practice
Practicing your craft isn't merely a matter of putting in the time. Just as my Toastmaster friends experienced, you can invest a great many years in your craft and not improve much. When you're a total novice, you're likely to improve quickly no matter what since you have so much to learn. But eventually you'll stagnate and find yourself stuck in that middling zone somewhere between amateur and pro. To reach the pro level of trade craft, begin thinking about the long term, and commit yourself to improving your skills over the next decade or two.
When it comes to these types of commitments, I like thinking a decade ahead. I ask myself, In which areas of my life am I willing to commit myself to serious practice and improvement over the next 10 years?
For instance, I've been willing to make these kinds of commitments with learning computer game programming (since 1981), with running and improving my games business (1994-2004), with eating 100% vegan (since 1997), with blogging (since 2004), with professional speaking (since 2008 in the personal development field), and now with public workshops (since 2009).
By contrast I was not willing to make this kind of long-term commitment with my disc golf hobby, and so my disc golf skills have been languishing. I've improved only slightly in the past few years, even though I first started playing around 1992, and semi-regularly for the last 5-6 years. The last time I achieved my personal best on my favorite course was probably 3-4 years ago, although I came within 2 points of it the last time I played. If, however, I had made a 10-year commitment to disc golf when I first started learning it, I have no doubt I'd be much better at the game than I am now.
I like the 10-year timespan because it helps me clarify which pursuits are worth it. Disc golf is just something I do for fun — I don't really care all that much about improving. For me it's a social activity, and it could actually be less fun if I was so much better than the friends I play with regularly. I get more value from the friendship, the errant throws, and the laughter than I do from performing well at the game.
But with something like developing and delivering public workshops, where an improvement in my skills can mean better gains for others, I want to improve significantly over the next decade. When I look at how far I've come since I began (my first serious paid speech on personal growth was in 2008), I'm extremely pleased with my progress. The difference in quality between CGW #1 in 2009 and CGW #6 last weekend was undeniable. This also makes me excited to realize that I probably can't even fathom what my workshops will look like in 2015.
What 10-Year Commitments Are Worthy of You?
What pursuits are you willing to commit yourself to for the next 10 years? This is a great question to ask yourself. What do you expect that you'll still be doing 10 years from now, in the year 2021?
You may not know for certain, but take a guess. What appeals to you so much that it will probably still be a part of your life a decade from now? Those are great candidates for 10-year commitments.
A great use of dabbling is actually to discover the best long-term commitments for you to make. So dabble for discovery. Then commit for mastery.
Since I turned 40 earlier this year, I've been pondering what new 10-year commitments I might want to make next. What new skills would I like to integrate by age 50?
At this point I'm still dabbling for discovery in those areas, but a couple of options feel intuitively promising to me.
The first area would be to do something with video. This would add another medium to my existing repertoire of blogging, workshops, etc. I think this would be a lot of fun, and I like the idea of opening another serious outlet for expressing my message of conscious growth.
The second area would be within the realm of music. One thing I've noticed is that many of my older peers in this field have well-developed musical abilities. They can play instruments, sing, write and perform their own songs, etc. I got to chatting with one musically talented friend last year and asked him if he felt that studying music would enhance my personal development, and his opinion was that it definitely would. I don't know how to play any instruments, but I have many friends with strong musical skills, including those who make a great living as musicians, so I have plenty of resources to turn to there.
Intuitively I feel more drawn to explore something musical, such as learning to play an instrument, or to sing, or to create songs with the help of a computer. I'm not sure where to begin yet since I don't know what I'd be good at or what I'd enjoy. But I like the idea of turning 50 with some well-developed musical skills.
As a first step in this direction, I know how effective it is to broadcast our desires, so I'm doing just that, even though this desire isn't clearly formed yet. I really love the process that unfolds after I do this — new resources and leads showing up, new suggestions, helpful advice about what and what not to do.
I encourage you to start thinking about what kinds of 10-year commitments you'd be willing to make. If you think diligently pursuing some interests over such a stretch of time, it can sharpen your short-term decisions and practice, and you can progress much more quickly.