Eclectic Living: Dilettante or Da Vinci?

Dilettante or Da Vinci?Does your heart beat faster with excitement when you learn new terms like polymath, multipotentialite, Renaissance soul? Maybe that’s because you are one – you get excited about learning, new experiences, self-improvement. Your energy level rises when you embark on a new project, a new adventure. You work on multiple projects at a time. My brother calls us deep generalists – we’re interested in many things, and we often delve into those interests to feed our passion.

I like to think of us as eclectics. Historically, eclectics gathered the choicest bits and pieces of philosophy into a coherent whole. Here at the Cottage, we gather bits and pieces of living that fulfill us. Eclectic Living involves balancing multiple interests, ideas, and actions for a better life.

But we’re supposed to focus, right? Narrow your focus and become really good at what you do. I don’t see anything wrong with this – for some people. In high school, my friend William was passionate about highway design and safety – I’m sure he made a great engineer. Alejandro Bonifacio has spent his life growing and studying quinoa and its potential to save the world. My college adviser was one of those kids who collected bugs, and now he’s a renowned entomologist. We need passionate specialists in society.

But many of us don’t fit that mold, yet we’re in a society that values specialization, and many of us find ourselves pigeonholed into jobs and lives that stifle our creative aspirations.*

Several years ago, I felt pressure to be more productive, to grow up – really, to have more “focus” in my life.  I was in my early 30’s. I had a house painting company. I owned my own home and a rental property. In the winters, when painting slowed down, I worked on various other projects. I spent months researching careers, trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. In the end, though, I realized that what I really valued was the freedom that came from being my own boss. All those projects I got to do in my free time, that was my passion – I was continually doing new and interesting things. This was eclectic living, and the realization that this was what I wanted to do freed me to pursue more ambitious and meaningful projects.

It turns out that focus was not what I needed. I could work on multiple projects simultaneously, which was invigorating, and I could still be productive – in many ways I became more productive.

There are, of course, some perils that accompany eclectic living:

  1. Dilettantism: I define this as not being able to finish projects because there’s always a newer, more exciting project to be started. One day you decide you’re going to build a birch bark canoe, the next day (after gathering some bark) you’ve given up on the canoe in favor of researching moringa trees to curb world hunger. Soon, your literal and figurative backyard is filled with broken appliances (because you wanted to learn how to fix them), landscaping equipment (from the company you almost started), and a leaky sailboat (for the trip you planned to take around the world).** Not all projects will come to fruition, but it’s nice to have some upfront idea that this is really a project you’d like to see through.
  2. Anomie: This is another misappropriation (got a better word?), but I use “anomie” for lacking direction because you’re going in so many directions at once. I hate to say it, but some focus is important. Make a list of priorities, break down a project into tasks, and focus on getting one task done at a time (you can switch from one project to another, as long as you complete a task). So your tasks could be, “1. Gather birch bark,” then “2. Research moringa,”  but just make sure it eventually gets back to “Make frame, and attach birch bark.” You can have a wildly, well, eclectic to-do list, as long as it’s organized in a way that moves you forward.
  3. Triage: Maybe you are good at finishing projects, and you don’t feel a lack of direction, but because every idea is so good, you have too many going on at once. Much of your time is spent doing triage, and quantity survives while quality lies bleeding to death on the battlefield. There’s a balance between quantity and quality, and sometimes we need to sacrifice a little of the latter just to get shit done, but we don’t want to sacrifice too much (more on this in a later post). One of my “projects” happens to be my family, and I’ve sometimes spread myself too thin to spend enough quality time with them.***
  4. Societal Norms: Society, family, and friends may have different expectations for how you should be living your life, and there may be some pressure to focus, get a real job. I’ve had little pressure in this regard (aside from some occasional in-law comments), but my guess is that success breeds respect (and if it doesn’t, you can take comfort in the fact that you feel fulfilled). By success, I mean choosing interesting and meaningful projects, and finishing those projects.

I keep a notebook of ideas, inventions, plans, notions, thoughts, and quotes. I write down most of these ideas, some of which may seem (or are) pretty dumb. My notebook is a repository – just writing the idea down is an accomplishment, and if that idea never makes it off the page, I still have a sense of satisfaction. Some ideas resurface, and some seem good enough to start actualizing. To avoid the pitfalls above, before embarking on a project, it’s important to think through how it fits with your current situation:

  • Is it a worthwhile project? If you need money, will it make some for you? Will it help you improve? Will it make the world better? Is there something better you can do instead?
  • Can you pull it off? Is this a project that you can finish with a reasonable degree of quality? And quality can be whatever you define it as: your foray into gouache still lifes may have resulted in an ugly painting, but it still has quality if your goal was to learn about gouache still lifes.
  • Is now the time to start this project? Do you have too many unfinished projects going on already?

So are you a dilettante or a da Vinci? Well, it turns out da Vinci himself was both a dilettante and, well, da Vinci. He was a genius who accomplished amazing feats in multifarious endeavors. He was also, on many occasions, a sub-par contractor who left his clients holding the bag. But of course his achievements far outweigh his failings.

Michael Gelb, in his book “How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci,” posited seven characteristics that made da Vinci da Vinci:

  1. Curiosita: Continuously approaching life with wide-eyed curiosity
  2. Dimostrazione: Testing one’s understanding of the world, and learning from one’s mistakes
  3. Sensazione: Continually improving how one perceives the world through sense
  4. Sfumato: Embracing ambiguity and uncertainty
  5. Arte/Scienza: Cultivating a balance between art and science, logic and creativity
  6. Corporalita: Improving one’s bodily fitness
  7. Connessione: Understanding the interconnectedness of all

This multidisciplinary approach is eclectic living. Most of us will never paint the Mona Lisa, but a good dose of sfumato, curiosita, etc. at least gets some paint on the canvas.


*Has this become less true in the internet age?

**My backyard isn’t this bad, but it currently requires some major attention – and one of the things is a broken hot tub. I’ll get to it.

***Full Disclosure: I’m writing this post after work hours while my wife attends to the kids and makes dinner… but this kind of lapse is more occasional than it used to be (which means my marital bliss level is at an all-time high).

4 thoughts on “Eclectic Living: Dilettante or Da Vinci?

  1. Great post. I once remarked to my cousin, a fellow autodidact, about how I often felt like the halftime show guy who spins plates on posts and ends up running frantically from post to post just to keep the plates from falling and smashing. Was thinking about maybe trying to limit the number of plates and just keep those babies spinning. My cousin replied that he loved the dance from plate to plate itself.

    • Your cousin sounds like a wise soul. Maybe part of the dance occasionally involves letting a plate or two smash, then avoiding the shards.

  2. Pingback: World’s Greatest Living Artist | Poppa's Cottage

  3. I can relate to a lot of what you talking about here Poppa!

    In terms of the list I have only recently got my head around #4 and feel that is a quite a big step for me. I used to have to know exactly what I was doing at all times to feel comfortable but I’m slowly getting used to living with unanswered questions. This is good as you will never know 100% what is going to happen at any given time in your life (obvious statement but surely a cause for much stress for most people)


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