Expert or dilettante?

Are you an expert at anything?  I remember my son, who was pretty good at lots of things,  saying when he was a teenager that he would give up being a good allrounder if he could be really astonishingly good at one thing, preferably rugby.  What do you think?  Is it better to be generally ok at lots of things or a real expert at just one thing?

I've been musing about this partly as a result of starting a new project, a machine-made quilt.  I will blog about this properly when I have got a bit further with it if it doesn't prove to be a disaster!  If it turns out well it will be a quilt for the double bedroom in the holiday cottage.  Here is a taster of the materials and how they are coming together.

Here is the material as it begins to pile up in its squares.

And here it is making up the nine block pattern which is the structure of the quilt.
The pattern is I think called Shoofly and makes 12" square blocks.
I really hope I can make something which I am happy with.  I can sew but in a functional rather than a creative way.  I have recently met someone whose passion is quilting and hers are truly works of art.  I haven't confessed to her yet that she has inspired me to have an amateurish go myself.  I hope it will be good enough, but I doubt whether it will be a work of art.

It got me thinking about Chris's comment from years ago and about the various things I am interested in: gardening, cooking, baking, growing food, wine, literature, languages, sewing, walking, politics, writing, along of course with my husband, and my family up and down the generations.
  If I were passionate about just one thing 
would I have achieved more? 
  If  I gardened to the exclusion of all else could I have created a Veddw ?

If cooking were all I ever thought about could I have won Masterchef?

Could I have become a Master of Wine?  fluent in Welsh instead of limping along? a maker of quilts of extraordinary beauty? a long distance walker who walks all the pilgrim routes instead of a potterer? a political commentator instead of a shouter at the radio?  a writer rather than a blogger?

I suppose if were really good at only one thing I wouldn't be me but I do sometimes wonder which is the route to the most satisfying life.

I'd love to know.  Would you choose to be good enough at  lots of things or devote your life to being exceptional in just one area of passion?  What do you think?


  1. Hmmm, what a question Elizabeth. I would like to be a good allrounder, but then time is always limited so maybe it would be better to be an expert at one thing. No more spreading yourself thin trying to achieve alot. I started to learn the Banjo (no laughing folks!) when I was 17. It didn't last long as my teacher moved away. I wish I had continued, because by now I would be an expert. Travelling the world, playing music, entertaining.......... I also started oil painting around the same time and never continued after the course finished . Oh the wisdom of hindsight............
    Congrats on the quilt it's looking fab, keep going you will get there, this may be a passion in its infancy.

  2. I think diversity may be the way to go. Full of admiration re the quilt, I've got bags of material waiting to do something similar when I can find some time.

  3. My list overlaps pretty much with yours, Elizabeth, (I'd take out gardening and sewing but put in drama and archeology, but I have often thought it would be wonderful to do something effortlessly and well as opposed to being just moderately good at it but knowing that's all I will ever be. Actually that's not quite true for I know what I can do almost effortlessly well, and with effort very well, is impressario-ing if such a word exists: - running parties or shows. But the opportunity doesn't present itself very often and I have never been paid for it. So it's back to the long list of things. But your standard of competence seems extremely high. It's a very interesting question. But as with all things it depends on what your goals are. I think you have a more interesting life dipping into this field and that, certainly.

  4. Hmm - Threadspider and I have had long discussions on this topic. We call ourselves Jills of all trades (and masters of none). Great for general knowledge quizzes, but scratch beneath the surface and that's where we grind to a halt. We're both great examples of our schooling, who demanded excellence in everything.

    I'd love to be an expert on just one thing. I thought this would happen when I did my M Sc in Freshwater Biology and quickly realised that once more, I was going to be a generalist, albeit in a more specialist field.

    As an engineer my husband is an expert and I often sense his impatience with my butterfly-like mind which flits from one thing to another.

    However, as soon as I try and go in-depth I get bored and look for the next interesting thing.

    The same has happened with my blog - I fully intended it to be just a record of my vegetable growing, but immediately realised I had a whole host of other things demanding to be written about!

    I mentioned Jill of all trades on my blog once and Victoria came up with a wonderful comment: In Victorian times we'd have been called polymaths. I try to cling to her positive approach when I get down about my absence of in-depth knowledge!

  5. I like to be as bad at as many things as possible. Life's too short to specialise.

  6. I think many of us have pondered this question.
    To be outstanding in one skill means not only possessing a "gift" , but exercising a tremendous amount of dedication and discipline. When we hear a musician perform or view the work of a fine artist in any medium, we see/hear the finished product and tend to forget the struggle of getting to that point and then maintaining or surpassing that level.
    There are always those who take a superficial interest in many things and those who demand more of themselves in every area of undertaking. I think its about personality and what pleases an individual. Personally, I have learned to do enough interesting things well enough that I'm never bored.
    Re quilts: I rate myself as an intermediate--I prod myself a bit beyond the comfort zone at times, but want the process of creating a quilt to be pleasureable and the finished piece something I can show with pride.
    Like anything else, making a good quilt is about caring enough to be accurate in both cutting and piecing--making all those little corners match.
    It looks like yours is off to a grand start.

  7. A glance at my O level results shows that I'm definitely a good all rounder. Fortunately my A levels pointed me in the direction of writing as did many of my jobs, so I suppose that is my strength, although that doesn't necessarily make me a master.
    A lot of mastering something, IMO, is that you devote a lot of time specifically to that hobby or skill. Brilliant guitarists sit for hours and practise, they don't just pick it up now and again, when they fancy a bit of strumming, (which is how I approach things.)
    As for quilting, good luck. There is a science if ever I saw one. I've had a go a few times but getting the seams all perfectly lined up drives me batty. I have however, become rather adept at crazy quilting, which appeals to the hippy in me and means you don't have to have anything perfactly matched!

  8. I think Morning's M and I were typing the same thing at the same time!!!

  9. Generally speaking, I am a Jill of many trades. When I first become interested in something, I learn as much as I can about it, almost immerse myself in it. Then, after a period of time, I slack off or stop. Specializing in one area to the exclusion of other interesting ones seems a waste of time and interesting subjects! Others are welcome to specialize, and I will learn from them until I am satisfied. Then I will move on.

  10. I'm expert at nothing, I confess, and too prone to a Five Day Wonder approach to anything of interest to even make a decent dilettante! My history is littered with the debris of sudden enthusiasms that came to nothing, barely-started projects and jeez-this-is-so-boring! sewing-related items... You, on the other hand, seem to have a wide range of skills in regular use!

  11. I think a rich and varied life is a good way to go. If you are really passionate about something, it's worth putting a lot of yourself into it, but not to the exclusion of other interests. A bit two dimensional.
    The quilt looks as though it's going to be a complete success. Hope it goes well.

  12. Now then that's a real poser Elizabeth :) I wish that I could have been brilliant in one field but one of my head teachers aptly described me as a butterfly, flitting from one thing to another and I think that he was right. I have bags of unused wool, boxes of paints and a mountain of unread books as well as a clutter of paraphernalia from other ventures. No doubt as I get older and time runs out there will be other unfinished tales :)
    Good luck with your quilt.

  13. SBL - it isn't straightforward is it? Just think, you might have been the world's most famous banjo player!
    SBS - have reached the dangerous part with the quilt when I have had to pack it all away because daughter and her family are visiting. Must not fall victim to the not getting it out for six months trick!
    Fennie - I think life is quite interesting this way, which must be why I do it, but every now and then I can't help but wonder.
    VP - I love the line about being a polymath! I shall comfort myself with it when I am feeling that I stretch myself too thin.

  14. Tom - I haven't listed the very many things I am bad at, or some of the things I am spectacularly bad at, but I think I must agree that life is too short to specialise or I wouldn't have done it this way.
    Morning's Minion - thank you for your encouraging quote about the quilt. I agree about pushing a bit outside one's comfort zone. I need to do new things to keep interested but they tend to be new things in an area of existing interest. I am not likely to take up learning the banjo just now I suspect!
    EPM - you are right about mastery. I suspect that one of the reasons I am a reasonably good cook is that I do it every day!

  15. I am exceedingly good at being exceedingly bad at all sorts of things!

    One line from a school report when I was about 12 or 13 says it all;

    'Zoë lacks stickability'

    If I could be expert at just one thing, and forgo the mediocrity of being average at many, I would be a Pianist - nothing moves my soul more than playing the piano, but I lack the resolve to practise for hours and become good.

  16. Dear Elizabeth, I think that in these times of constant change, to be versatile and able to turn one's hand to a variety of tasks is a good thing. Expertise can so easily lead to redundancy and the dilettante is surely never bored!!

  17. I think that the people who are obsessed by one thing, and thus become experts at it, are as imprisoned as they are blessed. I believe their audiences get the far better deal, able as they are to enjoy the expertise and then go back home to their multi-faceted lives.

    I much prefer being a jane-of-all-trades. Dabbling in cooking, gardening, embroidery, music, art, antique collecting, and etc. have made my life a bouquet of fun and interesting chapters. And there is always room to learn more, thus keeping things from getting boring.

    Take this from someone who took piano lessons every week in life from age 5 to age 16. There IS such a thing as too much.

  18. I do believe that the wider and deeper your interests run the more enriched your life becomes - good luck with the quilt. It looks lovely.

  19. I think you can be very skilled in one thing but still have a lot of knowledge & practical experience in many other things.I also believe that it is much better to have many skills & knowledge about many things. Look at your friends on twitter. Most of them do have more than one interest even if only very skilled in one.

  20. Not having yet read other comments - which I will after posting my own - I would say that it is better to aim for many goals. For if you excel at one thing, and that falls apart, where are you then? This is something I often ponder: jack of all trades and master of none. I suppose, in essence, I pursue one passion whilst keeping others on the back burner ... just in case. I love and follow so many things and feel that my life would be diminished with a lesser list.

    Love your quilt blocks; oh what patience. Now to post this, and read all your other followers' comments. Hope we'll meet for real again one day.

  21. Having now read everyone else's brilliant thoughts, I can only add what my dear mother used so often to say to me: "there's no such word as can't." For CAN'T, I would transpose WON'T, which sums me up; recalcitrant! Every step I take weaves, dances and interacts with others and leads me somewhere else, but not necessarily in the direction I would choose! And that to me is the beauty of it, whatever I may or may not achieve.

  22. I think that to be an expert at anything you have to devote yourself to it (and it alone) in a blinkered fashion. Think Eric Clapton, think guitar. Musicians, sportsmen (and women), writers, artists etc etc. I sometimes wish I could be as 'blinkered' and it is harder for women with families but then perhaps I would miss out on all the other things that I like to experience.

  23. The one thing at which I'm expert is in my professional field - and it doesn't really translate into anything helpful, interesting or useful for my personal life.
    In my personal life I am the mistress of 'a little of' in a little of this and a little of that.

  24. Hmmm - what a question Elizabeth!

    Your quilt is looking lovely, and I look forward to seeing the finished result, as for the question - you have allready had some good responses

  25. Oldies nursing homes and retirememt villages are full of people who used to be experts at something. The hard part is finding an ear to chew off to prove it! Moral of the story - just enjoy what you love doing, expert or not.As someone already noted, life is too short to specialize, which is usually work-related anyway. Enjoy making your quilt, the material looks lovely.

  26. Oh, I think being a good all rounder is very convenient, though it would be good to be an expert in something. No a good all rounder!!!
    I love the quilting.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  27. I LOVE being passionate about so many things and to be really great at one thing would surely mean the exclusion of the others. This sounds so terrible to me that I cannot even begin to contemplate how miserable I would be Elizabeth. No, I think I'll stick at being just the way I am thanks! x

  28. Dimple - ah you are another who feels life is too short to specialise I think! I might come down on that side too.
    Rachel - however, unlike me, you can spell dilettante! A well spent youth then.
    Marianne - I have packed up the quilt while daughter and her family are here. Now must not leave it packed away for 6 months.
    Anna - oh yes I have the mountains of books and paraphernalia too.
    Zoe - ah but I know this isn't so. For example I have eaten a number of your jams and chutneys and they are absolutely first rate, never mind all the other things you know a lot about. I think you might merit the title "polymath".

  29. Edith - I love the phrase "expertise can lead to redundancy"! You are a genius.
    Marcheline - interesting idea that experts are as imprisoned as they are blessed. I had not thought of it that way but do see utterly what you mean.
    H&C - ah you are going for both depth and width of interests, the ideal perhaps?
    Mary - I do think that many interesting people have a range of interests, but then I meet someone with a total passion for something and somehow envy their singlemindedness!
    WSC - I think you are right that a range of interests can give you a fall back position but does it also mean you never achieve the heights?
    Cait - I think you have my feeling for this. I can't be as blinkered as you describe but can't help wondering what it would be like. And I agree that it is harder for women to achieve this degree of singlemindedness, although not impossible.

  30. Pondside - yes I was an expert in my professional life until I had had enough of it. Probably won't ever achieve that level of expertise in anything else!
    Karen - ah that's teasing. You didn't tell me your answer to the question and I would really like to know.
    Pam - I agree that enjoying what you are doing, whatever it is, is the key to having a good time!
    Maggie - how about an expert all rounder?
    Pipany - I think you might be a polymath too! You certainly have a degree of skill in what you do that way eclipses what I can do.
    Thanks to everyone for commeting. It is fascinating to read your answers.

  31. Like many others I'm interested in lots of things rather than being single-minded about one - bit of art, music, languages, architecture, history. In a way I'd like to be single-minded and expert, but you often find with such people that others near to them have to make sacrifices on their behalf and lose part of their own identity. You'd have to be really wonderful at something to justify this!

  32. I'm late to the party having been out of action for a while, but being a confirmed dilettante myself, I am opting for the "polymath" label. I find being interested in lots of things, and a dabbler in many, means I am never bored, and can usually find something to talk about with pretty much anyone. When I come across someone who is expert in something I dabble in I am lost in admiration, and it can push me to try harder myself, but I have learnt that I love variety and lack the patience for excellence. I now have an itch to dabble in quilt making...

  33. Like you I am quite good at lots of things and until recently always admired people who were passionate and single minded enough to concentrate all their energies on being excellent at one thing. However having meet a few of these geniuses they are normally far less interesting than us multi tasking versatile beings.

  34. Congratulations for having a go at quilting (although if anyone was being picky, you're just at the piecing stage, the actually quilting comes later {pfnar, pfnar}). Blocks look very good so far, glad you are enjoying it.

    Putting the three layers together is nothing like as difficult as some folk would have you believe, or take the easier option and send the top to a longarm quilter until you are ready to do it all yourself.

  35. Just got your link from VP and thought I would add my tuppence to the lively debate here
    . I'm a Jill of all trades-very, very broad knowledge of many things but only a millimetre deep.It sometimes makes me sad to think I will never be great at anything, but being competent at some things is OK too.
    I like to think we dilettantes are interesting to talk to, more so than some deadly dull specialists!
    Love the quilt-keep going...


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