My friend Pat wrote an article yesterday titled ‘A lot about a little’, in which he talks about how he is currently trying to avoid starting new things. He says that if he focuses on mastering just a few things, he would be happier, and have more success.

He also talks about how most people have one thing that they are known for, and how he has apprehensions about being locked into a specific career or endeavour. He gives the example of Tiger Woods, who is known for golf. Everything Tiger Woods does is about Golf. He plays golf, designs golf courses, and writes about golf.

I think the unstated question there is this: “What if Tiger Woods lost the love for golfing? Could he go on to be known for something else?”

Breaking The Mould

Personally, I don’t think that we have to be constrained to just one endeavour. To me, the most interesting people are those who do something new and ‘out of left field’, completely unrelated to what they had been doing before. I love reading about someone who completely breaks the mould. I love thinking “Wow, I didn’t expect this from you”, and it adds a lot more depth to them. It makes me ask “What will they do next?”

Like how Brian May, lead guitarist for Queen, became an astrophysicist. That’s completely different from what he became famous for, and it makes him unique and interesting to talk about. He isn’t “just another musician” any more.

There are more examples. If I time travelled back to the 2000s and told someone that Joe Rogan would be listened to by millions of people every day, they might say “What, the UFC Commentator?”, or “What, the stand-up comedian?”, or even “What, the fear factor guy?”. If he stopped at any one of those things, he might never have found podcasting. But he didn’t, and now he has one of the most successful podcasts on the planet. He wasn’t happy to settle for just one thing.

When most people think about Pieter Levels, they probably think about the world traveller bootstrapped startup guy. If you learn more about him, you will see that he previously had a very successful career creating electronic music, directing music videos, and running his own label. Even after he had his start-up thing, he still tried out learning 3D modelling, and experimenting with VR development. Before all that, I’m pretty sure he ran some tech review websites, too.

Some people might only know Pieter by his DJ name (‘Panda’). Those people know nothing about what he’s doing now. For them, his “thing” was that he was a DJ. So when those people look him up today, and go to see what he has done since, they will be shocked and want to learn more about him.

Personally, despite all of his achievements, my favourite thing that he has done is his writing; I absolutely love his blog posts and regularly re-read them. Here are a few of my favourites. For me, he’s a “thinker” and an inspiration. The fact that he has dabbled in so many things make him much more interesting than if he had done just one of those things, and the fact that he explored them allowed him to find things that he was good at.

Exploration vs Exploitation

Whilst studying the Intelligent Agents module at my university, I was introduced to the concepts of Exploration and Exploitation. Exploration is when you purposefully choose not to take the action that you think will be most rewarding, but to try something new to gain new information. Exploitation is when you take advantage of the best strategies that you have discovered through exploration.

In Reinforcement Learning, agents (ie intelligent programs) are rewarded (given points) when they do something right, and punished (receive a point penalty) when they do something right. The idea is that the agent will learn the kind of action to do to maximize reward.

If the agent finds the first strategy that works and then does it over and over again, they risk missing out on a more optimal strategy and get a worse outcome overall. So instead, the agent follows a period of exploration, where it tries to determine the optimal strategy, and then once the optimal strategy is identified, it exploits it by following the optimal strategy repeatedly. If the environment can change, the agent might occasionally try something new to see if a better option has come into existence.

As humans, trying new things is our way of exploration of the world. As adults, that usually means taking up a new hobby or learning a new skill. Maybe we go to a taster class at the local community center, whatever. Once we’ve explored enough and found something that we enjoy and/or think we can make money from, we switch to an exploitation strategy and try to use our knowledge and skills to make money / become famous / improve our reputation / improve our health.

Pat is still a young guy, so I’d argue that it is very unlikely that he has explored everything enough to really know for sure what he likes and dislikes, nor fully know what he’s good at. I’m not sure that any human life span is long enough for that, actually. There are just too many things in the world for us to try all of them, and even if we did, we don’t know our final potential at any of those things.

Learning New Skills

In Pat’s mentioned that he had wanted to start learning music production. A lot of professionals also create music as a hobby. Aiden, is a developer and makes his own music. Cam is a speaker and advocate, but is playing with being a DJ on Twitch.

If you’re drawn to do something, I think it’s a good idea to consider doing it. There’s a big difference if you’re repeatedly starting a new thing over and over without seeing through the previous ones (or even abandoning established projects!), but I don’t think that’s the case here. I think that pursuing something you’re interested in is a good way to avoid being known for just one “thing”.

Like with David Heinemeier Hansson. Professionally, he’s a developer, and he writes about the things he learned from his career, too. But he also defines himself based on his hobbies and his personal life.

One of my favourite things that Pat had been doing this year was trying to learn a new skill or do something different for each month of the year. It’s something that I would certainly consider doing when I reach a level of financial stability to allow for it.

In January, Pat learned to cook, which was a great success. Then, he decided that he wanted to read more fiction books, and whilst he admits he failed at, at least he now knows that it isn’t for him. In March he learned about design and UI/UX, and in April he wanted to launch a viral project(s). As far as I know, Pat only launched How To Say No, but he succeeded in getting it to become viral and I saw endless tweets about it. Good job!

For those interested, I would approach that challenge as a more overarching year-long project where each skills builds on, complements, or adds to the previous month’s skill. For example, in month 1 I might learn 3D modelling. Then in month 2, I would learn to animate video using models from month 1. Month 3 could see me adding visual effects to the video from month 2. Month 4 might involve learning to make music for the video, etc. In this way, I’d be able to say “This is what I made in {year}” as a cohesive whole thing, rather than just a jumbled collection of new skills.

Pat didn’t seem to learn a new skill in May, but instead took a good chunk of the month off for a ‘think week’ because he was in a funk. After his think week, Pat now says that he is trying to avoid doing new things, which seems counter to the goal he set at the start of the year.

I think that suppressing his desire to work on new projects might actually hurt him in the long run. In “12 months, 12 new skills”, he says that “This is my personality - I find something new and get obsessed with it. I really enjoy learning about new things”. It seems to me that by trying to suppress this inclination, he isn’t being true to himself, which is likely to cause dissatisfaction.

Conclusions

There are a lot of issues wrapped up in Pat’s post; fears about the script of life, his identity, and his future. He doesn’t want to waste his life on shallowly exploring many things, but he’s also seems afraid of committing to a specific thing. If were being honest, I might say that Pat seems like he is going through a Quarter Life Crisis, especially given that he had been feeling unclear and uncertain just a month earlier.

I want to conclude with the following statements:

  • Be true to who you are inside. Don’t do something just because you want other people to see you in a certain way, or because you see others doing something a certain way. Don’t feel confused just because your life doesn’t look like your peers.
  • By all means, find something that you can dedicate your life to, but make sure that you’re not just falling into place. Make sure you’ve explored all of your options and that you’re happy with the path you’re taking.
  • Not everything has to be for profit. Not everything has to be worked on consistently. It’s okay to waste a few days on something that will never see the light of day just to get an urge out of your system. You might even learn something from the process that you can apply to your main endeavour.

P.S. I'm late to the party, but I recently got a twitter account that you can follow here.