Why Dilettante?

Dilettante: (according to Merriam Webster):

  1. an admirer or lover of the arts
  2. a person having a superficial interest in an art or a branch of knowledge

When I first drafted this post, I began with a list of the projects and activities that I have worked on, played with, or investigated since July, but it was getting on to half a page, and nobody likes reading lists. Suffice it to say that it included Mandarin, knitting, economics, gardening, and the word deontology.


We have been taught to scoff at the dilettante, to revere the expert. If you doubt me, I refer you once again to Merriam Webster, who offers the following example of use: “You can always tell a true expert from a dilettante.” (1) Well, I certainly hope so! Otherwise, what is all that education and practice for? If everyone were like me, nothing would ever get finished!

We need experts. But we have a right to be dilettantes, dabblers, and amateurs. We need to be able to learn enough about something to appreciate it, enjoy it, or make a decision without having to become experts. We have a right to participate in our own culture, to read, to write, to appreciate art, music, literature, fashion, and technology. For that matter, we need to be able to deal with the practical realities of life: to buy a car, pick a house, decide whom (and whether) to marry, whether to have children, how to raise them if we do, and how to find a way in the world.

Some things used to be simpler. Our grandparents didn’t have to answer most of these questions, because nobody thought to ask them. Even if they did ask, there were generally agreed upon answers. Meaning of life? Ask your minister. Need a car? Ford or GM was the extent of your choice. Voting? Well, my Daddy always voted Liberal, so that problem is taken care of. See? Simpler.

Now there are so many experts with so many different positions that we need a different set of skills. A simple trip to the grocery store can tax our decision making capacity. Environment, health, transfats, chemicals, organic, local, Fair trade, frugality, read the label, read the label, read the label.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not recruiting. I’m not going to say that being a generalist in a world of specialists is a party. I’ve got a bit of a reputation as a starter – that is to say, one who does not finish things. I keep a mental stash of Things I Have Finished to counteract this… not to argue or defend myself to the rest of the world, but to argue and defend myself to myself. I still sometimes fall prey to the larger world, a place in which getting things done, getting to the top, and being highly influential are signs of success. Living a decent life in quiet obscurity, getting just good enough at one thing after another, and then starting something new… I may have heard muttering over the years regarding “not living up to her potential”.

To counter this, I offer a short list of tried-once activities to remind myself that starting is also legitimate.

  • Gliding
  • Mountain biking down an unused ski hill (I don’t recommend this one. ‘Nuff said.)
  • Chinese lessons (“Ni Hao, Ma? Wo Hen Hao, Xie-Xie!” Since I can only say, “Great, Thanks!” I hope I never have to say, “Not so good, my cat just ran off with the goldfish.”)
  • Rappelling
  • Adventure Racing

There are a couple of things that I’m really good at (and have the evidence to back up that claim):

  • Instructional Design
  • Sewing
  • Reading. Ludicrous amounts.(2) Decadent amounts. Amounts that might cause the powers that be to question the wisdom of ever having taught me to read in the first place.
  • Learning New Stuff (see above re starting, reading, curiosity and all that)

And there are a few things that are ongoing projects, that I am working on and care deeply about:

  • Mom stuff
  • Exploring the meaning of life
  • Meditation
  • Taking Joy in the Everyday
  • Writing
  • Inviting others to joy

Virginia Woolf suggested to me in A Society (3) that our purpose is to raise Good People and write Good Books. I carry that forward to claim that our purpose is to be Good People, and make Good Meaning.

Dilettante: from the Italian dilettare, to delight.

Last week, in my basement, surrounded by books that have been lovingly crafted and sent out into the world, I realized that I’ve been blessed by a multitude of those who have gone before. I have, as I may have mentioned, read thousands of books. And the more I read, the more I love the variety of the world, and the more I want to share those possibilities with others. I used to be terrified of being wrong. Now I’m liberated by wrongness! If the experts can’t agree, who am I to think I’m going to figure it out?

So in lieu of expertise, I offer my uncertainty. I offer my investigation.

I offer my delight.

  1. Doesn’t that sentence just demand to be spoken while gesturing with cognac?
  2. Even though she almost certainly won’t see it, I edited this sentence fragment after reading Arwyn’s commentary On the Ubiquitous Use of Crazy.
  3. It is ironic, and there is gender analysis and humour. I recommend it.

4 responses to “Why Dilettante?”

  1. I love this 🙂
    And I am amused to see that we have dabbled in many similar things – for example, it seems we speak exactly the same amount of Mandarin (I learned more, but have since forgotten it, in extra-curricular classes during my final year of high school). And I knit and sew too, and I like to think I’m fair-to-middling at those. I love words, and now I have to look up deontology!
    Most of all, I think delighting in what life has to offer is a very important skill. Thanks for sharing yours.

  2. I love this post…I am also a starter and not a finisher….I want to know a little about so many things!