Push beyond dabbling, and build true pursuits - 3 steps that I've learned
When it comes to activities that I pursue, I tend to go all in.
I started writing for this blog on a consistent basis, and now there are dozens of articles. I started making games for fun and now I’ve sold several thousand copies of my debut game. I have a daily exercise block that I haven’t broken the chain for, for over a year.
It’s possible to dig deep in areas that are not one’s formal education or professional 9-5, which in my case is a completely different field - data science and machine learning. I often get asked about how I manage and excel at multiple pursuits at once, while not sacrificing my standards for quality.
In this article, I’ll walk through the 3 steps I take when first exploring something interesting, which could lead to a decision to dive deep in that pursuit. With these 3 steps, I am able to keep that sense of joy and fun that drew me to said hobbies in the first place, and continue to build true expertise.
- 1. Stop pretending to be interested
- 2. Push past the learning phase with specific goals
- 3. Commit to quality and consistency
1. Stop pretending to be interested
If I don’t do something I say, I stop saying it
“I want to try learning about cybersecurity, I just don’t have time…” “It would be cool to try jogging outdoors. But it’s winter, so maybe next year.” “I should really get my driver’s license.”
The above are all things I have told myself in the past. None of them actually went through, and are still on my wishlist.
There are many shiny things on the docket to me at all times, but if I start saying “I’d like to do this…” and don’t actually do it for a few weeks or months, I simply stop saying it.
If I haven’t taken action yet, it’s clear that I do not prioritize it.
Verbalizing interest doesn’t motivate me psychologically
Perhaps for some people, verbalizing their “wishlists” work as a reminder to themselves. But this doesn’t work for me, for the reasons below:
By saying empty words like “one day I want to…”, then not doing it, I feel like I am breaking promises to myself. If my friends keep hearing me say I want to do something, and then still express the same desire months later without action, it makes me feel like I’m not a woman of my word.
I don’t want to be a person, where if I mention that I have a new interest, my friends’ first thought is “ah, she probably won’t do it”. I think we all know people like this. Words are cheap. Actions can lie, consistency is what speaks the truth. I maintain a track record of executing what I say, and the track record gives me internal confidence.
Conversely, if I try to use an outward verbalization as a “reminder” to myself to take action on a hobby, or in hopes that my friends will keep me accountable, it actually makes me feel guilty and annoyed at the hobby or pursuit if I fail to meet my expectations.
For example, if I keep saying I’ll start a jogging habit, and I miss a few sessions, it demotivates me, further decreasing the likelihood that I’d do it. If it’s clear I’m not committed, I kill it. I stop saying that I “am interested”. I’ve learned to simply say no to pretending to be interested in what I am not prioritizing at the moment.
This frees up the mental bandwidth for pursuits that I have actually committed to, so that I can do them exceptionally well.
I don’t feel too bad about setting aside things that I do truly want to do in the future, such as learning more about cybersecurity. I’m fine with casually watching some Defcon videos now and then, but I’m not lying to myself that I’m going to dedicate the amount of time I would like to spend on it.
In addition, by thinking about the periods in our life like changing seasons (h/t Eugene Yan), I know there could be a future opportunity to focus on a killed item on my wishlist, such as cybersecurity, or getting my driver’s license.
2. Push past the learning phase with specific goals
Once I get started on a hobby or pursuit, I am not content at being only a learner or consumer for a long time.
One thing that helps accelerate my skill and begin creating at a high quality as soon as possible, is setting concrete goals or deliverables. For example:
- When I was learning the electric guitar in high school, my goal was to pass auditions to a rock band and perform to large audiences (both happened).
- When I started making games, I worked toward shipping a game that would sell at least one (1) copy to someone that wasn’t friends and family.
- When I decided to write for this blog (the 2nd time around; the first attempt was killed), I wanted a blog with consistent posts, not one that looked like a graveyard. How many of those blogs do we see on the internet?
“Aim high - even if you miss, you will still have gone far”. I think that in the above examples, I was able to grow quickly because I had a “deliverable” in mind. My mindset was that of a creator or expert from the start, and not only of a dabbler or consumer. If we want to become good at a pursuit, but our actions are those of a dabbler, that isn’t doing us any favors.
As mentioned in the previous section, dabbling is not a bad thing at all - I am just a casual learner in many topics, but that’s why I don’t write about those things on this blog. I also have accepted that those “dabbled hobbies” are low priority compared to the current main pursuits.
3. Commit to quality and consistency
In some ways, being very “intense” about a hobby helps me become even more interested in the hobby!
Due to the expectations I have of myself, I seek out ways to inch closer and closer to my ideal “deliverable”, which gives a feedback loop akin to levelling up in a video game. Half-assing hobbies is a great way to lose interest and fall off the wagon.
However, this way of thinking did not come naturally to me at the beginning.
For example, when I was learning the guitar, I often just wanted to play some easy songs and call it a day. But, what really helped me get to the next level was committing to the underlying quality, by practicing “boring” things like scales and music theory. This is like learning math or statistics fundamentals that helped me excel in the machine learning field professionally.
With the fundamentals raised to a high quality in my pursuits, it gave me confidence for the deliverables, such as those listed in the previous section.
Cutting corners of fundamental skills does the opposite for confidence and prolonged interest in a pursuit. It might seem to speed up progress in the moment, but is usually a major demotivator later down the road when one needs to fill in the gaps.
For example, someone who had already built machine learning models (following exact steps of a cookie cutter example) without understanding the underlying principles, might be susceptible to impostor syndrome or doubt, when faced with a situation where they have to work on a new scenario, or explain the internal workings.
This is something we can prevent by focusing on the quality and fundamentals, even on “boring” things.
As long as we are putting in the work, the combination of quality and consistency will surely help us reach the goals and deliverables mentioned in
In this article I outlined the 3 steps that I go through when I level up a casual hobby to one that I truly build expertise in.
This is not to say that I attempt to dig deep into every single pursuit - like I mentioned in
step 1, I don’t pretend to be deeply interested in hobbies that I cannot commit to, and accept the fact that I can kill the project and come back to it in another “season” of my life.
By not lingering on what I don’t commit to, I can truly focus on and enjoy my chosen pursuits, and continue to grow my skills and expertise in a highly rewarding way.