It’s tempting to think that the key to making amazing work is to focus on one thing forever, never deviating from the path. We see examples of this all the time: the athlete that practiced their particular sport for decades, the writer who improves their craft in a very specific area and becomes known for that type of writing, the artist who captures a certain niche of the market and remains with that work, or even the scientist that completes their PhD in a certain domain and never strays too far from it.
We end up with the impression that our only option is to pick the “right” kind of work and do that forever.
There’s no doubt that you can become successful doing this. Many people pick a lane and stick with it. This offers the advantage of letting you explore the subtle details of your practice, which means you can focus on aspects that people don’t even know exist. When you spend a ton of time on one thing, you gain experience that helps you improve even more.
However, the issue is that there’s no requirement to pick one area and remain with it for the rest of your life. This might not be what we see from others, but I would argue that this is due to our seeing them at the end of their exploration process. It’s not that they focused on one thing forever. Instead, it’s because they spent a lot of time trying a bunch of things, and finally settled on this one that they want to explore deeply.
This brings up a question: How can we avoid wasting our time in the exploration phase and jump straight to the “focus” phase?
I’ve thought about this myself many times. I’ve spent time as an athlete, a writer, a cartoonist, a scientist, a teacher, and each one of these have had different incarnations. Clearly, these are very different practices. This has led to me thinking that I’ve wasted my time in some of these areas, because surely they can’t all be useful to what I’m doing now.
But that’s not true.
In fact, I would argue that I am capable of doing the work I do now because of my experiences. No matter how diverse and seemingly unrelated the activities I did in the past, they all inform what I do today.
I didn’t waste time because I explored a variety of activities. I am still exploring. I don’t know if what I’m doing right now is what I will do forever, but I am open to new experiences.
Instead of thinking of the exploring I did as a waste, I ask myself, “What can I carry forward from that activity to this one?”
This question completely reframes the way I think about my past. My activities become areas I can look back to and collect wisdom from. Each one offers lessons about myself, my interests, and helped me develop skills that aren’t limited to one domain.
For example, running has given me the ability to establish discipline and routines. Drawing has shown me how one can compress a message into its essence. Writing has allowed me to learn how to organize my thoughts. Studying science and mathematics have given me the analytical tools to tackle problems and think about structure.
None of these skills is limited to their original domain. Sure, running has increased my speed over a given distance. But limiting the benefits of running to this narrow application would be ridiculous.
This is how I try to view the activities I pursue now. Rather than seeing them as isolated islands in which there is no transfer available, I like to find the lessons and skills I can transport from one to another. When you see an activity in this light, there isn’t a risk of feeling like you wasted time, because you gained valuable lessons and skills along the way.
I don’t regret writing hundreds of blog posts and essays, even if I am now drawing. I don’t regret running tens of thousands of kilometres over the years, even if running isn’t a career. Not only do I not regret these choices, I know that I’ve gained wonderful lessons that might never have come if I didn’t spend time on these “useless” activities.
The feeling of wasting one’s time is particularly acute once you start realizing how little of it you have. Our time is replenished each second, but we never know when the tape will run out. It’s only logical to seek a way to take a shortcut through the “wrong” activities in order for you to find the one you really love, but this view doesn’t appreciate the advantages of exploring widely.
Next time you berate yourself for wasting time on an activity that isn’t relevant anymore, take some time to sit down and write about the lessons you’ve learned with this activity. Odds are, you will see that the activity wasn’t a waste at all, but a stepping stone to what you are doing now and a way to learn some valuable lessons.
Exploring is almost never a waste. Become a collector of lessons, and carry them from activity to activity that you pursue.