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Two words

January 25, 2007   

Dilettante. I was called a dilettante for the first time (which happens to be the first time I ever heard the word) when I was a freshman in college.

I hadn’t known what this word meant, so I had looked it up and found something very similar to this Merriam-Webster definition:

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

“An admirer or lover of the arts” — how wonderful! But he had said it in a sort of mocking way, so I had asked what was so wrong with being someone who loved the arts. Apparently, he had meant it in the latter way, which happens to be the more common use of the word (as indicated by other dictionaries and people who are well-versed in Big Wordstm).

This riled me up back then and still riles me up now. There is definitely something to be said for someone who gains a deep and penetrating knowledge of a field. They move areas of research forward; they are the ones who break new ground and move us ever forward in the tide of progress. They are the pioneers and we’d be nowhere without them.

But that’s not to say there is something wrong with people who can see the wonder and joy of a variety of things and like to poke and taste at them. I look around the world and see so many items of interest, topics to pull apart, food to eat, media to consume, things to absorb. I love Toni Morrison but I also love Julia Quinn. I love La vita è bella but I also love Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. I drool at hightech gadgets but I also love that I can make something like a scarf out of something as low-tech as some yarn and two skinny sticks. I loved intro chem and organic chemistry so much that I used to beg people to let me tutor them but I still can’t help falling asleep at every corporate informational session they have. Oh wait… one of these is not like the other. It doesn’t fit the list paradigm! Arg! One more try… I loved chem but I also love to assemble IKEA furniture, except anything involving hammering. I suck at that.

I love things that have to do with etymology or current word usage or standard grammar but I also gleefully use “OMGWTF!” and have actually said the non-word “lawls” (phonetic pronunciation of LOLs) in real life. [edit: This was not a good example of what I meant to illustrate. Somehow, this morphed into a highbrow/lowbrow thing, instead of a deep knowledge versus shallow enjoyment. Damn.] Instead of, you know, actually laughing out loud. I know. I’m ashamed too. And this post will undoubtedly be full of mistakes which will force me to make incremental changes over the next few weeks, thereby embarrassing me in my assertion that I love grammar.

But whatever it is that I’m interested in, even if it is for just a short period of time, it really, really interests me and gets me fired up. I try to grok the material, at least on the level of what makes it an enjoyable thing. I throw myself into it. I love it and revel in it.

To sum up, being a dabbler is no crime. Take joy in whatever you want, whether it’s something that is generally considered frivolous or something that is generally revered, whether you only get into it for a week or a lifetime. There is so much awesomeness out in the world and only so much time.

In other words, do the dew. *ducks and runs*

Spendthrift. This is a word that has been haunting me for years. It is reasonable to say that it has in fact been bugging me for decades. Since the first time I ran across it, it’s driven me crazy. Trying to understand it as a compound word seems to make it clear that it’s a word that has to do with being frugal. Reading it in context makes it clear that it’s one of those odd words that means the opposite of what it looks like… Until you read something else and it sounds like what you originally thought it meant.

I’ve always been 85% convinced that it means someone who spends money like it was made of water, contrary to the seeming breakdown of the words. I vaguely remember even looking it up sometime during my high school years. The problem is that I remember the “A-ha!” feeling I had when I looked it up, but forgot which way the resolution went. Well, recently, a podcast from A Way with Words cleared it up for me. defines the word to mean the following:

1. a person who spends possessions or money extravagantly or wastefully; prodigal.
2. wastefully extravagant; prodigal.
[Origin: 1595–1605; spend + thrift]

The key is in the origin and the word “thrift“. The origin of the word is related to the word “thrive“:

[Origin: 1200–50; ME < ON: well being, prosperity; cf. thrive]

And the origin of that says the following:

[Origin: 1150–1200; ME thriven < ON thrīfast to thrive, reflexive of thrīfa to grasp]


So the contemporary meaning of thrift most likely comes from the part of the definition having to do with “grasping” or holding onto something, but the older meaning had more to do with the contemporary meaning of thrive. So a “spendthrift” is someone who spends with vigor!

I love it!

January 30, 2007 at 6:38 pm

Be proud of being a dilettante! We need a club. Or something. Says the guy who blogs under the banner “Unrepentant Generalist”. You might prefer the term synthesist.

I knew what spendthrift meant, but not why. Thanks! Words are neat!

January 30, 2007 at 6:46 pm

Ooh. “Synthesist”. That’s a GREAT word to describe what I do at work.

I think because I’ve dabbled in art, music, programming, and writing, I can talk to everyone in their own terms, and bridge a lot disciplines.

January 30, 2007 at 7:33 pm

As a raging dilettante myself, someone who has lived the life of “jack of all trades, master of none”, I’m going to play devil’s advocate and argue that dilettantes are pretty worthless. Indeed, I think the word deserves to be an insult.

Dilettantes are people who can’t be bothered to master a discipline largely because of the hard work required for mastery. It’s selfish and lazy to be a dilettante because the interest is only to the extent of a whim. A dilettante is one who is only interested in satisfying his/her wants.

They superficially leech off of various fields without showing the least bit of respect to them and leave with an inflated sense of self-worth that they “got enough.” Dilettantes engage the Cliff Notes version of life who can’t be bothered to think or work.

Indeed, one of the touchstones of dilettantism is the ego and lack of humbleness about the person’s knowledge of the field. A dilettante does not appreciate their utter lack of knowledge and wisdom about the field, yet you will rarely find them reluctant to engage their limited knowledge beyond their level of mastery.

Conversely, “masters” of their field are rightly respected. They make society a better place. They, as eingy noted, advance the field and are relevant to their discipline. We, as a society, correctly (hopefully?) put them on a pedestal.

In light of “masters”, what is good about a dilettante? A dilettante is nothing more than an egoist looking to make themselves, and only themselves happy. We live in a communal society, and therefore, little respect is to be had for these kinds of people.

Look back a few hundred years when only a infinitesimal portion of the population could afford to be a dilettante. Most of the world was too busy trying to survive to put up with being a dilettante. If you lived in a village where everyone relied on everyone else, the time you wasted on non-supportive areas was time wasted. Who needs a dilettante when there are fields to be plowed?

It’s only in the 20th-21st centuries that so many people can afford to be dilettantes. But contemporary dilettantism is no more productive and valuable to society than that practiced by powder-wigged dandies in pre-Revolution France.

/takes off Devil’s Advocate cap

As much as I amped up the above, I don’t really think it’s that far off of the mark.

Specifically, “I look around the world and see so many items of interest, topics to pull apart, food to eat, media to consume, things to absorb.” First, I like to think I’m the same way. However, how is this not a definition of egoism? You and I are simply making ourselves happy, which I suppose makes those that care about us happy, but so what?

Simply because (royal) we engage in “interesting topics” , does it make it any less narcissistic? What does this type and level of engagement do for anybody except us?

January 30, 2007 at 10:18 pm

I don’t disagree with you in that in my particular instance, it’s a pretty selfish manifestation, because in essence, I want to consume without contributing to the field, and I want to do these things to live a life that is happy for me, and not necessarily for the good of others.

However, I think that on a different level, in different manifestations, it can be extremely important. A dilettante may be interested enough in a particular field of art, say, to become a patron, but not to become an expert or a contributor to a field. I am a member of a museum, and helping to fund the museum means that they can preserve the history of certain segments of art and aid those who seek to contribute to it.

Or I might love listening to music enough to go to concerts. Paying money for tickets and introducing others to different types of music helps the musicians.

I suppose this might be the dilettante-as-consumer manifestation. After all, all masters need consumers and some sort of conduit to make it useful in society. Even Stephen Hawking, for all his brilliance, could not do anything until he was able to make his brilliance known to the consuming public, whether that be other, lesser masters in his field, or the general public. Without supporters, great contribution can go unnoticed.

There is also the dilettante-as-political-cog. Being interested in the physical sciences that range from environmental studies to biochemistry helps me to understand public policy and how they can help mold the shape of society, even though I don’t know enough about them to become a contributor in those fields. A master in those fields that doesn’t care at all about public policy may end up not being as useful as someone who knows just enough of the science and cares just enough about public policy to do something about it might end up making a bigger societal difference, even though the latter person could not have made a contribution in the end without masters like the former.

Al Gore is a great example of this type of person. He’s fundamentally not a scientist. Yet what he does is extremely important because his quest for knowledge in various fields is bridged by his passion for helping people, so he can bring his “deep-enough” knowledge to connect people who know with the people who can do something about it.

Again, I agree that being a dilettante is a privilege of living in a middle (or higher) class life in a first world country. When you are barely making ends meet, there is no time for anything but to keep your head above water.

I think the reason I celebrate my dilettanteism is precisely because I finally have breathing room to do things purely for the pleasure of doing them, with no ties of obligation or a goal in mind.

And of course, that, in essence, is the very definition of selfishness and egotism. 😀

I do hope to parlay some of the diverse interests I have into something useful eventually. I have every desire to be a positively contributing member of society, and not just with my tax dollars. The problem is in finding what that is.

I figure that I’ll be able to hit on something soon.

In the meantime, I hope to never be someone who can’t see the beauty of the world around them, which is largely the point I was trying, albeit obliquely, to make.

Awesome comment, by the way.

January 30, 2007 at 10:21 pm

“A master in those fields that doesn’t care at all about public policy may end up not being as useful as someone who knows just enough of the science and cares just enough about public policy to do something about it might end up making a bigger societal difference, even though the latter person could not have made a contribution in the end without masters like the former.”

Arg. Sorry for the above sentence, which clearly suffered from the “scroll up syndrome”. By the time I hit the middle of the sentence, the top of the sentence had scrolled up and I thought I had started it differently. So embarrassing! 😀

January 30, 2007 at 10:39 pm

perlick: In celebrating the positive side of dilettanteism, I was specifically thinking of you and Holly, individually, of course. 🙂

January 30, 2007 at 10:40 pm

Seppo: I think the bridging concept is supremely important in a team dynamic and allows me to speak easily with various members of my project.

January 31, 2007 at 11:14 am

re: eingy’s last comment, and A_B’s – I think that one of the things with ‘dilettantes’ versus masters is that a master is largely required, in order to master their field, to focus specifically on that field for the better part of their lifetime.

So, barring some sort of genius, that person devotes their resources to a single thing they are passionate about. But that doesn’t mean they necessarily move it forward, or ever even really achieve some sort of mastery. The vast majority of people, even if they’re completely singleminded about something, never actually achieve “mastery.”

The reason I don’t think that dilettante is necessarily insulting is exactly because of Perlick’s “synthesist” viewpoint.

Because there is *so much stuff* in today’s (1st world) societies, there’s simply no way that anyone who’s interested in a large number of things can master them all. I could devote myself to cooking, and unless I made it the sole focus of my existance, I’d never achieve a sense of “mastery”. I could work my whole life, and never be Thomas Keller of Ferran Adria.

But, I think there is value in understanding the convergence of multiple systems (see my most recent blog post), and figuring out how you can pull these different interests together into something new.

Or heck, even if the dilettante’s job is getting masters of various fields to talk to each other, and achieve some sort of understanding of each other, I think that’s a valuable contribution to society.

February 3, 2007 at 8:09 am

I just remembered to check in on the comments on this post.

I’m going to second what Seppo said. The problem with becoming a master and an expert in a field is that to do so, you have to think like the people in that field. You have to learn the jargon, you have to embed yourself in the mindset of that field to the point where you can’t conceive of the world in a different way.

But once you reach that point, how does anybody else benefit from your mastery? You can’t communicate it to others, because the level of jargon is so high and the required knowledge base is so large that anybody who hasn’t spent three years studying the field can’t keep up.

So how do these benefits get applied? It takes somebody who can understand the broad strokes of the research, and figure out appropriate contexts for their use. The dilettante/synthesist/manager takes the expert’s knowledge and figures out how it can best be applied.

To ground this in my experience, my strength as a software engineer was never my coding. I’m a terrible coder. But I could understand what my users wanted, and get them something resembling that. I’ve worked with many software developers who were far more expert at coding and software design, but who couldn’t deliver anything useful. It was precisely because they were experts that they were not able to get in a user’s mindset. But if I got involved as an intermediary, I could translate the user requirements into terms the developers understood, and then we could benefit from their coding expertise.

Another example. Leper once told me a story of going to a seminar when he was in grad school in materials science. It was a seminar of a slightly different sub-branch of materials science than his own. The seminar was discussing this problem that had been holding up their research for years. Leper was like “Um, guys, we figured out how to deal with that years ago in our subfield.” Because it required so much effort to keep up in their narrow subfield, nobody had even had a chance to look at this closely related subfield to realize the problem was already solved.

So that’s the role I feel that the dilettante plays – they provide the network to communicate between the experts.

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