Dabbling Vs. Boiling the Water

March 10, 2014

One of the (many) benefits of practicing one skill repeatedly and over a really long time is that in the process you get to observe a lot of people who fail and succeed. You start noticing patterns on what works and what doesn't.

For me, the skill I've been practicing for a long time is Aikido but the same principles apply whether you're talking about playing the piano or working on your social skills.

In Aikido, as in almost all other martial arts, there are a handful of students who are serious practitioners and thousands of students who are dabblers - people who think practicing the martial art is a good way to fill idle time, move their body around, and maybe socialize a bit.

The person who thinks of Aikido as a great way to get their body moving in their idle time will see it as just another "hobby". This means it does not rank high on their priorities. They might spend years practicing it... but only one time per week. I've seen many practitioners who have been practicing this way for decades. After about 20 years, they assume what they're doing must be right and high level by the virtue of the length of time they've trained. Yet I've never seen a dabbler who was really good. If anything, the dabblers almost always look like beginners no matter how long they say they've been practicing.

(There is another class of people who never improve even after intense training - those are the ones who practice with other goals such as using the fact that they've participated in intense training as a badge of honor in front of others, but that's a topic for another time).

This has led me to two conclusions regarding what works and what doesn't when it comes to learning a new skill:

  • Learning a new skill is like boiling water; if you add a little bit of heat to a kettle of water, turn it off, then come back next week and add a bit more heat, after twenty years you may have added a lot of heat to the water, but you still haven't brought it to boil. If you want to learn a new skill, you have to boil the water. For some period of time, you have to make the learning of that skill the top priority in your life and work on it with maximum concentration and intensity. Once the water is boiling, you can turn down the heat and it'll continue to boil with little effort.

  • "Hobbies" should be avoided and passions should be embraced in their stead. In our Western culture, the word "hobby" implies reference to something that is not to be taken seriously. If you're going to spend time on something that you don't want to take seriously, you might as well stay home and watch TV. It'll be equally as productive while (most likely) requiring a lot less effort. But when you spend time on things you are passionate about, you'll be doing it wholeheartedly and with concentration. That way, after a while of investing time into the activity, you'll have something real to show for it.

The two points above have caused me to significantly rethink what I spend my time on over the last year, and they have made me say "no" to a lot of activities that I would otherwise enjoy doing. I have lots of friends who love to go fishing every chance they get and lots of friends who go rock-climbing a lot. While I enjoy both, I very rarely do either. In both cases, I have never boiled the water and I'm not willing to invest the energy required to do so, because they're not high priority activities to me. Instead, even my pastimes are activities in which I already have some decent baseline of proficiency... such as snowboarding, which I did intensely when I was in high school. Because I've already boiled the water for that skill, even a single day on the slopes means I can make marginal improvements to the way I ride.

This way of doing things will seem extreme to most people, but then most people are not particularly successful at anything. It's important to remember that the course of your life is determined by where you invest your time and energy every single day. Dabbling in different things is like taking a step in a totally random direction each day - you can't reasonably expect that it'll take you far from where you started. It's much better to be an extremist: pick one (or two) thing you love and invest your time and energy into it religiously, while ruthlessly cutting out all the other clutter.