What's your thing?
I've been wondering if it time for me to stop being a generalist
The other night I went to the Grand Ole Opry, not the one in Nashville, but the recreation of the Wild West in Glasgow. I love the Grand Ole Opry, not just for the shoot-outs, the Country music, the bingo, the cheap drinks, but because you get the sense that these are people that have found their home, their thing.
I am fascinated by people who have found their thing. It could be a hobby, a philosophy, an aesthetic, a job, a sport; they have found something and decided to dedicate their lives to it.
In an age of information overload, having a thing is essential. The era of the generalist is over. We haven't got time to sift through all the chaff—just give us the kernel, give us your thing.
I don't have a thing ... yet. I am a generalist ... so far. I still think I could have a thing. Indeed, maybe I already do and just don't realise it. Sometimes your thing is that which other people want from you. They don't care if you love baseball, Michael Jordan, your thing is basketball.
The Japanese concept of Ikigai is helpful here. The combination of what you enjoy, what you're good at, what the world needs and what people will pay for. This really helps to make a decision, I think.
Amazing things happen when you channel all your energies in a particular direction. Rather than limiting you, the choice of a thing becomes like the crystal on the Dark Side of the Moon cover — light goes in and a rainbow emerges. Your thing becomes a lens that allows you to view the world from a unique perspective.
Take Tom Hodgkinson. In 1993, Tom set up a magazine for slackers called The Idler. 29 years later and the magazine is still going strong alongside a festival and an online academy. His thing, idling, has come to mean the art of living well as well as just being anti-work. Everything can be seen from an idle point of view — from sex to gardening.
My wife's thing is yoga. She goes to practice most days and gets enormous benefit. She is always seeing to go deeper in her yoga. She studies Sanskrit, sacred texts, does pranayama, meditates, chants, eats differently: all to become a more integrated yogi. Yoga doesn't limit her life, rather it provides a time-tested map to guide her.
Listen to my conversation with her on this very subject here:
In Eastern religions, there is the idea of dharma or the tao, which can be translated as path or truth or way. People sometimes talk about finding 'your' dharma, your personal path, the situation that accords perfectly with your place in the universe. This sounds very similar to the idea of finding your thing.
Personally, I don't think there is such a thing as 'your' dharma. If there is dharmic truth then it is universal. But just as there is an expression of how you look that is peculiar to you, there is a mental tendency that is all yours. Is it all just arbitrary or was it always there? If you had been born 100 years too late or a 100 years too soon how would your expression be different?
Maybe your thing is a leap of faith. You just have to try things, dedicate yourself one of them. But how long and how deeply? How do you know that it is not for you? To really give something a chance you might need to dedicate yourself to it for 10 years and by that time it is your thing. To quote Quentin Crisp: "It's no good running a pig farm badly for 30 years while saying, 'Really, I was meant to be a ballet dancer.' By then, pigs will be your style."
In my experience you can usually identify someone's thing by seeing who are their mimetic models. The human mind is primed to copy others and, according to Rene Girard, lacks the ability to come up with original desires. So we find people we think are cool (friends, celebrities, historical figures) and then unconsciously imitate them. Laura seems to do this with her teachers, Rosina and Kia, inspired by their warmth and dedication.
I have forgotten where I read it, but someone once said that to find your passion you should think back to your childhood and recall the thing that you loved doing the most, that you would do without being told and was just done for fun. This is a time when you are innocent of market mechanisms, so are doing things just because you love doing them.
YouTube is the home of the micro-obsession and the niche channel where people do the same thing again and again. My guilty pleasure is the one where people open bags of £2 coins in the hope of finding a rare one. These people have turned what look like childhood obsessions into businesses.
Consumer capitalism loves that people haven't find their thing, because it means that every six months they need to go out and spend a load of money on new equipment. How many exercise bikes or sewing machines are there gathering dust? We are convinced that some new activity is our thing but then give up at the first sign of difficulty. As David Cain writes:
Going deeper requires patience, practice, and engagement during stretches where nothing much is happening. It’s during those moments that switching pursuits is most tempting.
Karl Marx imagined a communist society as one in which you might "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner." Does that sound like a good life to you? Marx's point was not that you'd necessarily spend your time hunting, fishing, cattle-rearing and criticising, but that there would be an abundance of opportunities and you'd no longer be defined by the role you find yourself in. Would you still have a thing under communism?
Newsletters, like other subscription-based media, perform best when they’re highly targeted to your readership – if you’re writing for everybody, you’re writing for nobody.
I have ignored this advice, but can’t help wondering if I am missing out. All of my heroes, like Dr Johnson, were generalists but I wonder what their output would have been like if they’d stuck to one thing rather than flitting between genres.
How about you? What’s your thing?