The 10,000-hour rule of mastery—to be the best in our vocation, our hobbies, our chosen skill—takes years of work towards a single discipline. We’re taught that in order to matter, to feel that our life has meaning and contribute to something on a meta-level, that we should strive to become the best: the best in our field, the best athlete, the best in the company, etc, etc. We’re promised that the reward is well worth the years and years of grinding; that only by becoming the best can we unlock true fulfillment in this lifetime.
With this goal in mind, many people silo their efforts on developing a single skill or discipline. We box ourselves into an identity and associate our sense of self with our careers, hobbies, or athletic pursuits. We define ourselves as a single thing. While mastery and developing competence can indeed bring meaning, purpose, and intrinsic motivation, I think it’s an overlooked human error; a fallacy to focus all our attention on one thing.
The obvious (or perhaps not so obvious?) problem with this model of fulfillment is that there’s a limited number of seats at the table and a hell of a lot of people fighting for that same seat. We live in a hyper-competitive world. Even if we reach that one highly sought-after seat, you’re living in a state of perpetual ambiguity—we can get kicked out at any moment. We may work years for that seat, sit in it for 5 minutes, before being kindly asked to leave with only the story to tell. This dog-eat-dog attitude has prevented people from even trying. I’m sure some of us has encountered the diffident internal dialogue of, “If I can’t be the best, then why bother.” This was the same attitude I harbored when I tried to become an elite runner. No matter how much training, consistency, and effort I put into it, I just wasn’t able to hit the times I needed to get to that next level.
I thought for a long time that if only I tried harder, eventually I’d be able to get there. While I pushed and pushed and pushed myself for years, shaving minutes then only seconds off my time, I was so far off anything resembling an elite level. A cascade of negativity and self-deprecating thoughts surrounded what I thought, at the time, to be a big failure. I felt lost. I didn’t know what my purpose was. I thought I had found what I was supposed to do: become an elite endurance athlete. One of my favorite quotes by Brad Stulberg is, “Don’t worry about becoming the best. Be the best at getting better.” This quote completely changed my perspective. I stopped worrying about other people’s times on Strava and other’s accomplishments, and focused on my own improvement—a criteria that only I could define.
A few years after shifting this perspective that plagued me for years, I’ve harbored a new perspective—one that has brought me true fulfillment in my life, and meaning in my every day. My maxim is this: instead of trying to be the best, diversify. Diversify your life, your interests, your relationships. Become a polymath at life. Gain skills and competency in multiple areas where you can make a unique contribution to the world by embracing your own individuality. In the book Dark Horse, authors Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas writes:
Dark horses [harness] their individuality in pursuit of fulfillment, which creates the optimal conditions for attaining excellence. To do this effectively requires a commitment to knowing yourself as thoroughly as possible. Only by understanding the details of your interests and desires can you recognize and embrace opportunities that suit your authentic self.
Rose and Ogas argue that passion is not to be followed, but rather, to be engineered. It takes a hell of a lot more work to engineer passions, but the payoff is well worth it. The payoff is the elusive fulfillment we once believed we could obtain by becoming the best. The Greek aphorism, gnôti seauton (“know thyself”), requires us to be courageous in trying new things; in suppressing our egos and developing humility—being with sucking at first, but giving other pursuits a fair shot.
Over the last few years, I’ve focused on harnessing my own personal preferences and aptitudes by rekindling my love for activities that I enjoyed in my earlier years—where there wasn’t the societal pressure to monetize your hobbies. I’ve always loved history and the arts. In fact, I almost pursued a degree in history, but opted for the more pragmatic route (a business degree) instead. I’ve diversified myself by gaining competency in reading, writing, and over the last year, have gone knee deep into a philosophical adventure. Thrilling, I know. At the same time, I’m challenging myself athletically with endurance events, trying different forms of fitness (calisthenics, cross-fit, spin, a bit of yoga). Since I’m self-employed, I diversify my income streams to mitigate risk of a single source of income drying up; I have a growing freelance business in digital marketing, an e-commerce company called Oneiric, book royalties from my new book Find Your Stride, passive income from my Medium posts through the partnership program, and sponsorships from brands for paid content on the ‘gram. If one area of my life isn’t going so well, I don’t dwell in it and worse, take it personally, but rather, I lean on other areas of my life that fill up my confidence bucket. Whenever I’ve felt the absolute worst about myself was when I was relying on a single area of my life to provide me with all my self-confidence and sense of identity.
I’ve seen so many of my friends completely wrapped up in their day job, but neglect to take on any side hobbies or interests. I’m not saying to lean into the toxic ‘grinding’ or ‘side hustle’ culture that fintech influencers are selling. I will not be subscribing to that ideology, and I recommend you don’t either. Instead, what I mean is that you need to explore other areas that make you feel confident, empowered and fulfilled. This shouldn’t just be rooted in your day job. If you get fired, then what? If you put your partner on a pedestal and sacrifice yourself and your own interests for someone else, what happens if the relationship falls apart?
One of the best pieces of wisdom that’s made me a holistically happier and more fulfilled person is tapping into other passions; developing multiple skills and following my own personal inclinations. It takes self-experimentation combined with self-observation; it’s realizing that new interests may emerge as we get older and others that we’re not so keen on anymore, we can let go of. It’s understanding your core values then aligning your activities and pursuits with said values. For me, that’s challenge, accomplishment, and personal growth. This is a wide umbrella and doesn’t need to just be reserved for athletic pursuits; it can be starting businesses, writing books, reading difficult literature, or taking up a new fitness pursuit.
Gnôti seauton is not doing something because it’s trendy or cool or provides you with some sort of social currency–that kind of motivation has been proven repeatedly, to not last. Rather, it means to pursue something you really love—that lights a fire within you. Passion, as the book Dark Horse claims, should not be followed, but instead, engineered. What I like to say is to develop passion through perseverance.