On being a dilettante

One day a long, long time ago, my violin teacher was angry with me.

I was in high school. I can’t remember exactly what prompted her reaction. It was undoubtedly something to do with her wanting me to commit myself much more seriously to violin at a time when my passions were distributed among many performing arts: violin, piano, dance, chorus, chamber music. I know she thought I was wasting my talent.

“You’re being a dilettante,” she said, and it was clearly meant to be both a shaming accusation and a damning prophecy. To be a dilettante—to be someone who only dabbles in things like a silly amateur, without ever achieving true mastery (I never thought to ask, who gets to judge?)—was apparently the worst thing I could be.

This memory from some twenty-five years ago suddenly surfaced five days ago. In a flash, I recognized that this accusation has been lodged inside me—lodged so deeply and so shamefully, that I’d long forgotten the source and made the words my own. I’ve silently lobbed this criticism against myself ever since as if it were a fundamental truth, or a verdict that could never be overturned. I’ve secretly and privately assumed that while I am gifted in many things, I am expert in none of them, no matter the evidence. And in that respect, I am always, at least a little, unworthy.

I cry just to contemplate this story that I didn’t even know a part of me was safekeeping all these years.

But here is another story I know to be true now. I have a gift for wonder and wondering, for curiosity and awe, for seeking and learning. (So do you.) The more I learn, the more there is to learn. If that makes me a dilettante in a thousand areas of life? So be it. I don’t know how to be a human without being an amateur.

If you don’t know either, I believe we are in good company.

  1. Olivia says:

    I love the last line… “I don’t know how to be a human without being an amateur.” Kathy, this post resonates with me! I often feel the nag of ‘imposter syndrome’ because I have never truly “mastered” anything. I remain open to exploring and curious to always learn new things and start each new day, each interaction, and each new project with that ‘beginner’s mindset’. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Kathy Lu says:

      Thanks so much for sharing, Olivia. I’ve been reflecting that there’s a need to re-frame what “mastery” is (and dispel the notion of “imposter syndrome”). To always wonder what more there is to learn and to approach the world with far fewer assumptions and expectations about our own “mastery” of it — I would love to live in a world where more people lived in that way.

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