Try being a dilettante before changing careers


Did you ever notice that in most Starbucks there is art on the wall? In hyperly competitive New York City, where I used to live, the waiting list for putting art on the wall at Starbucks was two years. Really. But I signed up.

I know, you’re thinking, Penelope was an artist? The answer is, sort of: paint and collage. And every once in a while, someone would say, “Do you sell those?” and I’d say, “Okay, yeah, I’ll sell one.” And then I’d think, Well, in that case, then I’m an artist.

So I did what other artists do when they are beginning. I put my name on the list to put my art on the walls at Starbucks. And a long time later, there was a message on my voicemail from the manager of Starbucks asking when I would hang my art.

The answer was — never.

There are two ways to do art: by yourself, in your home, for no one but yourself, or in public, to be a rip-roaring success. Of course, I wanted the second. I tried to want the first, but I keep wondering how well I could do if I tried really hard with the art. And then I thought, if you’re going to be a critical success, you probably don’t want to be known as the person hanging her stuff in Starbucks. Starbucks is for dilettantes.

I think I was a dilettante five years ago, when I put my name on the list. But during the two years it took to get my name to the top of the list, I decided I wanted to be more serious. I had started calling my art collage, and I glued stuff back on when it fell off instead of just throwing it out. I recognized that people who are serious do not let high school kids pick at their paintings in the back corner of a coffee shop.

When you’re on the cusp of dilettantism, but you want to be taken seriously, it’s embarrassing. Because you still look like a joker, but you look like an extreme joker because you’re a joker who no longer wants to admit to being a joker.

I remember the point when I decided that I was a serious writer: I reorganized the folders on my desktop so that the Writing folder was inside my Work folder instead of below it. But I didn’t do that until I had been supporting myself writing for more than a year. It’s a big step to take yourself seriously. The move away from dilettantism is slow, and nervous. Today all I can muster in the art department is to tell Starbucks no.

But I know it’s a step in the right direction because research conducted by Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, in France, shows that the most effective way make a serious move in your life is to do it in a not-so-serious way. It’s more effective to try something out for a few hours a week. That way if you don’t like your new self, you can go back to your old self. And if you like the two hours, try two more. Or maybe use your vacation time to test out your new self.

I did that. I told myself I was an artist and I set aside a week to pretend I was a full-time Very Serious Artist. And this is what happened: I wrote. Because I’m a writer, not a visual artist. But still, I like the idea of doing art. I just have to figure out how it fits into my life. So I’m taking the advice of Ibarra and imagining myself in different situations until I find one that fits.

Change in one’s life does not require a career change. In fact, a career change should be last. After lots of experimenting with small steps in an effort to find out who you really are. That’s how I found out, again, that I’m a writer.

27 replies
  1. Anastasia
    Anastasia says:

    You know, as a writer you are creative for a living. Same basic job, different technical skills. Different brain hemisphere at work.

  2. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Penelope – love your style. I woke up to read the google guy telling me to blog so opened it up.

    I’ve always laughed at myself for having what I call my adult ADHD. I want to try everything on in life it seems… I’m 42 with three kids. My parents joke about which card I’ll hand out today – insurance? coach? email rep? custom wall painter? I didn’t realize I was a dilettante (which I had to look up!)…

    I don’t know many that operate like this and it was nice to read your acknowledgement that “the condition” exists! I enjoy your content.

  3. Cara
    Cara says:

    One side benefit of being a dilettante: the skills and knowledge you can from one endeavor can carry over into others. It gives you a deeper, broader well of experience to draw from.

  4. Teo
    Teo says:

    Penelope, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your thoughts are definitely different and counterintuitive. That’s what makes your blog so interesting and refreshing.
    I identify with you because my thoughts are along the same lines as yours. Somehow when you are going against the flow it’s hard to justify it even to your own self. I’m glad you are identifying it and calling it by name. It helps me to come to grips with it and accept that there is nothing wrong with having ideas that seem to go against established parameters. Sometimes it is good to be a maverick and blaze a new trail.

  5. Jaerid
    Jaerid says:

    I love this post, it just rings so true. I have learned that the best way for me to tackle anything is to go “all in” so to speak and be well outside my comfort zone. It takes a bit of courage and a willingness to be seen as brash (or brazen) but it will allow you to determine very quickly if it’s not for you.

    I also can relate with Joanne – for a long time I have always wanted to try everything. My wife rolls her eyes ever time she sees that momentary glimmer of excitement in my eyes as I think about being a blacksmith, moving to a foreign country, opening a BBQ restaurant, or some other left field idea. Often it's just a fleeting thought, but occasionally it develops into an attempt. The strange thing is that my brother does the same exact thing (could it be a nature v. nurture thing?).

    * * * * * * *
    I know what you mean by that glimmer, Jaerid. I love seeing that in other people. I find that the glimmer usually comes with other traits I like in people — optimism, and passion — even if the person does not act on the glimmer.Penelope

  6. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    “Who am I?” is a challenging question for everyone, let alone for us “creative types.” When you (dare to) tell someone “I’m a writer/artist/musician/composer” they’re first question is “What have you published/sold/had performed?” For most of us, the anwer is probably nothing or not that much, yet we stick with it for the pure creative pleasure and satisfaction – and there’s always the possibility that you’ll find an audience some day.(From a writer’s point of view: Yippee for blogging.) But in the eyes of many people, you’re not legitimized creatively unless you’ve made money at it.We’re going to get tagged as dilettantes, anyway, so why not embrace the mantle!

    For a while, I ran a writing workshop in a homeless shelter and had to disabuse my workshopees of the notion that they were going to get rich from whatever they wrote in the workshop. I’d joke around with them, telling them,”We have a saying in the creative world: keep your day job, or in the case of you guys, get your day job.” I know that some of my workshop folks kept fantasizing about striking it rich, but I think that those who stuck with it long enough to complete a full work – and there were a handful over the course of the year – ended up feeling satisfied and accomplished by having produced something.

    * * * * * *

    It’s true that people don’t take you seriously as a creative type unless you’ve gotten past some hurdle — a broadway show, a published book, a sold painting, etc.

    I think we cheat ourselves culturally by refusing to think of eachother as artists before there is institutional validation. We are all artists are our core. I really believe that. We just need to learn how to express that part of us. We each have something important to say or show.


  7. Gloria Hildebrandt
    Gloria Hildebrandt says:

    Funny, I’ve known I’m a writer since I was little, but now in middle age, I’m having urges to try to create visual art! I haven’t got the nerve to start, yet, even just for my secret self.

  8. Lea
    Lea says:

    Why is it that we are reluctant to classify artistic pursuits as “work” even when we pursue them full-time? I had the same problem that you did in claiming the title “writer.” Even though I was a working journalist, writing every day, I couldn’t think of myself as a “writer.” “Journalists” worked; “writers,” in my mind, wrote amazing pieces, things that were not news stories necessarily, things that were published in The New Yorker or as books. Now that I’m not a full-time journalist, the questions abound. Can I call myself a “writer” if I am not being published that frequently? Can I reclaim that title if I have a professional blog? Or if I keep working as a freelance resume writer? All of these questions lead to the biggest question of all: Am I, at heart, a writer? Even though I write every day, I just don’t know.

    * * * *  *

    These are such good questions, Lea. I think we each have had a time in our lives when we ask this of ourselves. I found myself wondering about something so fundamental as, “Can I call myself an adult now?”

    I think, though, that we should call ourselves what we want to be. An important step in becoming what we want is calling ourselves what we want to be. So, I guess that makes you a writer :)


  9. Alexander Kjerulf
    Alexander Kjerulf says:

    I agree completely Penelope. I think it’s because the dabbler and the dilettantes manage to keep more of a playful attitude which makes them more creative and relaxed.

    Here’s a story I always tell to people who think they need to get serious to get great results:

    A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

    His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality," however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an "A".

    Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

    It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

    It’s from a book called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.

    * * * * * * *

    I just love this comment, Alex. I really believe in the idea you wrote about. I have found in my own life that not only is it more productive to just churn stuff out and see what you get, but it’s also more fulfilling. Perfectionism is so suffocating to our passions. All the perfectionists I have ever met have been unhappy. And personally, I am happiest when I am doing stuff quickly and just seeing what comes of it. Invariably, when I go back to what I did quickly, later, I am shocked at what I can acheive in such a short time if I don’t think about quality.


  10. Cara
    Cara says:

    Lea asked: Why is it that we are reluctant to classify artistic pursuits as "work" even when we pursue them full-time?

    If your family is anything like mine, it’s because artistic pursuits are considered to have no practical value, useless, not “real” work, and best relegated to a “nice hobby.” It’s been hard being a writer and musician in a family full of lawyers and accountants, but after decades of trying to shove myself into their mold, I’m slowly gaining the courage to reclaim who I really am.

  11. Mary
    Mary says:

    I think I was raised to be a dilettante. When I went to college, I was honestly shocked that people thought the purpose of higher education was to get a job. I took courses because they sounded interesting–not because I needed them to fulfill credits. I think feeling free to explore new ideas and subjects has helped me maintain my imagination and curiosity. I’m not sure how it’s helped me in my career–although I do work in a firm that values imagination, curiosity, and life outside of work–but it has immensely enriched all aspects of my life.

    One firm that helps people be dilettantes in their career is: I’m in no way affiliated with them–but I think it sounds fun and fascinating for all you career dilettantes!

  12. Lewis Green
    Lewis Green says:

    Good for you, Penelope. As one whose primary income the past 35 years has come from my writing, I relate. My writing is for sale to good magazines and newspapers; my books are published and in bookstores. Occasionally, my articles run online without payment but only if the online medium have a solid reputation and reaches my audience.

    Can we take another’s work seriously if they do not?

  13. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    In response to Lea’s comment, being an artist/writer/musician is all in the spirit. When I was younger, my life revolved around music – always hopping from rehearsal to rehearsal. For various reasons, I haven’t performed in years and certainly don’t have the daily practice time I once did.

    Nevertheless, I am, and always will be, a musician. It has shaped my life and helped make me the person I am, and no amount of time between now and the days of constant music-making will ever change that.

  14. Career Change Info
    Career Change Info says:

    I didn’t know what “dilettante” meant either, despite a 680 on the verbal SAT. So hey you are increasing vocabularies all over the place.

    For those above who said their spouses or parents think they head off in too many directions, I prefer those who dash off all over the place to those who are stuck in the rut!

    And my own experience is that those who are stuck, usually believe they can’t get out of the rut and are not happy people. So ignore the eye-rolls or sarcastic comments and follow your heart wherever it leads!

    And the quantity/quality artists. Wow, I never heard that one. Great comments everyone!

  15. Ryan
    Ryan says:


    I love this post. The idea of dabbling in an area before making the big leap is something everyone should do when considering any type of change. Great story about quantity vs quality as well, it just proves the point that taking some action, no matter how small, will trump sitting back and over analyzing. I know it worked for me.

    Alex, I hope you don’t mind if I keep this story in my back pocket!

  16. John
    John says:

    I wish you’d use complete sentences. Fragments are common in the news business. You know, that straight-ahead pound-the-point style. I still hate them. Forgive me for being critical. I know I won’t change American journalism.

  17. Tamar
    Tamar says:

    A decade ago, a writing colleague forced me to buy the Aeron chair I was coveting though didn’t permit myself to buy. Not because of the outrageous price but for the indulgence, the gall to claim myself a writer… which I already was! So, here’s my belated WRITTEN thanks to you, Stan, dear writing colleague who pushed me to buy the chair (which I am sooo comfortably sitting on right now). In its purchase, I immediately claimed the “writer” part of my professional identity.

  18. edward j gutman
    edward j gutman says:


    I love reading your columns. They are so incredibly upbeat and tell exactly who you are.


  19. Dyann Espinosa
    Dyann Espinosa says:

    A friend of mine in Portland started what has become a wildly successful company based on your concept of being a dilettante before you leap into something new. It’s called Vocation Vacation and it works!
    Explanation below:

    The only company of its kind, VocationVacations® is dedicated to enriching people's lives by allowing them to test-drive the job of their dreams, with no risk. [If you are] seeking a new career, a VocationVacations® adventure provides the experience of a lifetime! …We offer the chance to test-drive over 75 unique careers, through almost 200 expert mentors – .and we're adding many more each month!

  20. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Another great resource for us dabblers is Marci Alboher’s new book, One Person/Multiple Careers:

    In it, she shows that most people with two careers start off with an “anchor” career that pays the bills, while experimenting with other careers.

    She even refers to Vocation Vacations.

    I think that blogging is one of the reasons why we’ll eventually see a surge in the number of writers–it offers a great way for those with the urge to write to dabble in being a writer without having to navigate the many obstacles in the publishing industry.

    I know that even though I had published many articles in the past, blogging made me think of myself as a “Writer”–something I had never done before.

    On a side note, another great way to dabble in another industry or space is to serve as an advisor or mentor. I love advising young entrepreneurs, even those in industries I can barely understand, because it gives me a great way to learn new things and engage in energizing interactions.

  21. djoser
    djoser says:

    I find it’s difficult to balance my work as an artist and as a musician- indeed there aren’t really enough hours in the day to pursue both. Yet both my artistic and musical mentors have each told me to give up on one in favor of pursuing the other.

    As a solution, I’ve synthesized my work in both areas into writing a play, which I’ve submitted to a local Performing Arts festival and will be producing in the spring.

    So- don’t ever give up, and don’t be afraid of even advice your mentors may give you which is not the best for you. What you get out of your work is what’s most important- the satisfaction of getting your ideas out(for yourself), across (for show), or publishing & profiting from them (for a legacy)- all of these are valid concerns at any level, and vary from project to project.

    Be a project oriented person, and at the very least, you’ll be able to say you left something of the time you spent here, on Earth.


  22. Sunny Lam
    Sunny Lam says:

    The best way to figure out if you want to do something is to just do it.

    Not just think about.

    To actually experiment with it.

    That’s how I’ve gotten to where I am – after having been a soldier, a project manager, social media promoter and even a farmer.

    It also helps to do so while you’re still being paid for something else.

    There’s more room for error.

    Never thought of using dilettante – the first idea that comes to mind is jack of many trades or dabbler.

    Fair winds,
    Sunny Lam

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