The Curse of the Intellectual Omnivore

I like to learn things. I don’t know why but I’m always looking towards new things to dive into. However, I rarely take a deep dive. That’s a problem.

My bookshelf is a hodgepodge of things I was interested in for a short time, before the interest faded away. Economics, psychology, writing, quantum mechanics, almost a dozen programming languages, brewing beer, chess, accounting, investment, negotiation, marketing even learning about learning. The list goes on. I’ve also started to learn some extra languages apart from my native German and the lingua franca of the world, English. Japanese, Korean and Russian didn’t go beyond half a year, even my French is pretty rusty and I used to live in France for a couple of years. Currently, I’m learning Vietnamese.

It seems like I am attracted to new and shiny things and always have a “I’d love to learn/do this” list available. This blog is a good example. I started it, left it empty for a couple of years then posted a bit about computer security (with the plan to work towards a shiny OSCP certificate eventually) and then left it idle for over a year.

It’s not all bad though. I have developed a pretty wide range of superficial knowledge. I could have reasonable but shallow conversations about many topics at any given dinner party. Maybe this isn’t bad in a day and age where deeper knowledge about any topic is only a search engine query away. It’s certainly not bad to have a loose collection of tidbits on various topics floating in my brain. But it feels like I’m forever stuck in a mode where I know enough about a topic that it could be useful if I’d dedicate one more week to it.

A programming language like Elixir is a good illustration of this point. I read a book and a couple of tutorials, I did a couple of exercises, I understand the concepts and can relate them to other programming languages. However, I couldn’t in good conscience put it on my CV as a skill or even solve a simple tasks if someone asked me to do that right now. But if my life depended on it, I could probably build some medium sized project in Elixir in a week or two (granted it wouldn’t be great).

I’m not sure why I’m wired like this but there are exceptions to the rule. Most notably, I have stuck with two hobbies for a (relatively) long time. One is solitaire board games and the other is bouldering. Interestingly both are easy to start and complete in a set time frame, come with clear rewards and some sort of progression. You can read the rules for a board game and start playing immediately. There’s a clear win condition and you can certainly get better. Bouldering is an even better illustration. Each route that you climb is like a small project and you can “win” it or improve step by step and eventually win it. There’s also a higher level of progression because over time, you’ll be able to climb higher grades. Additionally, it’s very easy to start and complete your first route, even if you’ve never done any climbing before.

Another thing I have noticed is that I always tend to overflow with ideas and things to try. That is why I’ll try to implement a dual strategy in the future. Firstly, I’ll limit myself to five items of study. Secondly, I’ll try to “make things more like bouldering”.

Here’s the list of the five things I’m currently most interested in, roughly ordered by level of interest:

  • Machine Learning
  • Computer Security
  • Hardware (micro controllers, robots, FPGAs)
  • DevOps
  • Developing a toy operating system

As a first step, I’ll try to keep track of how much time I spent on each of these activities and I’ll try to make things finishable, rewarding and I’ll try to find some sense of progression.