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Ask HN: I want to be an expert in many things but my lifetime won't be enough
368 points by kbns 6 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 215 comments
If you are this kind, how do you decide which things to work on?

If that idea of your lifetime not being enough is stressing you out, Dr David Burns' work on cognitive behavioural therapy might help. Saying you want to be an expert in many things because you are interested in many things could be papering over some deeper anxiety-driven motivations around 'not being good enough' or 'not being worthy of respect' or 'needing to prove yourself to someone' or 'not wanting to be a nobody' or 'wanting to avoid the bullying you used to get' or etc. The Feeling Good podcast[1] is a good audio introduction and has many examples, his book Feeling Great is more of a self-help style written introduction.

The important question is not "what should I work on?" or "how should I decide and prioritise?", it is something more like "I have thought processes, they model imaginary futures and guide me away from predicted harm. Why do I have an imaginary future of not being enough of an expert and feel suffering in the present? Where did that thought come from and what is it doing for me, and do I want to keep it?".

You can go with the desire for expertise part, "why do I need to be an expert in many things?" - whose respect are you trying to earn? Whose criticism are you trying to avoid? Who are you trying to avoid being like? What emotional disaster is that trying to protect you from? Or the other side, "what is so bad if I am not an expert in many things on my deathbed?", what's imagined social or emotional harm is that warning me of?

[1] https://feelinggood.com/list-of-feeling-good-podcasts/

I can appreciate that it might be like that for some, but absolutely not for me.

Deeper mathematics is meaningful to me for its beauty and the way it feels like arriving at some fundamental truth, for whatever value that can exist. Similar for deeper physics, it's very appealing to me to try to understand the world on some fundamental level, as much as we're capable. And I find it very satisfying solving a good math problem just on the cusp of my limits.

Then higher up the chain is chemistry, electronics, robotics, software. I love seeing how we can put these things together for practical or just fun purposes, and I love when I put something together and get to see the end result working and doing something fun or useful. Doing the little lab experiments in my physics classes in college, it was really cool seeing the math on paper describe what was going on right in front of me, that I made predictions for. Something more practical to put my skills to use a while ago was the light setup I made with turn signals and some other safety features with an Arduino for my ebike. Admittedly I also enjoy when someone sees what I did and appreciates it but I also do it for myself. Then there's AI which brings up all kinds of philosophical questions.

And on another plane I'm getting into the things that go along with homesteading like plant science and animal husbandry. Home grown food tastes better and it's another thing I just think is cool/fun.

This all comes from some combination of appreciation, awe, fun, practicality, or just finding things cool - not seeking validation or running away from something. But I can still heavily sympathize with wishing I had a hundred lives to live, or got to live a thousand years in some kind of university, so I could fully appreciate all of these things. Right now I'm getting out of a long depressive slump and feeling like I've wasted too much time letting myself go intellectually, and wishing I'd dived even deeper on some of them in the past, but I'm feeling good about the future now.

If you were standing at the entrance of a grand amusement park, would you feel despair that you have to choose which ride to take or excitement at having options? If the park were fantastically more grand, so you have no hope of sampling every amusement, does this somehow change your response? Your emotional valence here is your choice, not something intrinsic to the setting. That is what those cognitive behavioral therapists are trying to help with. But, they have to come up with some actionable instruction to convey it to us. I think you are arguing against the chosen rhetorical device rather than an actual principle.

Whether it is rarefied academic pursuits, music and arts appreciation, friendships, love, delicious food, sex, or ... we have to decline a world of countless possibilities to engage what is in front of us. And even then, we need rest periods in order to fully appreciate those rare few branches we do take. You can't enjoy or pursue anything 24x7. The nature of our experience is inexorably tied to the exclusion of other non-experiences.

In other words, life is a constant stream of decisions and branching points. The underlying angst of "not enough lifetime" is rooted, I think, in grief for these other paths not taken, for the loss of imagined alternatives. This is supported by the delusional idea that we could defer and return to every branch (given enough time). It ignores the ephemeral and limited nature of most opportunities and potential experiences, the necessity of closing one door to open another, and that most doors are never open to us (individually) to begin with.

You wouldn't just need a hundred lives or a thousand years but some kind of combinatoric explosion of a Multiverse You, where you could explore every choice of collapsing decision point. But what does that even mean? I think it's another delusion about identity and the self to think that "you" can experience the different paths. You'd be many someones else. If you could somehow fuse them together into an experience, you've just added some kind of sci-fi "hive mind" to your experience. But wouldn't you wish you could have experienced those things as an individual...?

To get stuck with this frustration is a failure to mourn. A failure to accept a finite life and get on with it. That leaves the grief stuck in the back of the mind. This is where philosophers of mind might tell you about desires as the source of suffering, etc. Where practitioners might propose moderation or the so-called middle path. Where the CBT folks might say you are on the path so you might as well learn to enjoy it, and offer a grab bag of tricks to help achieve that.

This is incredibly well written, how did you learn to write like that? As for the concepts you describe, how did you learn about them?

This is essentially the message of “4000 Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman

thank you for writing this

I think I needed to hear this. Thanks.

I agree that it can be like this.

Acquiring expertise is like climbing a mountain. There are revelations in the process, and it is like reaching a beautiful vista and the joy of seeing things expansively, from a height.

I wish I could have this experience in other domains, and feel the constraint is just the physical and temporal bounds of life.

Still, I recognize it as a fantasy to want these things. It’s just simply not possible.

I also recognize that there is something to the Eastern ideas of awareness and consciousness and that you perhaps you don’t need to labor toward material expertise to experience life with expansive revelation?

Plant science and husbandry builds upon chemistry/biochemistry

While you may not be an expert in all of the fields you can definitely understand the basic rules that govern all of these things and build upon that. Mathematics describes all of it

What a great and thoughtful response. I really believe too many people — some very ambitious and successful — are being driven by unexamined pathology. I've seen too many examples of people who achieve their goals in terms of money or career or prestige or knowledge and remain miserable because they never took the time to ask themselves these questions.

It’s almost a required condition.

Without some kind of urge we could be happy doing nothing, coasting on what the previous generation did until our society collapse.

“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.”

― G. Michael Hopf, Those Who Remain

As opposed to the rest that are miserable without getting the prestige? Everyone is motivated by fears, insecurities, wanting respect of peers, etc. Painting this all as mental illness is a bit stretched.

People do stuff and then they die, so try to have fun, do stuff that you want to do and don't worry so much about what mysterious voodoo motivates what you do, who cares?

If you make 10 people's lives better throughout your life, and you did that because of some childhood trauma that motivates you to be a savior or to get approval, who gives a shit? You still helped them.

For sure, mental illness is only defined when the person in question says it’s interfering with their quality of life. Otherwise, live and let live…

Sure all that money and respect and sex is just another burden you’re better off without. You should just let go of the bad thoughts that make you desire expertise, that you could become a valued member of society, and instead find the happiness and love from within yourself and go get an ice cream cone at McDonalds. Cum-by-ya. Hallelujah. Whatever.

It’s amazing the cheap cop outs people settle for faced with failure at the most superficial level. The anxiety and fear of failure ties them up and eventually they give in having earned nothing from toiling and suffering as much or more than their successful peers. Ending jealous for the utmost irony.

If only you could sit down and focus and complete one thing.

You don't actually have to be an expert in everything that interests you: For example, you can enjoy music without ever becoming an expert musician. Many people are fascinated by the images coming from the JWST without becoming PhD level astronomers.

If you think about it -- expertise isn't what makes a lifetime worth living. It's a sense that what you're doing has meaning: A meaningful life is what gives you that sense of "enough"-ness.

Meaning can unfold in different ways, but part of it is about being "in the moment" -- While you're learning music, you have to find meaning in that journey without wishing you were findign time for astronomy (or being frustrated that you're not actually Mozart).

I recommend the book "Why Smart People Hurt" which deals specifically with the challenges of smart people and finding meaning.

Indeed, I am feeling that my lifetime may not be enough to learn all the things I am required to. The general feeling I have is that if I do not do this effort of gaining expertise, I am not fit for life.

As a bit of context, I have been applying for work for about a year now as a software developer in the DACH (german-speaking EU), to be able to eke out a proper living and so far, every job inquiry, every human contact I have made boils down to "me not being good enough" in some respect. Even though I am sure to perform well, given standard compensation and a reasonable work environment.

Everything starting from my education, my life, to my work experience has come under scrutiny and has become more fragmented and harder to coagulate as a coherent story as a result of this constant requirement for me needing "higher expertise to qualify".

Over the course of my life, I have encountered hundreds of situations where as a result of my own lack of expertise in some domain, I was oblivious and even sometimes happy to accept completely unacceptable results, bad products/workmanship or horrible relationships. As a result of bad experiences thereafter, I found myself studying how to manage things on my own, as consistently endangering my very own life didn't appeal to me.

So I feel myself pressured into studying more JS frameworks, more foreign languages, more programming languages, more engineering, more medicine, more chemistry, more psychology, more design science, more product science, more construction science, more everything until I achieve a level of reliable expertise.

At the same time, I am painfully aware of the fact that on my deathbed I will heavily resent the fact I had to spend all this time on personal expertise when probably "we could have had nice things" instead. To be honest, I feel resentment over the fact right now.

"The general feeling I have is that if I do not do this effort of gaining expertise, I am not fit for life."

That's really the more pressing issues that you need to work on.

We all have blind spots about how things or people work, and we're all in a condition where "good enough" is almost always "good enough."

If it helps, the slow process of remaining curious and caring about the people and work you encounter that will build expertise, and that's a thing that takes decades to show itself.

And while we can do many things quite expertly in life, we can only do a few of these at a time.

What you might understand is that, to take just one domain, people looking to hire programmers are looking for is someone who knows about a certain domain, so anything that you're doing outside of whatever narrow field you're discussing with a single person doesn't really matter as far as many people are concerned. T0 the person hiring a junior JS front-end developer, the chemistry skills isn't often relevant.

Further, there is very little learning that a person can do outside of a job. That is a problem, but the way I personally solved it was to lower my expectations for jobs until I got one, and then keep looking for new ones until I found a position I have been quite happy in.

However, all that is outside of the problem you are describing: simply being a person is enough to make you "fit for life".

You don't need to be consistently grinding on learning new things if that's not an end-in-itself for you.

Simply being good enough at one or two things is what almost all of us have to be okay with, and so what you might consider is which specific issues leading you to feeling this resentment.

Are your expectations unreasonable? Are the people you're dealing with assholes?

I suspect that answer to either or both of those questions my be yes; the fortunate thing is that either of those are easier and more useful to deal with than, say, becoming an expert physicist.

I'm looking for a dev job now after a few years off... it's painful! I put my hope into each application, hearing nothing back most of the time stings. And all the while time is ticking.

My instinct is to go learn more, make another project, stall it out and come back when I'm better prepared. I can't really see what one more project is going to do for me though.

What feedback are you getting? Is it ghosting that you're interpreting as not being good enough?

Thank you for posting that. It came at a surprisingly opportune moment and I needed to read that. I'll be checking it out later tonight.

This is a great and wise reply. I too suffer from what you're describing sometimes and I attribute it partly to these sorts of underlying emotional factors.

The real key for me now is feeling that I am enough just as I am. I still strive in my career and in a few hobbies, that's still important, but I try hard not to identify too much with them. I fail quite often but it's liberating. I try to frame my passions as things with intrinsic rewards and not things that bolster my ego.

+1 for Dr. David Burns work. His book "Feeling Good" was the start of the cure of my anxiety; it was immensely helpful.

what an excellent reply. i’ve been working through a lot of these things in therapy, and hadn’t thought of wanting to be an expert as a potential masking of the litany of feelings you mentioned. and thanks for the podcast recommendation

In the past 6 months I've been struggling with a lot of anxiety and OCD. I've read 4 of his books. He's great.

I want to tack on another personal thank you for this response. This is very helpful for myself.

Or maybe the OP is just curious... not everything "different" needs to have a fix.

Your response is spot on. Gave me the words to frame my thoughts around.

I let my natural curiosity guide me. I used to beat myself up about not being one of those people who have a singular purpose, someone who focuses deeply in one area, but found solace in Susan Fowler's blog post:

"All of the really great people of the past and of the present always have some singular destiny. Somehow they know exactly what they love, they find it when they're young, and they spend their entire lives doing that one thing. Their destiny, their singular passion becomes their entire life, and they love every minute of it. It's their calling, it's what they were born to do, and it's beautiful."


"People tell me I can't do all the things I want to do, and they are of course wrong, because I can and I do and I will. But I still can't ever reach my greatest, deepest, most secret goal, the goal I left off that list: to have a singular passion. Maybe that's ok. Maybe my life will always be about running toward that unattainable goal, trying and loving everything I find along the way. And maybe at the end, when I have to give an account of my life, I'll say that I never was anything, but I was everything."

Source: https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2017/5/21/life-without-a-d...

I was about to post the same link from Susan! I found myself a lot in the post and made me felt like I was not alone feeling that way.

Thank you for this, I remember hearing about this article but didn't bookmark it myself.

The threads in here about honestly confronting the finite time available and defining goals and understanding why you want expertise are both reasonable and important to think through.

But in terms of actually picking what to focus on, I'd suggest looking for under-explored intersections of domains that are interesting to you. This is for two reasons:

- If the particular intersection is not field with a large number of people doing real work in it, the "bar" for being an "expert" is lower. In a well-developed area, even after doing quite a lot of learning, one might not be an "expert".

- The intersection can give you a view on those adjacent fields which may reveal other interesting opportunities, and may make you at least fluent or productive in those areas.

Great advice

Four Thousand Weeks is a good book that touches on this. It begins with the premise that most people have infinite desires, and all people have finite time, and it's unlikely you will accomplish even 1% of all of your dreams in your finite life. It then talks about how that's okay, because what we choose to spend our time and attention on is what makes us unique and interesting, and explores some ways to prioritize the things that are most important to youm so that you actually do those things.

Humans have the appetites of gods and the stomachs of mortals.

Great quote, where is this from? Certainly true for me, it seems so far.

At the same time, if we lived longer, our achievements can grow non-linearly as we compound skills and insight.

We don't talk seriously about increasing human longevity, primarily because science has been frustrated by the effort and it's a bit taboo because the assumption people have is that longevity will be reserved for the rich.

At least for me it's not a matter of "ok" or "not ok". It's just deciding what's best to do! Either Jack of all trades (my current approach) or master of one.

I see a lot of answers that revolve around the question of "how to make the most effective use of the limited time I have". A very rationalistic point of view (no surprise since it's HN).

I'll give a different perspective: trust your gut feelings! In Emotional Intelligence, the author Daniel Goleman[1] writes

> [Some of life's big decisions] cannot be made well through sheer rationality; they require gut feeling, and the emotional wisdom garnered through past experiences. Formal logic alone can never work as the basis for deciding whom to marry or trust or even what job to take; these are realms where reason without feeling is blind.

It seems like you are already aware that you don't have enough time to learn everything, there's just too much options to choose from! Perhaps a better approach is to rely on your experience, trust that you will make a good enough decision, and learn how to be comfortable with making choices that are not necessarily optimal, but close. There's a reason for the saying: perfect is the enemy of good!

[1] https://www.danielgoleman.info/

According to several sources, both scientific and esoteric, intuition (AKA gut feeling) is just underrealized experience. E.g. for intuition to work one have to get a lot experience. Which, in turn, requires time.

True, but going "Yolo gut feeling" can also be a way to stop being stuck and forcing to make a decision.

I think OP will be happy with whatever they choose to do, as long as they choose it and being worried before making any choice prevents them from truly trying to do something.

First, have you asked yourself why you want to be an expert in many things? If it is just to know things, then it doesn't matter; just keep learning until you can't anymore. If it is to apply the knowledge to something, then you can use that fact to determine how much utility over time the knowledge of each thing would have, and focus on the greatest first.

> First, have you asked yourself why you want to be an expert in many things?

Not the OP, but here's my answer. I want to be able to win arguments. If I debate the merits of an economic proposal with you, and you say, "Sure, and what are your qualifications, exactly? Do you have a PhD in economics?", I want to be able to say, "Yes, I do have a PhD in economics, actually", or "I have read over 490 books about economics, including graduate-level texts. What are YOUR qualifications?". I want to be able to stand my ground with credentialed experts without necessarily having the same degrees.

Realistically a lot of people who you'd otherwise learn from will avoid discussing things with you because of this behavior. Meanwhile those willing to listen and who aren't as concerned with winning arguments will learn much more than you.

EDIT: to expand on this, the smartest person I ever knew (the late Justin Corwin. Maybe someone here also knew him) would sit quietly during arguments until someone asked his opinion. Even if you got something wrong he wouldn't correct you unless he knew it would help you. He didn't lord shallow facts over people like many others do and his knowledge went deeper than you could explore with mere discussion. After knowing someone like this It has forever changed how I evaluate people's intelligence. Some intelligent people are not at all concerned about winning arguments and it's extremely refreshing.

> his knowledge went deeper than you could explore with mere discussion.

Another principle of mine: There are no oracles. There is no individual, past, present, or future, who cannot be surpassed. No one is a knowledge god. If I learned everything Justin knew, and that wouldn't be too difficult, I imagine, then I, too, could gain a level of knowledge that goes deeper than one could explore with mere discussion, according to you.

> I imagine, then I, too, could gain a level of knowledge that goes deeper than one could explore with mere discussion, according to you.

Yes, you could. Your point is?

My point is: Let's not put anyone on a pedestal because of their cerebral skills.

Great athletes, great artists, sure.

No one is doing that. I'm trying to explain to you that you might get more milage (learning more) by using a different approach and then giving you an example from my life. If that doesn't work for you that's fine. Have a great day and good luck.

Ok but... why?

> I want to be able to win arguments.

You just need to master rhetoric. No need to be a master of a specific subject to be able to twist arguments in your favor.

> I want to be able to win arguments.

The easier route to this is to talk loudly and confidently until the other person gives up.

Give up on that ambition. There are a lot of very intelligent people in the world. They will know more about their subject than you.

Learn instead to recognize expertise.

Arguments are seldom "won" outside of something like a formal debate with point scoring.

Arguing with most people is like mud-wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it.

If being an expert wins you arguments we wouldn't have flat earthers

That is an awful lot of effort just to be able to prove a point, which may or may not actually come up. Choose wisely!

"It is a painful thing to say to oneself: by choosing one road I am turning my back on a thousand others. Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands; willy-nilly we must submit and rest content as to things that time and wisdom deny us, with a glance of sympathy which is another act of our homage to the truth." - Antonin Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods

My perspective is that I probably won't be an expert in a single field (though there's still time). I spent enough time with Java to be fairly proficient with it. Other than that, I call myself full stack developer and that means that I touched a lot of areas in IT. I'm good Linux user, I can administer Linux servers, I can tinker with OpenBSD, I know quite a lot of languages, I think that I touched every popular language and I'm pretty fluent at JS and C. I'm good enough with databases, I'm know few things about hardware. This year I learned how to provision a k8s cluster and install some things there. This year I tried to get hold on microelectronics and microcontrollers but somewhat failed because of lack of time, though I'll get there eventually.

I'm absolutely not an expert in any of those fields and I'm not going to be. But my knowledge is enough to get things running and to tinker with it until it works if necessary.

I like it this way because I just get bored pretty quickly working on a single thing. Doing different things prevent be from burning out and keeps IT fun. And I think that this kind of guy is very helpful for small companies which can't hire experts for every thing. You can temporarily hire contractors but in my experience that often leads to subpar solutions as they want to get money and run away, doing as little work as possible instead of building solid foundation and writing lots of docs.

So how do I decide which things to work on? Well, whatever I need and whatever makes me want to stay at work. Many things.

I'm like that too. I don't think I could actually become a 'real' expert at something that tiny. Way too boring.

I think of myself as an expert at software development. I have broad knowledge I can apply towards lots of 'problems'. I have a past of Linux and network administration which has always helped with bridging the gap of talking to and building for our actual admins and nowadays interfacing with SREs and knowing enough about k8s, I know how to read and diagnose error messages from tools and libraries and stacks I have never seen or built stuff in etc. I can write software in many a language you throw at me though I have ones I use regularly and actually know stuff about. I won't jump on building you a highly optimized trading platform using only Java primitive types as an 'expert' in that might because I'd find that very tedious and boring. Reading about it is very fun though!

Becoming an expert at just one thing in software to me sounds like being a carpenter and all you do every single day is to build walls. Nothing else (i.e. be a framer) or doing dry wall. Sure I'd probably get super fast and efficient at it. But it's gonna be boring as hell. I'd rather learn how to do many if not most of the jobs needed to build a wall, finish a basement, build a shed and roof it etc.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I scratch my itch by just doing the bits of everything I find interesting to some degree. Some I go into more deeply because they are interesting to me for a longer period of time. Others get boring fast and it's fine not to become an 'expert' in. Breadth first search for interesting stuff. If I did depth first I'd only get like 3 things into my lifetime and never know what I might have missed somewhere else.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

Ecclesiastes 9:10

Basically, do the best work you can at whatever it is you need to do. In the end none of it matters.

Good advice, and it can be quoted from dozens of places throughout history. A few...

Confucius: "Wherever you go, go with all your heart"

Sinatra: "If you're going to do it, it's no good unless you do it all the way"

Snowboarder: "Go Big."

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.

- Tao Te Ching, Chapter One

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years. - Derek Sivers [1]

[1] https://sive.rs/donkey

I had the same problem, and I rephrased the "problem". If everyday I do things that make me feel I get better at becoming an expert in things that interest me, and I do that consistently my whole life, then that will be a life well-lived. Doing that gives me purpose and satisfaction every single day.

"Expertise" is not something that exists per se, so as a goal, it is unreachable. In fact, the more I have put this approach to use, the more I realize how many things exist that I will never become an expert on. It also makes me realize that whatever I have the most actual expertise on is but a tiny tiny grain in the vast sea of knowledge in that one specific field!

I don't lol. I just try know my physical and mental limits (know thyself). then I try to do things one at a time, and go until I'm satisfied or tired or hit my limits. Its just life you do what you want on your 80 years.

Annoying thing is that my limits have changed as I got older and had children. So I often had to reassess the time that I can put into my interests. And ok that is life we all get old.

I can completely relate to you. Curiosity, fun of education and adventure of building cool things is what I live by too.

What I personally do for this is I go by what I call chaotic learning. Spending chunks of my time in different things based whatever interest me at that moment. For example, I am currently only trying to gain expertise in software engineering. I am super interested in math, philosophy, history, science etc too. But currently, I want to focus specifically on software and then after a certain point (idk when that point will be, maybe after I've financial freedom, maybe not), I will explore other fields too. But in software itself, there are so many things to do and learn too. So what I do is, today I am working on a side project to do with the terminal. After a few days, once I publish a v0.1, I will work a bit on an open source project I'm interested in. Post that, I might do some DSA. Post that, maybe back to my side project adding another new feature. Then maybe read one of the many books I want to read. Then maybe try to learn and build my own language and so on. You learn/build different things from time to time, based on what you really want to pick. That works the best for me. Chaos.

A lot of people here are going to talk negatives and prioritization and purpose, but I personally also want to be practically omniscient, and you should strive for it too. You need strategies if you want to know a lot. Certainly focused things like classes and intensive study are necessary from time to time (and especially early in life), but we can't do that our whole lives, nor do we want to.

What we need is to develop habits of constant learning.

Here is one essential thing you can do to start learning a lot:

Fill your home with dual-language books, and keep opening them. Put a stack on your toilet.

By dual-language books, I mean books with the original language on one side, and your native language on the other. You'll find that the entirely of the classical pantheon, as well as much great literature and philosophy from many cultures is available in this form.

Spreading math books around your house helps too, of course, along with those on the other topics you want to master.

Keep opening them. Life is long, each day you can learn a bit more.

"Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves."

Do you want to be "book smart" and only know a lot about what someone else thinks and tells you, or actually learn something yourself and gain the intuition and detailed understanding that you get from forming your own knowledge?

You can read books till the cows come home, but don't expect to become an expert from reading alone. I can't imagine anyone on their deathbed wishing they'd spent more time reading on the toilet Vs actually practicing a skill.

Lol. Read my first line.

I'm a software engineer posting on Hacker news. I know how to learn a skill.

This is something else, that you can have, if you read lots of books and learn more languages.

Becoming smart is, in part, about being exposed to lots of others thoughts, and lots of facts, and discussing those things and thinking through them yourself.

I think you are conflating knowledge with being "smart"/intelligent.

One does not beget the other.

Not even close.

Every time I hear someone bring up the “book smart” versus “street smart” false dichotomy it often comes off as someone trying to justify their own inadequacies.

I am not calling out the previous reply.

You are right of course, I experienced that growing up, but a good mix of both doesn't hurt!

What’s another good label for these types of knowledge so that we can avoid the cliche?

Is it as simple as having information and experience?

I have read everything on being a carpenter but I have never practiced, so therefore I am “book smart” when it comes to carpentry?

I guess this doesn’t really cut it because when someone claims their “steet smart” as a way to combat feeling inferior to someone else they have credited as “book smart” what they’re really trying to say is that they have knowledge that’s more useful in different situations? Or more practical situations?

The more I think about this the more it seems like claiming to be “street smart” is just saying “hey, I’m smart too, just in a different way” when you’re feeling a bit less than someone.

There's an obvious example in programming: one might read a lot about machine learning, without becoming a practitioner. Without actually doing some work, one's opinions about building AIs wouldn't be worth much.

What breaks down is thinking this dichotomy captures the state of play wrt knowing lots of things. One of course has to practice knowledge, if that knowledge involves practicable skills, if one wants mastery.

If one wants to know history, or philosophy, or... many of the actual large bodies of knowledge that exist... one needs to get comfortable very regularly opening books. That doesn't mean it's all that's required!

"Well-versed" https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/well-ver...

I only used "book smart" as it is an Americanism and this site has a large American and/or people who learnt to speak en-US. I don't think anyone else would use that term.

Back in college, I wanted this too. I triple majored in CS, biology, and chemistry. But when I looked at the impact I wanted to have and the resources I wanted at my disposal and compared them to an academic lifestyle, I saw a pretty glaring disparity.

The best way to actually command subjects is to work on them. Spend some time at companies doing the things you want - preferably in high paying jobs - and then start something on your own where you have to wear all the hats and submerge yourself in the technical details.

It's not as deep as academia, but it's certainly broad. This tactic might be what you're looking for.

And if you get exceedingly lucky, you might wind up with the capital and stumble upon the kind of unexplored areas ripe for growth that Elon Musk did. That's probably the ideal scenario - you get to work on incredibly interesting subject matters through hiring the best talent in the world. Use your team as a high level search and filter algorithm, and be present to learn and enjoy the process.

I'm nowhere near as successful but have employed people to do exactly that. It's not a bad alternative.

If you triple majored in 3 technical subjects, I submit that your aim was not what I am talking about.

I am talking about how you fit in learning the real knowledge of our collective culture over a lifetime, no matter what else you do.

Then the pages of the books will become dusty and humid, for sure deteriorated. Let alone the other beings living in the house will also somehow interact with the books in other ways than the romantic fantasy setup you proposed.

What the heck are you even talking about? I gotta say, Hacker News is probably one of the least welcoming communities on the internet.

Try to leave a book open on the kitchen a couple of weeks, and another on the bathroom/shower. Then come back and post. And if you happen to not live alone, the same. IF the book is large enough/hard cover to remain open by the page you were reading.

Basically I am calling BS for what it is.

Those are not places I suggested leaving books, because I'm not stupid. I suggested: by the toilet. So you can learn something every time you poop. Then there's these other things called shelves... I own a few.

It is welcoming, but it may also challenge your ideas and beliefs.

For that I value it.

The people who are unwelcoming on HN and the people who post interesting/challenging responses... do not seem to overlap.

I built an app to model this out. It forecasts your future down to the millisecond. It's super simple right now, but has a "time machine" function to see where you'll be in 5 / 10 / 30 years -- and whole life. i.e. You might spend 20,000 hours in the bathroom and 10,000 hours writing novels.

What's valuable to me and the people who have used it is to compare how much time you'll spend on type 1 hedonistic fun vs. type 2 accretive fun.

Free / easy. https://app.sundialcalendar.com/

I enjoyed messing around with that. I'm very old and your app helped reinforce that. I have a stupid question that is likely due to my age. Please feel free to ignore me. Why is this called an app and not a webpage? Is it just modern parlance or is there some functional difference?

It’s a website, because it has a URL, you use a browser to access it and it’s written in html, css and JavaScript.

It’s an app, because it’s interactive. App means application, program, etc. but it doesn’t necessarily needs to be downloaded.

I guess JavaScript blurred the lines a bit, eh. Thanks for your reply.

I have not opened the link above poster shared, but in my mind, a webpage is linear, like a page, where I read, and get info. It does not change state significantly if it even offers any interaction with user. There might be a new oage loading, or images load dynamically, but it does not get or ask information from user, process it & then spit out some data about it.

An app usually displays something on a page, but most of the data is asked from me, app processes it, stores it, displays it.

That defines this pretty well. It's interactive.

Thank you for your helpful reply.

Thanks for trying it out! Modern parlance, imo.

I’m curious about a lot of things, and always eager to learn something new, but at no point have the desire to become an expert. I’m hardly an expert in my every day job. I’m content with exploring. I can fix my bicycle if it’s broken, but I can’t fix any bicycle. I can also fix my plumbing up to a point, or make general home fixes like paint a room, or maintain the wooden shutters, but I can’t compete with a professional painter. I just don’t see the point of investing the extra time to go in all the way. It’s not like I’ll change career any time soon.

Do you want to become an expert in very many different things? Just becoming an expert in one field can take a good fraction of your lifetime, so you may want to consider that.

A useful mental model is to already see what you are good at, and draw (mentally) curves of your competence (I wrote about it in https://newsletter.smarter.blog/p/curves-of-competence). And then use it to figure out where to amplify.

Also note that becoming an expert is a lot of hard work.

In that case, first become an expert in life-span extension!

Immortality isn't happening, but you can significantly increase your health-span, to give you more time to keep learning cool fascinating stuff. There are steps you can take now to delay aging, based on well-run clinical trials, including supplementation with metformin (the TAME trial). Other measures are looking hopeful but are still being researched, including use of rapamycin (PEARL trial). Here's a good resource: a podcast by Dr. Peter Attia, also good for nerding out on lots of interesting topics. https://peterattiamd.com/podcast/

Are there any experts in life-span extension? Or, maybe what you meant was longevity extension - are there any experts in longevity extension? (Life-span extension means avoiding early death, longevity means being able to live longer than any humans have ever lived, say, 200 years or whatever.)

I’ve read a bunch of pseudo-science and heard about so-called “experts” claiming it’s possible and coming, but the field seems to attract charlatans promising immortality…

If new things to be expert in proliferate faster than you can become an expert then life-span extension will not work. You would need to duplicate yourself each time there is a new thing you want to pursue. One you would be a concert violinist and the other you could cure the common cold.

That is a problem best solved after you don’t have to worry about the time involved any more.

> "you would need to duplicate yourself each time there is a new thing you want to pursue"

Much easier than inventing a duplicator is to imagine you have done this already, and the duplicates are all the other people in the world, busy being concert violinists and working on cold vaccines. What a relief to find that you no longer have to bother with such things.

I used to get this with books until I came across the Japanese concept of Tsundoku which helped identify and calm the anxiety. Tsundoku (積ん読) is the acquisition of reading materials and letting them pile up without reading them.

Reminds me of the concept of antilibrary inspired by Umberto Eco.


Don't decide which things to work on and risk analysis paralysis along with a string of other negative feelings.

Let curiosity guide you, explore as many domains as you're able and willing to and become competent with most of them. The more domains you weave into the web of knowledge, notwithstanding the lack of expertise, the higher the probability you'll find links across the ever expanding network. Maybe delve deep into the foundation, occasionally or frequently, for you could stumble into something new. Consider teaching or talking about your knowledge; open a blog, write a book, whatever. It'll help others as well as you, now and later.

In the end, whether through our descendants, works or knowledge, we're all child of that instinct to leave something after our death, of which your post is yet another manifestation.

I think this is an unhealthy desire, as it's impossible to achieve. You should replace it with its source, like "I want to provide wisdom to my community", and then let that guide you in prioritizing your time

I think the OP knows this and thats why he has asked the community. So brushing off by a casual "duh, grow up" isn't the way to go

A few people I talked to in life, have this love for learning everything to the point they feel "afraid to die" before mastering something. They aren't Einsteins - they know that. But having that insatiable curiosity to learn something through & through. It is sad to be empathetic but also a revelation how passionate some folks are. And although its a terrible plan by design, it personally keeps them going on & on. I think what they need to understand is "how much expertise" is good enough. Finding inner balance is as important as finding expertise.

"A few people I talked to in life, have this love for learning everything to the point they feel "afraid to die" before mastering something."

Damn, that describes me pretty much. Though I just feel sad that I'll die because I can't learn everything that I'm curious about. I felt this much stronger in college. Now not so much. Just trying to survive now.

Trust me. You aren't alone. And there is nothing to feel bad about it. I have it to some degree (although a bit unidimensional - I just want to finish all my purchased math & engineering books). That brought me to the conversation with others in the first place. Keep the curiosity alive. Its a powerful, motivating force. Just don't get too anxious.

One way I think about it, is that someone will pick up the torch - someone who follows my work, blog, maybe my children. I did that for my father's dreams. If not, you are long dead already & it won't matter. That gives a sense of closure

That's very insightful.

"Keep the curiosity alive. Its a powerful, motivating force. Just don't get too anxious."

You're so right about that. I just realized I had much more zest for life when I was more curious. I should try to cultivate more curiosity.

Yeah, my first thought what that it would be better to focus on what you want to do, rather than what you want to know.

Focusing on doing something is like having a goal, which is known to be good for mental health. It's OK if the goal changes from time to time. There's a really great book about how having a goal helped people survive the concentration camps in WW2, called "Man's search for meaning", highly recommended reading. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man%27s_Search_for_Meaning

Ars longa, vita brevis

"skilfulness takes time and life is short"


Before you have family: what's fun and will improve the state of the world (not necessarily the whole world, just bits you can reach).

After having family, what benefits them may reasonably be the higher priority.

You need to make your peace with the fact that there will always be vastly more things you don't know than things that you do. That would be true even if your life were 10x longer or 100x longer. Your life span is not the limiting factor. The size of your brain is the limiting factor. At the very least, there are 8 billion other brains out there, and your brain cannot contain all of the knowledge contained in those 8 billion others.

But there are some fields of knowledge that give you more leverage towards obtaining expertise than others. Being an expert in Lisp, for example, will not make you an expert in C++. But it will let you realize that becoming an expert in C++ is very likely to be a waste of time, because being an expert in C++ means knowing a lot of random and mostly arbitrary trivia that has accumulated over many decades of bad decision-making.

There are a lot of examples of subjects that give you similar kinds of leverage. There are probably a dozen core topics that allow you to cut vast swathes through most of human knowledge: basic physics (GR and QM), the theory of computation and complexity theory, game theory and the theory of evolution (and how these are related) is probably the 80/20 list. So if you really want to maximize your expertise I would start by focusing on a few of those topics.

But, as others have pointed out, you really should take a step back and ask yourself why you want to become an expert in many things. Do you want expertise for its own sake, or do you want the prestige that comes from having others perceive you as an expert? Because those are two very different goals.

I'd recommend reading https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41795733-range if only to see why being a generalist is another option. You should feel free to allow yourself the flexibility to switch your interests as you change throughout your life.

There's and old book "On the shortness of life" that you might want to read as part of your journey.

Ultimately, finding one's focus is the hardest and most rewarding part of life.

Mastery is often encouraged - even with tropes like “Jack of trades master of none” used to deliver insults to some of us - but saying used in full phrase is “a jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” ~ Shakespeare

Most of us won’t be polymaths per se but we now live in a world where information and knowledge are in abundance in whatever field of interest and for the most part it’s almost “free”.

With abundance and accessibility (regardless of your class to some extend) can create anxiety and depression or even paralysis since prioritizing shifts entirely on you - mentally as opposed to life’s circumstances forcing you to a particular path because that’s or was the only option. I believe this is a major source of anxiety and even depression in the internet age.

My point is, unlike many commenters, I see your point and even share what you’re feeling to some extend. Most people assume it’s just a matter of priorities, killing FOMO and perhaps being content with life you have now or whatever life has handed you, but it’s not that simple. It’s much deeper.

Perhaps you’re dealing with Chronophobia [0] of some sort that need to be addressed. For me it manifested itself as fear of not having enough time to read all the books that interests me - even if I start reading 24/7 now! My wishlist is insanely long and growing, yet I’m hoarding books and magazines I bought years ago because I simply don’t have time! With help of an expert, I was able to trace my fear to growing up in third-word county in a village setting; curious about everything but with zero access to books / library or entertainment for that matter. I read everything I got my hands to kill time and quench my curiosity and now I have access to all books in the word but no time!

[0] - https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22579-chronop...

I would say you should work on things that will have a bigger impact. Some things might be fun/interesting but the impact will be extremely low (or none at all).

Another tip is to vigilantly avoid time wasting traps like instagram, facebook, video games, pointless youtube videos, etc. This will give you a LOT more time to pursue other things.

But yeah, this is a tough burden for us to bear. I mean, it is literally the oldest problem in human existence: our short time on this earth. It reminds me of a song from ancient Greece (literally the oldest surviving complete musical composition)[1]:

  While you live, shine
  have no grief at all
  life exists only for a short while
  and Time demands his due.
[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seikilos_epitaph

I bet computer and video games are an extra hard trap to uncover for many (in here).

For me personally they often have been and still are a much needed way to escape plus a conduit to a multitude of other interests and my professional career (not directly related).

OTOH and more often than I would like to admit these days its meaningless, consumerist time wasting at best and an addiction at worst.

Taking away from other things and relationships even.

Yet even with the same old games and principles and all the addictive aspects I’d still love it as a hobby (in low doses) but I’m probably also not the only one still fooling themselves that it’s more than that.

Maybe it’s time to finally move on again (feels very hard though).

I feel you. My interest in video games is what led me to getting into computers and becoming the software developer I am today. But the fact is, as you said, it takes away from other things including relationships. In low doses is probably fine, but the risk is that you are kidding yourself about how much time you actually spend. If you really can manage low doses, good for you! But many of us end up spending more time than we care to admit, and that is when it is a problem. Although, as you raise your standards for how your time should be spent, even 1 hour a day of video games might sound like a lot. You could be building relationships, or reading great literature for example.

For me personally, it works best if I cut video games out completely.

Perfection is the enemy of good enough.

I don't know how old you are, but someday, you are going to be approaching seventy years old, and look back on the long arch of your life and realize how much effort you put into things that didn't really matter at all, and didn't put enough effort into the things that do, like art, love, and friendship.

I've spent the last forty years of my life working on embedded systems in telecom, on technologies that reigned in the marketplace for some brief period of time, then were relegated to the dustbin of history. My father-in-law worked at IBM, and within ten years of his retirement, everything he ever worked on was obsolete.

Other than fundamental math and physics, everything is ephemeral.

Love, art, family, and friends will endure. All else is dust within the span of your lifetime.

I just go with whatever my jack-of-all trades wants to do that day. Right now it's mastering French, before it was playing drums and bass in a hardcore punk band, and before that it was finance and the market, and before that using a new XPen tablet to draw panels for a graphic novel concept my brother wrote as well as some F/64-meets-Cézanne style landscapes. All while working on a startup, and trying to maintain a social life. I rotate through these and others throughout the years.

I know I most likely won't be the best at any of them in my lifetime, but really it's not a competition for me and I'm having fun.

Only piece of advice is avoid content mills like Tiktok and Instagram that are designed to get you addicted and keep you from doing the things you love – although on the other hand those things can spark inspiration!

What makes you think you can be an expert in even one thing?

>What makes you think you can be an expert in even one thing?

That's what I was thinking.

For an interesting approach, pick things which are unusual in the way you can clearly see that the established experts are wrong.

Then you would be misguided if you tried to do it like they do anyway.

This can be guided by knowing one's purpose in life, and by knowing that life does not end when this mortal lifetime ends, but we will actually continue to exist; and it is possible, based on our individual choices, that our learning, service, and growth can continue. For me, this helps take the pressure off. I wrote how I know this, at my simple web site (in profile).

There are ways to use our time that brings happiness in things that last and are not transient. A scripture says: men are that that they might have joy. Another says that what we learn by our diligence in this life will remain with us in the world to come. So it's definitely not a waste, to learn, and serve others with our time.

> knowing that life does not end when this mortal lifetime ends.

Citation needed.

My simple web site (in profile) has many links and references, answers to questions, and details. Be sure to read the top part about ~ "how to read this site", as I have really tried to make the site both readily skimmable, and detailed.

I have also learned some of these things for myself, not depending only on what others, or books, say. Again, details in the site and nothing for sale there, no JS currently either.

After doing some camping I started to see life differently. You need to choose carefully what you will carry in your backpack. Yes, we enjoy to do and learn a lot of things, but we need to prioritize what is the most important for us.

I'm at the end of my life. At 25 I decided to get really good at one or two things so I could at least make a living when needed. It was hard to drop other goals but I knew that I could get hired if I was better than 80% of fellow job candidates.

Now that I'm officially retired I'm STILL trying to achieve expertise in multiple areas, but it feels good to know that I was able to support my family and build a retirement fund b/c of my modest expertise.

Even if you had unlimited time it’s unlikely you’d become an expert in many things, even if many only means 3-5.

I know this isn’t very scientific, but as someone who’s struggled with this same question I would suggest just diving into any one of the things that you’re interested in. From there let your instincts and intuition naturally decide what you continue doing and what you abandon.

I’ve learned that it’s hard to force continued work in any area that feels like a slog. Our personalities are tuned to prefer certain activities or fields of study over others.

Find what feels natural and go, go, go.

Prioritize what you love to do, love to work on. You will naturally become an expert in the areas you like to do.

Also good ideas aren’t vague, “I want to be an expert in many things” is too vague for an attainable goal.

I try to work on what I find most interesting, and am capable of doing. Stuff like single photon path distance stuff and LIDAR is really cool, and no doubt I could spend the whole weekend reading about it, but that's not easily within reach given my background (could be wrong). However, there are topics that are closely related to my job skills, and if I push hard on them I should be able to move my career in that direction. I'm a backend engineer, so topics like compilers, distributed systems, or databases are what I'm most interested in. All really cool tech that have deep academic domains and rich histories and very technical implementations.

My general approach is to take tiny steps in the direction I want to go everyday, ie, use the power of habit. This has several advantages, but mostly it's just easier for me if studying is a habit. Right now, that means doing a LeetCode problem every day to stay sharp for job interviews, reading about databases, and starting a new project where I implement a database myself, probably in Rust, so I need to learn Rust as well.

I do generally agree that there isn't enough time to spend on what you want, and work takes up way too much time, but in my experience accepting your limitations and learning to live a balanced life with devotion to tech interests and hobbies has been essential to staying healthy. Put another way, I don't want a crazy job where I grind it out for 65+ hours a week and burn out in 11 months, burn out is very unhealthy for me. Instead, my philosophy is one of sustainable daily movement, setting myself up for working not 2 more years, but 20.

depth first search is a perfectly cromulent way to live.

my heuristic: does this work serve others? do i have to struggle at wanting to do it or do i struggle to stop working?

Usually this means you may probably get distracted easily. So you are good at maths and physics, but then there is this new concept on software engineering and what you do? maybe you switch and forgot for a while about the last topic you where becoming an expert.

There is one thing you are doing constantly and that is: Learning. You are becoming one of the best at learning a new topic quickly.

So is not really as in susans blog post that we are never going to have a single destiny... our destiny is to be the best at learning new topics in record time. This is certainly useful at a research team and new knowledge areas can really laverage someone like that. It's like the category theory expert who can found relations between mathematical objects.

My mindset towards this comes from an stoic maybe buddhist kind of perspective mainly influenced by Thich Nhan Nhat: So you want to be an expert in many things but there is no time for that? cool, embrace it, hug that feeling, accept it you don't need to suffer about it and maybe you already know this and you are looking for practical advice to get more done right?

So that is what I do, I embrace this fact, breath it out, and continue with the topic at hand.

Now getting back at the distractibility-factor... the real problem is when this starts making us not deliver important things here i'm with the person who commented about systems. Atomic Habits is a good book to make those systems and make it simpler for our biased existence to follow a predesigned path daily just as if you were your own parent and designed systems for the little you, the one that have to make decisions daily.

Honestly some psilocybin have helped me understanding this... and micro-doing it seems to add clarity and helps on the letting go.

> I want to be an expert in many things but my lifetime won't be enough

> If you are this kind, how do you decide which things to work on?

First step:

- You need to be an expert in prioritisation!

Well, I figured it’d make most sense to work on eternal life first.

But I’ve found that to be tangential to what I’m actually interested in, so I’m still procrastinating.

Pick one field and start practicing everyday, you'll be amazed what you can achieve on one thing in one year with even only 2hr daily practice.

I second this. It's really stunning what you can learn by logging an hour or two a day. I really like to add Anki to my daily practice routine. I take advantage of screenshotting and jot my notes in Anki in a questions/answer format instead of in a notebook. It's great for learning the core concepts or vocabulary of a new skill.

Just yesterday I was reading Introduction to computing systems by Patt&Pattel when I realized: I'll never finish this book.

I have other big books lying around my home: OSTEP, Algo Design Manual by Skienna, SICP, Designing Data-Intensive Applications, Computer Systems A programmer perspective. They are all wonderful, that's why I bought them in print, but I'll never gonna finish them.

On top of that I'm doing a course on Docker. Learning more about Go etc.

So to answer your question. I no longer decide on what things to learn based on them being finisheable. I pick whatever I want to do today. Life is too short to do things you don't enjoy.

I'll never gonna finish my projects, but I have something to do everyday. I'm grateful for that.

Sometimes being an expert is not as hard as you think. If by expert, you mean competent enough to contribute then it is doable. It is hard to get acclaim in multiple fields. Building that status is a life long endeavor. But doing something self-actualizing in multiple fields with competence is totally achievable.

I personally want to write a book, record an album, publish as first author in a tier 1 research conference and patent it, create a useful product with real commercial appeal, perform a standup special and be a great educator. As long as I don't care about citations, billboards or best seller lists it is all achievable.

I got the paper/patent out and am on my way to building a useful product of my own. I am getting better at the drums and jamming, have performed short skit comedy on stage and make sure to write long form stuff on useless internet forums. My educational pursuits are lagging, but I do try to mentor half a dozen people at any given point in time.

I didn't start with most until I was an adult too. As of now, it feels achievable. But my ability to achieve it is a purely internal pursuit, which helps. My natural ADHDness also helps. Ask me again in 30 years, maybe it'll be a good time to write about how I tried to do 20 things and succeeded/failed.

The key is to put yourself within easy access of these activities and be content with little wins. I wrote skit comedy when i was with fellow drama kids. I play drums now that i have a garage. I taught when my prof needed summer volunteers. I stubnornly seeked a role at the intersection of research and industry to find easy opportunities for novel applied research. The fun is in the journey. A healthy dose of self-delusion saying you don't care about the outcome also helps. I could go into a long tangent on the powers of self-delusion....but I'll leave that for another day.

If you have the privilege of not having a shit day job I'd say to follow your instincts. My love and my passion is producing a niched genre of music, I'm very good at it, but it doesnt pay my bills so unfortonately I have to have a daily job. So I'm accepting that's my destiny as I get older and I don't really care about being an expert at it anymore.

Becoming an expert in one thing takes a lot of time and effort, and this must be maintained even after reaching the goal. But getting a reasonable understanding of many things is not too bad. E.g. working through a freshman level physics text will give you a pretty good (or above average, at least) understanding of the field of physics, and this could be done in a span of months. Maybe try something like this for one subject after another. It could be that this amount of knowledge satisfies you for a given subject and you don't need to go further. But if it doesn't satisfy you, move on to more material. If there really are things you want to spend the time and energy on to reach expert level, you will naturally find them this way. And I suspect that list of things will be a lot smaller than when you started.

Is expertise the means, or the end? How would be an expert in x or y improve your day-to-day life?

Counterpoint: on a whim over Christmas I bought a flute. I don't play a musical instrument, I've no particular musical talents, but I've been working at it consistently if not deeply, half an hour a day, every day, since. I will never, ever be an expert at the flute. I will be better at it though; there are pieces I can play in August which I couldn't play in July. It adds to my life. If the goal were to become an _expert_ flautist then a) I would be delusional but b) it would no longer be a nice little interlude in the day. Were I to magically mature into a concert-level flautist, _would I enjoy giving concerts?_ Pretty sure the answer is no. Expertise is neither a realistic nor desirable goal.

Expertise / knowledge doesn't really matter. It's gone when your lifetime ends.

Pick something else that remains. Impact.

Take a look at https://80000hours.org/ for some inspiration.

  You have 80,000 hours in your career.

  This makes it your best opportunity to have a positive impact on the world.

  If you’re fortunate enough to be able to use your career for good, but aren’t sure how, our in-depth guide can help you:

    Get new ideas for high-impact careers
    Compare your options in terms of impact
    Make a plan you feel confident in

  It’s based on 10 years of research alongside academics at Oxford. We’re a nonprofit, so everything we provide is free.

I am this kind. Jeez, how old are you and how many life-shorting conditions do you have stacked against you? My strategy has always been to visit each hobby round robin. I'll spend x weeks on music until I'm not feeling it or I finish something, then switch to animation and do the same, then game programming, etc, etc. I've always felt like there's way, way, way, way too much time in a life time but that's because I spend half of it suffering crippling depression. I'm supposed to be working on animation today but I'm here. Imagine how many planets I'd have conquered single handedly if Eliezer Yudkowsky had never started mentioning this frikkin site. Time to go make some use of that freedom.to subscription.

You might want to examine the _expert_ part of that statement. What exactly does that mean to you?

I have a great many interests, and I shift to focusing between them pretty regularly (and have for many years).

I enjoy all of them, but I likely won’t make any meaningful impact or win an award or have people ask my opinion in any of them. I only do them because I enjoy them.

If you’re truely honest, your lifetime isn’t enough to truly know anything - one subject or many subjects. You’ll pass away, and all your work will be forgotten in time eventually - no matter what. Life is impermanent.

So, my random internet advice: if you find one subject you really like, go deep. If you have a lot of interests, go wide. If you want a fancy job and people to fawn over how intelligent you are, be born rich.

That's the art in it.

It's a beautiful fact that your lifetime won't be enough for everything you want to do. It means what you choose actually has meaning and love behind it. It's sacred in a way infinity isn't.

What brings you joy on a daily basis? I’m a black belt in Jiu Jitsu and as my mastery continues to deepen it just becomes even more fun and rewarding and I now have a global network of extraordinary people. It’s been well with the thousands of hours.

The best advice I ever got on this was to notice the things that nobody else wants to deal with that seem important. Those are opportunities. It turns out, some of them are pretty fun.

And after that have hobbies that have as little to do with your job as possible.

I like being a jack-of-all-trades too, but it is taxing. My way of dealing with my insatiable thirst for knowledge is to pick a topic/problem/project or two at a time. It's hard but without focus I don't get anywhere.

Assuming “expert” is a comparative scale, look for intersections. You might be a decent rock climber and a decent data scientist, but the world authority on data science applied to route planning on a mountainside.

The first 20 hours -- how to learn anything by Josh Kaufman -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MgBikgcWnY

You can be a top 10% in any given field with this. 20 hrs is worth the effort on skills you want to learn.

My personal advice - Learn only if you put that skill into use immediatly for your good or for the greater good of the society around you. Growth for the sake of growth is the mindset of a virus

I'm actively developing and socializing a thought pattern at this moment that directly addresses this called omnidisciplinary thinking (or Thinking OMNI). Omnidisciplinary thinking is a generic, holistic, nonlinear thought pattern that focuses on blending insights between two or more areas which seem unrelated yet actually share a thought pattern structure by focusing on the similarities between them. In essence, instead of trying to learn many things, learn the patterns of information and how to apply those patterns.

I was this kind in my youth. I felt like my brain was this incredibly powerful cannon, floating in a force cradle, swiveling wildly in all directions, "targeting... targeting... targeting..." all I had to do was locate the target and fire, but I could never locate the target.

What happened was interesting, but perhaps not applicable to you. The best advice I can give you is to find ways to benefit others. That's the open secret of life: one's own happiness flows from bringing happiness to others (self and other are ultimately illusions, All are One.)

The project of your soul is more immense and more important than expertise.

What kind(s) of expertise do you want to realize? You could pursue expertise in a trade, starting as an apprentice then working your way with experience into master status (software, plumbing, electrical, etc). The advanced degrees are relative, but costly, shortcuts to specific domains of expertise (MBA, PhD, MD, etc). Then there’s expertise that can be pursued as hobbies - gardening, woodworking, cooking, sewing, etc.

Have you made a list of how you’d like to spend your time each week? Over years and decades, the time devoted to learning adds up!

Some decent advice here already, so I'll provide something from another angle by just picking something for you. That is, if you continue to be bothered by this, and think you have the actual capability to become an expert in multiple things (rather than a fanciful desire), first become an expert in longevity therapy research and help bootstrap yourself and the rest of the species into having enough time to pursue whatever you/others want.

I’m the same way. My only piece of advice: don’t let ‘sucking at’ at a hobby preclude you from garnering enjoyment from it!

Truly the journey is the destination in the human experience.

Get a paid job with experts who enjoy sharing their knowledge and thought processes. Work hard and gain expertise, then share it yourself. Transition from one domain to a related, or step up a higher level. That's the money part. Make sure to have a few, true hobbies with fun, dedicated, and serious folks. But most importantly, be an expert in living a fulfilling, wholesome life with people where love and friendship is the main theme.

Find a problem you are capable of solving. Make sure the problem has a paying audience and is worth your while. Work on the solution to that problem. Focus! Learn what you have to learn to come up with the solution and sell it.

(Put off learning all you need to know about investing, health, and science. You can spend the entire day without getting any work done. Once you're independently wealthy you can spend your time as you wish.)

Look into Oliver Burkeman's Time Management for Mortals, I personally listen to his audio series on the Waking Up app which you can try for free[1] (I'm not affiliated with them). You are a finite mortal, you can't do everything you want, but you have the power to choose.

[1] https://dynamic.wakingup.com/pack/PKDAFBB

Ah yes. I phrase this as wanting to duplicate myself many times over. Much to do, little time.

I'm attempting to put a dent into increasing our timelines (longevity) with my current project, Guava. The other way to get more time is to experience more in the same time, and for this we need improved brains and interfaces. I'll be ambitious and put my effort into these things because it will allow me to do more if successful.

I‘m a generalist. I know I don’t have time to be an expert in everything. I buy a lot of books about a lot of subjects I’m interested in, but I don’t have the time to read all of them.

But when some work comes my way, the large bookshelf comes in handy, because the books‘ authors knew more than I do.

Sometimes I just buy a book to see if some technology would fit my use case or not. I think it’s faster and cheaper than to dig into online documentation.

Is your lifetime not enough or could the resources to become an expert be better?

Looking at sports, it becomes obvious how much can be achieved with the right training. Unfortunately, right now, only the most promising talent in a field receives the best training. If we can automate that, it would be much easier to become an expert in many fields.

So, if you don't want to decide, you could also improve the infrastructure for becoming an expert.

>Looking at sports, it becomes obvious how much can be achieved with the right training.

Could you elaborate? I wasn't aware of this.

In general, times get better. Where does that come from if humans don't mutate that fast? It's also visible in gymnastics and similar sports where routines become more advanced.

There are other factors, like a bigger global population and drugs. But that's secondary for sports where participants show off complex movements.

Do you know the story of the donkey in the middle between a bucket of water and a pile of hay? https://sive.rs/donkey

So the answer is: one at a time

If you can't decide, say, if all subjects are the same level of interest to you, pick one at random and spend 5 years on it. See where that gets you. If you are satisfied or bored, pick the next subject.

I had this feeling during my 20s, but now in my 30s I just relax and live my life without such thought. I have kids that add value to my life and I work as SRE on k8s clusters. Just relax and do whatever you want to do, even if you just do it for a few days, weeks or months, you gain experience that can be useful for all sorts of things. No need to become an absolute super nerd in just one tiny topic.

Obvious solution: become an expert in life extension.

I feel like the more things I learn, the faster I get at learning new things, and so the number of things I am able to get good at increases at a superlinear rate.

So, I don't think it's really an either get good at A or get good at B. It feels more like either get good at A and B, or neither.

This is my thesis, anyhow, for how polymaths emerge.

Extending life. Subjects to looks at:



Of course, even with a long enough life span you run into issues of brain capacity, but that is another discussion.

Wait 10-40 years for more progress with AI and brain-computer-interfaces.

The good news is that it will likely be completely possible to effectively be an expert in all of those things. The bad news is that everyone else will be an expert also.

It will probably be kind of like what has happened now with Google and arguments over trivia. Just 10 or 100 times more integrated and in-depth.

Still everything, but, faster! I just applied to YC with a learning accelerator that integrates many subjects into an optimized learning plan. The MVP should become useful in the next 6 months.


The premise that one must be an expert in a singular field is interesting, as I have found being a jack of many can be just as useful. No less, it can be tough separating the WANT to be an expert, versus the NEED to.

I can assure you you're not alone, our brains are just wired a certain way. There's silver lining in all things, if you try to dig a bit.

Relevant XKCD: https://xkcd.com/863

Honestly I would drop the ego that fuels this mindset and make an inventory of the topics you've actually pursued in life so far. That can be a good indication of the things you truly find valuable, and it can lead to uncomfortable realizations.

I am an expert in procrastination and I intend to grow myself to become the absolute best procrastinator in the world! I am not just an expert, but will be a world leading expert.

I have 262,980 hours in actively practicing procrastination in my lifetime (30 solid years of procrastinating)

This is my life goal and I am doing very well in my progress at the moment.

It may have already been posted here, but my personal approach is to just try everything! But treat it like play, not work.

You filter through your interests WAY quicker with a first pass and then you can return to topics you felt were interesting and recursively apply this strategy, until a prioritisation seems obvious to you.

Don't worry, life will sort it out. Eventually you will realize that you cannot even be an expert of a niche field.

Somehow I don't think that time is the bottleneck here... The problem is that as you become an expert in a new area, you soon cease to be an expert in the old area. It's difficult to stay up to date and also to keep your skills fresh. If you don't practice a skill for a long time, it tends to decline.

One thing to realize is that the most relevant skills and knowledge are changing rapidly. So maybe it's better to be an expert in adapting to and adopting new approaches.

Because being an expert in less practical subjects that are slightly dated can still be useful and interesting but may tend a little more towards vanity.

To quote my favourite poet, Tomas Transtromer, from his poem "The Blue House"


"Thank you for this life! Still, I miss the alternatives. The sketches, all of them, want to become real."

"Without really knowing it, we divine. Our life has a sister ship, following quite a different route".

Prioritize. Pick one thing and start there.

I'd also ask yourself "Why do I want to be an expert specifcially?" Is this really just a manifestation of narcissism? Are you really after admiration and respect? Work on yourself. That's the best advice I can give you.

Take up super learning, increase speed of input. I can take in youtube videos and podcasts at 2x to 5x depending on the speaker.

Don't waste your time on things which aren't persistent or foundational. Example: learn physics before fashion.

how do you play audios at higher speed without breaking tonality(dont know the right term for it, but audio get very high peech at high speeds) of the speaker?

only vlc work great at 2x speeds but its podcast handling capacity is not that great.

other players just let go at 1.18x ..

dubious that consuming more content will ease concerns about not being able to consume more content

people will find more personal engagement and happiness learning about what ever sparks their interest be it physics or fashion

Marketing and public relations. Raise as much money for anti-aging research as possible.

If you want to master many things, you must first master one. Pick a personal or professional interest and start learning. Do it now and don't waste time choosing, for the choice will ultimately not matter.

"I know that I know nothing" - Socrates

“The wise man is one who, knows, what he does not know.” ― Lao Tzu

This is not to say "give up". But it is saying that you need to "give up" the idea and you will find peace.

I think about what forms of expertise will be meaningful when I am dying.

I follow needs and desires... For needs well, priority is needed... For desires since I have no specific time goal I can follow momentary willingness, stop and restart as much as I like.

I'm planning to live for 1000 years.

Never been very good at planning, tho.

Once can be an expert in things that are complete crap, or that are of no consequence, or both. Have some personal way of identifying those topics and shun them.

Whatever you decide on, don't "fake it 'til you make it", even if that has proved to be a working strategy in certain countries and cultures.

You do something and see whether it sticks. If it does, you continue; if it doesn't you switch. Then later on you might come back to the previous thing.

Wanting something is easy, doing is hard. Get past wanting to doing and it will automatically filter to a manageable set of goals.

Life isn’t enough for anything, I want to spend decades on so many interesting things but all I can assign to them are weekends.

This is something I've been looking into to. What do I specialize in? How do I become an expert at something?

Don't worry, it will be enough in 50 years. Btw, for now, just concentrate your most like topics and GO!

You should work on life extension. If you succeed, you'll have more time to work on other things.

I’m glad so many of us see the obvious solution :)

Of the many things, can you rank them?

Maior pars mortalium, Pauline, ...

The first thing you should focus on working on is longevity / life extension research.

Draw a dependency tree of your interests. Then focus on the root.

First step after finding inspiration was to stop doing wage labor

Believe in a religion that postulates an infinite life after the current one. If you're right, big win: you're going to have all the time you want; of not, by the time you know you don't care any more.

Be an expert in happiness. It's very rewarding.

"Be so good they can't ignore you."

choose one, commit and be expert on that

the benefit of not commited to one is you could be anything, problem is you are nothing.

You can use money and fun to judge.

I struggle with this too, as I have many hundreds of inventions scattered across my notes that I'll never get to make. The interesting thing is that many of them have manifested through the work of others over the last 20-30 years, although some are so fringe that I don't expect them to come into being without effort on my part.

The thought of never being able to make what's in my heart sent me to a dark place a few years ago and coincided with a profound burnout and breakdown in my physical health just before the pandemic.

As I've healed, I've come to believe in reincarnation. Not some woo woo metaphysical thing that can never be proven (it can't), but more like, having chapters or past lives within lives, usually transitioned through major life events and trauma. As in, my daily lived experience and worldview no longer align with the ones I had growing up, going off to school, entering my career, losing friends and family along the way, etc. This is maybe my 7th chapter?

Not only that, but we experience being ourselves in different lives when we dream. It's not a stretch for me to imagine waking up tomorrow in someone else's life, with no memory of my own. Which brings me peace, as it takes some of the pressure off of performing in my own life if my lived experience is just as sacred with the same dignity as everyone else's.

Where this matters is how I think about success and failure. Imagine if every risk we take is a coin flip that determines the next chapter of our lives in our next reality. Heads: we succeed and build upon that success. Tails: we fail and find ourselves deeper in the hole we've dug for ourselves.

Most of my heroes are successful people like Steve Wozniak and John Carmack. They enjoyed early success and found backing by benefactors who helped them stay on course and make the contributions in their hearts.

But I also feel a kinship with failures like Vincent van Gogh and Oscar Wilde. They worked in relative obscurity, never feeling like they accomplished what they wanted to do, all the way until the day they died.

My own life feels like a series of say 10 coin flips that all came up tails. In some ways I'm in the most wretched reality, the 1 of 1024 possible that most acutely exacerbates my suffering.

But that's not quite right, because my life is an equal balance of good and bad, in which serendipity gave me the most amazing experiences and opportunities. Almost like the universe was listening and went out of its way to lay the path for me to travel. I just didn't notice, because I was so wrapped up in external measures of success that I forgot that the important part is being alive and conscious to experience it all.

Now I have a pragmatic view of success and failure. I'm happy when people make it. But that's their experience, their life, their reality. What it really comes down to is, what to do with the time that is given to us, quoting Gandalf.

I think of reality now like a video game where we popped in a quarter to get an extra life. We do our best, we make our mark, then we find ourselves doing it all over again. I try to help people who have that fire in their belly to make the world a better place. But I'm concerned about people who haven't woken up to these sorts of ideas, who chase extreme wealth and power, in the end hurting an aspect of themselves in another life.

At the end of the day, my mantra is whatever it takes. I do whatever I can from moment to moment to shift into the reality I wish to exist in, through mindfulness meditation and daily practice to form habits which get me closer to my goals. As I've become more aware of concepts like co-creation, I've found that life opens up with new possibilities I hadn't conceived of, which has helped me find meaning and reaffirmed my belief in free will and freedom itself.

Practically, that means that I take care of my body's health, I go to work, but I define my own boundaries now. I take time for my own projects regardless of consequence, confident in my ability to handle what creation throws at me. I don't let others' lived experience overshadow my own anymore. I've gotten to experience the feeling of success lately, physically/mentally/spiritually, and it feels wonderful after so many years of struggling.

Basically, choose the one thing most dear to your heart, and go do that.

But these are my views through my filter. Please take them as leads, not conclusions. Apologies that this got so long again, but hey, it's Sunday.


…your ability to appreciate one pursuit or subject will be forever impaired by the existential urgency to “catch ‘em all”.

I realized long ago that I’m addicted to novelty. And I’ve accepted that and I’m okay with it - I love ideas and starting things high on the inspiration and vision for the future, only to lose steam and switch to something else (lack of higher purpose and discipline).

For me, I think it’s all about a drive for significance. So I do a lot cuz I want to matter and be important, make an impact, dent the universe, etc. I don’t want to be an expert in terms of knowledge, but instead in execution and realizing the initial vision. To decide what to go with right now, I’ve come up with the following priority scheme:

0) things where I have passion, highest excitement, engagement, you will not be the best or be an expert if this is not true - non-negotiable step 0 1) youth and time advantage - things that need me you look younger or be unrestricted by family, mortage, energy 2) risk appetite/tolerance advantage - which things are higher risk that I can surely accept now but maybe not in the future when I have more responsibility 3) unlocking other freedoms or opportunities - which things will unlock everything else and make them effortless to start - like exiting a startup with major $$ so you can put it all into ungodly expensive hobbies like becoming an expert rally car racer. I can’t do that financially right now :( 4) what will help myself and my family, friends, tribe in a meaningful way 5) what will help the world in a meaningful way, end suffering 6) discover new truths and scientific knowledge for the benefit of humanity.

It’s essentially a tie-breaking algorithm , shameless hacker plug ;).

I’ll close with a few quotes/ideas:

- with the strategy above you need to set a clear, achievable short term goal with explicit success criteria so you can be honest with yourself if discipline wavers and want to switch to something else. Trace it to the root cause!

- you should go all-in on it. prioritize, but make it short term so you can course correct, do a personal check-in on how it’s going. Give it at least a week, never more than 90 days. Bite sized goals are better because you can have a tighter iteration on your process and see if you’re happy.

- C’s make CEOS because they are smart enough to execute but dumb enough to not doubt themselves, enumerate the ways for failure, be distracted by exciting new ideas, etc.

- people saying “life is short” made me anxious and stressed for a while, and one day my girlfriend said “relax, life is actually pretty long”. I’m having a better time thinking like that.

- the most important part of life is other people. I heard some obscure YouTuber say that about 4 years ago, and I thought it had to be more complex than that. I’m increasingly believing he’s right.

I can appreciate how you feel because, I, along with many others here (as illustrated by the responses to this post) feel the same way.

What has been particularity important for me in dealing with this is to not let this desire to be versed in a wide array of subjects lend itself to a state of thrashing. It is my goal to possess a range of knowledge, but I know that it will not be perfectly all encompassing, but good or some is better than none.

When I say thrashing I am referring to precisely the same sort of thrashing which computers might endure, process thrashing, wherein "when the process working set cannot be coscheduled – so not all interacting processes are scheduled to run at the same time – they experience 'process thrashing' due to being repeatedly scheduled and unscheduled, progressing only slowly."[0] I was first introduced to this idea and it's application to human life through the book Algorithms to Live By, by Brian Christian and Thomas L. Griffiths and I try to keep it in mind.

I couple this idea with some advice from Donald Knuth which he extols in the form of an anecdote about his mother (shared by Shuvomoy Das Gupta): "My mother is amazing to watch because she doesn't do anything efficiently, really: She puts about three times as much energy as necessary into everything she does. But she never spends any time wondering what to do next or how to optimize anything; she just keeps working. Her strategy, slightly simplified, is, "See something that needs to be done and do it." All day long. And at the end of the day, she's accomplished a huge amount."

This second bit of advice is useful because it reminds me not to get hung up on optimization or identifying the best possible learning pathway. When you aspire to learn many different things, there's nearly an infinite number of places you can get stuck, you can get so stuck in fact, that you fail to learn very much at all.

The last bit of advice is a general one: pick the subjects which are most fundamental. For example, say I would like to learn about Zoology, Botany, and Marine Biology. It is most advantageous to choose to study Biology first, as it underpins the three. Then, down the line, should I take the time to dig into each subject in particular, my rate of learning will be accelerated. This isn't anything special, and is in fact the basis of most modern STEM education, learn the fundamentals (math, physics, chemistry, biology) etc. and then the later in-depth topics are built upon that foundation.

So, to summarize:

Pick a subject (the more fundamental the better), think (a little bit, but not too much) about how you will approach learning it, and simply begin. If something else comes along and piques your interest, feel free to switch gears and follow that interest, but be sure to avoid thrashing, hopping from subject to subject or task to task so rapidly that you aren't picking up anything at all. Just as the other commenters here said, you will be amazed at just how much knowledge you accumulate over time.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thrashing_(computer_science)#:...

[1] https://shuvomoy.github.io/blogs/posts/Knuth-on-work-habits-....



Embrace the concept of a talent stack. List the things you love and/or are talented in. Enumerate subsets of this list to find things which combine as many of these things as possible.

This maximizes the amount of what you love that you get to do, and it puts you in a niche where you are uniquely well suited.

You can't be an expert in many things.

Be an expert in one thing + know a little of more other things

If subject A's and subject B's synthesis created a new thing C, wouldn't he then be considered an expert in C, solely because there's no-one else doing what he's doing? In this way you could be an expert in many things you yourself pioneered... Or you could just create a new game and be expert at that.

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