I originally published this post on November 17, 2011. It still gets lots of traffic, even buried down in my blog feed, so periodically I pull it out again. While I’m away at Jazz Camp, gorging on one of my many passions, while temporarily ignoring the others, it felt like a good time to repost.
If you’ve ever struggled with having “too many” passions and interests, if you’ve ever been labeled “ADD” or a “dilettante” or a “flake,” because you’ve done so many different things (and you like it, dammit), this one is for you.
I don’t know how old I was when I first learned the name Leonardo Da Vinci, but from that moment on I dreamed of being a Renaissance person.
I don’t remember taking steps to become a Renaissance person; I only remember the longing. And the feeling of utter impossiblity.
The younger Melissa just kept trudging forward with her life, going to school, following her nose. And feeling somehow… inadequate that she wasn’t the Renaissance person she longed to be.
You probably know where this is headed.
I was, of course, a Renaissance person all along. In my childhood, teens and 20s, the truth is I simply didn’t have the experience to know what my passions were. And that yes, I was hard-wired to have a lot of them.
Looking back, I can see the first inklings of the strength of my bliss-diverse, polypassionate disposition when I was a dance student at the Juilliard School in New York.
A few years before that, when I discovered dance, I fell instantly in love with it. For awhile I devoted myself to it almost entirely. It just seemed what I had to do. Partly, perhaps, because we live in a culture that lauds specialists rather than generalists. And largely, no doubt, because classical dance is a very demanding taskmaster, requiring hours of commitment on a daily basis, which simply doesn’t allow much time for anything else.
But one day at Juilliard, one of the modern dance teachers decided to lecture us on the need to focus on dance exclusively, if you want to succeed at it. He proudly shared that he never had any other interests, and he left no doubt that this was the right way—the only way—for a serious dancer to be.
I looked around the room and saw my classmates nodding their heads in passionate agreement.
I, on the other hand, was burning with a different kind of passion. I was outraged. Livid. The utter notion that I would have to give up, say, my interest in the Humanities (I was the only dancer in my Juilliard class who actually went consistently to the academic classes—and liked them), or drawing, or anything else for that matter, made me so angry I wanted to spit.
That should have been my first clue.
Yet although I spent the next dozen or so years pursuing a range of different interests (even my bachelors and masters degrees were both interdisciplinary majors, for goodness sake!), though it should have been obvious that I’m hard-wired to be bliss-diverse, I always had the nagging feeling that there was something wrong with me.
On the one hand, I longed to be a Renaissance person… but couldn’t identify myself as such. On the other hand, I simply couldn’t limit myself to a solitary focus… and beat myself up for it.
In my 30s, thankfully, my self-concept started to shift. I finally began to “get it” that maybe I was designed for multiple interests. It was clear I would never be happy sticking with one area of focus, and rather than fight this, I began to accept it, embrace it and work with it.
At the same time, my mom and my friends started referring to me on their own as a “Renaissance Woman.”
Having that outside perspective helped me see my (sometimes annoying) propensity to want to do seemingly everything as a positive feature. I was also entirely tickled and delighted that the great longing of my youth had, in fact, actually come true! My family and friends were proof: I was, after all, a Renaissance person!
I may not have the talent or historical staying power of a Leonardo, but that is entirely irrelevant. The fact is, I’m a Passion Pluralite. Bliss-diverse. Multi-passionate. What Barbara Sher, author of Refuse to Choose (among many other books), calls a Scanner, and Margaret Lobenstine calls The Renaissance Soul in her book of the same name.
It was a huge relief to figure this out. But the issue remained of how to deal with it.
Being bliss-diverse can be enormously rewarding, but also presents some significant challenges. How does one balance and juggle all those various passions???
For a long time I had no real strategy. I tried to do everything I was interested in all the time, which is, of course, impossible. I took on too much, and yet nothing I took on got the level of attention I wanted to devote to it.
This left me wrung out, and continually frustrated.
I remember a moment in my (ahem) late 30s (yes, I’m embarrassed to admit it took that long) when I had the revelation that maybe I could try limiting my focus to just a couple of things at a time.
That didn’t mean, I clearly acknowledged to myself, that I was dropping any of the other things forever. Just that I wasn’t going to try to do everything at once.
As it turned out, focusing on just a couple of things didn’t feel like enough to me, so I expanded it out to three. Or four… And ultimately came up with a model that has worked quite well for me ever since. What I now refer to as:
The Stovetop Model of Life Design for Passion Pluralites
If you’ve ever cooked a full meal (Thanksgiving dinner, anyone?), you know that there are only a certain number of tasks that you can keep track of at any one time.
The typical stove has four, maybe five burners, but rarely more than that, and there’s a good reason for this. A stove with, say, 20 or 100 burners would be impossible for one person to manage. Imagine that poor cook running around like a madman!
But four or five is feasible for any one meal.
You can have soup simmering and pasta boiling on back burners, while you occasionally stir the sauteeing mushrooms and focus on the omelette on the front burners.
When the pasta’s al dente and ready to serve, you shift your focus from the mushrooms and eggs to drain that pot over the sink. Then it’s time to put the fillings in the omelette and flip it closed.
You get the picture. Of course at any given moment you can only give your full attention to one pot or saucepan, but a skilled cook can keep four burners going at once quite handily, shifting pots from front to back burners as necessary.
There may be many more dishes in this particular meal (dessert [or several!], appetizers, salad), but those ingredients stay in the fridge until the cook has some free attention and is ready to deal with them. One of the pots on the stove goes in the fridge, and the ingredients for the chocolate mousse come out for mixing up.
Approaching my life and creative passions with this Stovetop Model in mind was a game-changer for me.
The urgency and frustration I felt for so long dropped away when I realized that I get to do it all, just not all at once.
A plethora of different types
Barbara Sher describes no fewer than nine different general types of Scanners in her book, Refuse to Choose, some of the sequential variety (moving from one passion to the next over time), and some of the cyclical variety (following more than one Bliss at all times).
Personally, I’m a bit of a blend of both. Like the type Sher calls the “Serial Master,” I get tremendous satisfaction from the pursuit of mastery, and tend to gravitate toward new challenges after climbing the learning curve to my satisfaction. But unlike the Serial Master I also tend to keep my passions in the rotation rather than dropping them completely to move onto something entirely new.
In that way I’m more like the type Sher calls the “Sybil,” preferring to keep a full stovetop of passions at all times, and rotating pots when it feels right. Which seems, for what it’s worth, to typically be every 3-9 months or so.
In 2011, for example, starting on February 1 that year, I made my visual art a big focus. I initiated my 15 Minutes a Day standard for playing in the Creative Sandbox, started my ArtSpark newsletter, and in that year I made over 150 finished pieces, making it n the most prolific period or art-making in my life!
In fact, at the end of 2011 I produced a book of 100 my ArtSpark artworks, which you can preview in this nifty widget (or click here to view it larger).
Time to move the pots around on the stove…
Where 2011 was a year of making art, 2012 and 2013 were/have been much more about writing. Sometimes I feel a little “false guilt” that I’m not making more art, but as I shared in Your Big, Bold, Creative Life Academy session this week, in the module around overcoming overwhelm and freeing up time, the sensation of guilt frequently has nothing to do with actual guilt.
Have I committed an offense against anyone by writing more and making less art? Um, that would be a no. I sent an almost-daily newsletter of my ArtSparks out for several months of 2011 and 2012, and the subscribers to the ArtSpark newsletter might have been disappointed when I put the newsletter on hiatus. But their desires to continue receiving the newsletter are not more important than my needs to take care of myself, and put my time and energy where my priorities lie.
As a bliss-diverse Creative, the most important thing is to follow your Bliss(es), not do what you’ve always done to please everyone else. That is a sure recipe for burnout!
So I do my best to practice what I preach. The ArtSpark will come back from vacation if and when the time is right. Or not.
All in good time. There’s only so much room on my stove, after all. But you can be sure I’ll keep you apprised of what I’m brewing up.
(Make sure not to miss one juicy morsel—sign up on my mailing list in the form at the upper right.)
Are you a Passion Pluralite? Do you have a multitude of interests and sometimes have a hard time juggling them? Tell me if my Stovetop model resonates for you at all, and what other models you’ve found helpful.
PS – Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!