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Go Deeper, Not Wider

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I keep imagining a tradition I’d like to invent. After you’re established in your career, and you have some neat stuff in your house, you take a whole year in which you don’t start anything new or acquire any new possessions you don’t need.

No new hobbies, equipment, games, or books are allowed during this year. Instead, you have to find the value in what you already own or what you’ve already started.

You improve skills rather than learning new ones. You consume media you’ve already stockpiled instead of acquiring more.

You read your unread books, or even reread your favorites. You pick up the guitar again and get better at it, instead of taking up the harmonica. You finish the Gordon Ramsey Masterclass you started in April, despite your fascination with the new Annie Leibovitz one, even though it’s on sale.

The guiding philosophy is “Go deeper, not wider.” Drill down for value and enrichment instead of fanning out. You turn to the wealth of options already in your house, literally and figuratively. We could call it a “Depth Year” or a “Year of Deepening” or something. 

In the consumer age, where it’s so easy to pick up and abandon new pursuits, I imagine this Depth Year thing really catching on, and maybe becoming a kind of rite of passage. People are already getting sick of being half-assed about things, I like to think.

Having completed a Depth Year would be a hallmark of maturity, representing the transition between having reached adulthood chronologically and reaching it spiritually. You learn not to be so flippant with your aspirations.

By taking a whole year to go deeper instead of wider, you end up with a rich but carefully curated collection of personal interests, rather than the hoard of mostly-dormant infatuations that happens so easily in post-industrial society.

Someone’s Depth Year would be a celebrated cultural moment in their community. Oh, Sam is starting his Depth Year this winter! Maybe he’ll finally read his copy of Moby Dick, and start learning complete songs on guitar instead of just bits of them. There could be a bar-mitzvah-like ceremony on the eve of your Depth Year, which would create a bit of accountability. Maybe at the end of the year your peers present you with a special ring.

A big part of the Depth Year’s maturing process would be learning to live without regular doses of the little high we get when we start something new. If we indulge in it too often, we can develop a sort of “sweet tooth” for the feeling of newness itself. When newness is always available, it’s easier to seek more of it than to actually engage with a tricky chord change, the dull sections in Les Miserables, or the dozens of ugly roses you need to paint before you get your first good one.

The consumer economy nurtures this sweet tooth. There’s just so much money to be made in selling people new paths—new equipment, new books, new possibilities. The last thing marketers want is for people to get their excitement and fulfillment from what they already have access to. They would hate for you to discover the incredible wealth remaining in what you already own.

Among many other possessions, I have a set of watercolors, a guitar and amp, and a bunch of “Learn French” books. If I were stuck in a prison cell with these items I would almost inevitably become the accomplished guitarist, painter and polyglot I wanted to be when I purchased each of those things. But new options seem to enter my life all the time, and so I drift from old ones.

It’s wonderful to have the freedom to continually widen our interests. But like many luxuries, it has an insidious downside. Ever-branching possibilities make it harder for us to explore any given one deeply, because there’s always more “newness” to turn to when the old new thing has reached a difficult or boring part.

The joy and enrichment you could derive from a single musical instrument, or a set of paints, is enough to fill a lifetime, and many people have demonstrated that. But those deeper levels are effectively inaccessible without some limit to the splitting of your attention and interest.

Many bookshelves make our modern day width-to-depth problem obvious. You might acquire several books for every one you read. There’s something fishy about that—you buy the book under the pretense that what you want is to read it. But again and again you prove that you want a new book more than you want the unread books you already own—books you bought months ago under the same pretense, and from which you derived the same cheap thrill of acquiring it.

If books were much harder to acquire, or if flippant new acquisitions were a bit taboo, we might actually crack that Margaret Atwood trilogy rather than tell ourselves we’ll get to it someday, while making another Amazon order in the mean time.

As long as we live in a consumer culture, it may always be easier to go wider than deeper. Going deeper requires patience, practice, and engagement during stretches where nothing much is happening. It’s during those moments that switching pursuits is most tempting. Newness doesn’t require much at all, except, sometimes, a bit of disposable income.

So unless we’re locked up in a room with only a piano and a pile of Tolstoy, or we partake in the fictional tradition of a Depth Year, we need to find a way to put up our own limits. When we give ourselves fewer places to dig, we go deeper, and what we uncover is more rare and valuable than the usual stuff near the surface.

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Photo by Syd Wachs

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