The Geek’s Dilemma: Breadth vs. Depth of Interests

Geek Culture

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About two years ago I wrote about my own “omnivore’s dilemma,” one shared by many of us in today’s rich world of experiences: how do you pick your interests? Our time is limited. Even the most efficient among us only get 168 hours a week. For every new hobby or obsession you add, you will necessarily require time and energy (physical, mental, emotional) which you’re currently spending on other things.

Quite often, your choice boils down to this: breadth or depth?

For example, in my earlier article I gave the example that I love watching movies and TV shows, reading books and magazines and websites, playing videogames and board games. That’s a lot of interests, and it probably explains why the depth of my interests is relatively shallow. Not all of my interests are at a uniform depth, of course — I’ll take a board game over a TV show just about any day, but casual iPod games often beat out books if I’m not paying attention to the time. But let’s compare this to somebody who is more focused on a smaller number of interests.

First, think about a movie buff — somebody who loves movies and watches them all the time. She can name directors, actors, producers, maybe even key grips. She beats you every time at Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Sure, she probably also watches some TV, maybe reads magazines or books, but a lot of those may pertain to movies and the movie industry. Over time, this movie buff will see a lot more movies in her lifetime than someone like me, who might see two or three a month.

Now, let’s drill down even further. How about somebody who is specifically into sci-fi movies? Like the movie buff, he has other interests, but because he’s narrowed down his field of interest, he can invest even more in the things he likes. His knowledge of sci-fi movies would be really impressive. He could point out links between different films and film series; he would catch obscure references and allusions.

And now let’s take one step deeper still: a Star Wars fan, in the original sense of the term — fanatic. Here we have somebody who lives and breathes Star Wars, quoting not just memorable lines but entire scenes. This is the person you don’t want to get started about Episodes I, II, and III, because they won’t ever stop. Sure, at this point the field of interest expands into books and TV and toys … as long as it’s about Star Wars.

The narrower we draw our focus, the deeper our expertise on any particular subject can grow. This is true of any aspect of our life; it’s the reason we pick a major in college — so that we can develop a specific type of knowledge, in the hopes of having a specific set of skills that will get us a job down the road.

In some respects, that focus is what makes people geeks. When we talk about a “Star Wars geek,” we’re not talking about people (like me) who like Star Wars but not really much more than they like Star Trek or Starship Troopers or, heck, going out for ice cream. We mean somebody who’s really into Star Wars, who has the action figures and wears the T-shirts and would go absolutely nuts for an original 1977 metal Star Wars lunchbox (with Thermos). The term “geek” often seems to indicate this type of singular obsession. It’s not enough to just have some knowledge about something; to be a real geek you have to know your subject.

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Because although there is a general inverse relationship between the number of interests and the depth of those interests, it’s not a strict formula. There are outliers. There are people who are off the charts — those who have an overwhelming number of interests and seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge in every single area. And there are those who are below that line, who don’t seem to have that many interests and, frankly, aren’t even that interested in those.

My older daughter is certainly farther to the right on the graph. She’ll pick a book and read it cover to cover, and then start right back at the beginning. While she’s still interested in a lot of things, she definitely latches onto things and wants to know all about them from top to bottom. My wife, while she doesn’t always fit the classic geek mold, is also farther to the right. She’s read the Harry Potter series countless times, because each time a new book (or movie) came out she re-read all the previous ones to catch up, and she’s the one who has been reading them to our older daughter now. If she discovers a musician or a band that intrigues her, she’ll find out everything about them, listen to all their songs, and be singing along in short order.

Me, I find it hard to exclude anything. There are very few things that I won’t try at least once — but for that very reason it’s quite possible I will only get to try it once. Why do I think of myself as a geek, then? I clearly fall closer to the left side of the graph: lots of shallower interests. When choosing a book to read, I’m more likely to pick something I haven’t read yet than to re-read The Lord of the Rings — and if you talk to me about hobbits and dwarves, you’ll soon find that my knowledge of Middle Earth is quite shallow. (I haven’t even — gasp! — read The Silmarillion yet.) I don’t even think I’m necessarily somebody who pops up above the trend line — I’m more like what Jenny Williams described as a “Renaissance soul,” somebody who wants a little bit of everything.

“A jack of all trades is a master of none” — does it follow that a hobbyist of all interests is a geek of none? Or just a geek of a different stripe?

How about you —where do you see yourself on this chart? Or do you think there’s an entirely different way to make this graph?

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5 thoughts on “The Geek’s Dilemma: Breadth vs. Depth of Interests

  1. This is what I refer to as a metageek. I’m the same way.
    It’s not that you don’t have specific interests (such as board games), it’s just that when something else comes up, you try it out to see if it’s something that you might be interested in. You’re probably well aware of the things you know you’ll never be interested in, as well as the interests you already have, but for anything you don’t know, it’s not a permanent state. It’s more of an I Don’t Know YET.
    Some things latch on and stick around, and though they might not hold your interest as much as other things, they still get marked down in your brain as mildly important, so whenever it comes up in conversation, or while surfing the net, your attention perks up a bit, and you add to the knowledge.
    Sort of a geek-by-osmosis state.

  2. From one Renaissance Man to another — well said.

    There just aren’t enough hours in the day, money in the bank, nor energy in my body for all I love doing. Playing music, writing music, photography, graphic design, video/audio production, writing, game play, game design, marketing, creative strategy, team building, blogging, social media, web design, hiking, rafting, movies, books, acting, voice work.

    One lifetime just isn’t enough. Making the most of what I have.

  3. I’m definitely more on the right of the graph. Once I get really into something (for me right now: star wars, board games, rock climbing), I delve into it 100%. I’ve been so into star wars novels and graphic novels right now that I won’t even touch the rest of my book library (unless maybe it’s the ender’s game/shadow series). I’m super into board games right now so I’m reading about them, reviewing them, trying to get a board game play in at least once a night. I’m finding my son even as a toddler is becoming the same way! He used to be obsessed with balls (football, basketball, baseball) and now he’s obsessed with the Alphabet. I have a sense he got my obsessive…errr…enthusiastic personality. I think you can still be a geek even if you aren’t as on the right as I am, but it is certainly different! Maybe we need more names to describe different types of geeks 🙂

  4. I too am a renaissance man. I don’t have a problem with it.
    This is starting to sound like geek confessions.

    I agree with Kurt. Knowledge and experiences is what my interest is. If I haven’t done something yet, or I don’t know much about it and I think it’s interesting I’ll take a while to look it up. It creates a more well rounded knowledgebase and set of experiences. Although I’ll never know as much about science, game design, scifi, etc. as some people, I still know more than most, and that’s exactly how much I want to know. For me that’s it’s own reward, and not far from where I’d be if I focused all my time in one direction.

    Jack of all trades, master of none, sure that applies to me. That still puts me in the unique position of being the friend that’ll take you indoor skydiving and then show you the latest board game he’s been working on.
    -Jonathan King

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