On Being A Professional Dilettante
For my first Medium entry (like, ever), I didn’t know what to write about, so I decided to tell you about this guy I know, Salem Lockley.
Salem’s a true character, someone who you can’t possibly believe is for real, and nor should you. In that sense, he’s very much like me, only more….affected, if that’s even the right word to use.
We first met in 2015 when I was living in Mississauga, a suburb to the west of Toronto, Canada, after I’d ended my year and a half stint with the personal development movement in that city. Like many others in that subculture (some would call it a “cult”), Salem was a life coach — in fact, as of this writing, he still is, even though he’s disowned the title — and, as with many life coaches, he is one-third inspiring and two-thirds full of shit. Which part you got from him depended on the day, which in and of itself was a mild disappointment, given the supposed consistency of his life philosophy.
Recently, I reconnected with him in my new home in Waterdown, yet another small satellite community of a larger city, the city being Hamilton, just an hour down the road from where we first met. And Salem…this Salem was mostly the same guy. Mostly…
“I’m a fraud,” he said, sitting in the major Waterdown coffee shop, the Copper Kettle, sipping a maple latte and staring out of the tall windows onto the overcast road of the tiny, centuries-old downtown. It’s quiet today, and the lights, normally only on for the evening, light the mostly empty, high-ceilinged dining area in a cozy glow.
I couldn’t help but notice just how grizzled Salem had gotten since our last chat. 35 years old, though he looked 40, salt and pepper beard over dark skin, and yet also wearing a blazer and striped collared shirt over skinny jeans that one could describe as “hipster chic” and be pretty accurate in doing so. And yet, his eyes revealed damage, like he’d been through some shit between our two coffee meetups.
“How are you a fraud? I asked him.
“Because people pay me to teach them how to be successful,” replied Salem, “and I give them that.” He sipped his latte, wiped the line of foam from his upper lip, put the mug back down.
I nod, waiting for him to elaborate. When he says nothing, I clear my throat. “So…if you did what they paid you to do for you, how are you a fraud?”
“On a couple of fronts,” said Salem. “Because the success I give them is nothing but a mindset, and I don’t feel it for myself.”
He went on like that, speaking in his usual blend of bumper sticker platitudes and stunning profanity, recounting his stories of clients who ended up getting their fortunes, but then losing their time; who got their dream bodies, at the expenses of their health; and so on. By the time Salem had emptied both cup and spleen, I wasn’t sure what his point was, if there was any, until he said the following:
“We’re all professional dilettantes. Everyone fucking one of us in our generation.”
Later on, after we’d finished our meetup and I went home, I spent more time thinking about that word, “dilettante”. I use it, of course, more as a cute word to make me sound like a witty smartypants who’s a real hit at parties, but I never really looked into it. I thought it was another word for “artsy”. Most of the definitions that appeared on the first page of the Google search results suggested otherwise. We were both kind of right.
According to Vocabulary.com:
The meaning of dilettante has changed since it was borrowed from the Italian in the mid 1700s. Originally, it meant “lover of the arts,” but began to take on a negative slant as the idea of doing something as a professional took hold strongly during the 18th century. A dilettante was a mere lover of art as opposed to one who did it professionally. Today, the word implies you’re pretending to be more of an artist than you’re interested in or capable of being, so if you call your friend who likes to paint a dilettante, it’s like you’re calling him or her a poser.
Poser. How many of those have I met in my thirties? How many people think this of me?
Salem was a dilettante, by his own admission. Though he delivered results, he didn’t think they were real. His clients were people striving for success, but they defined it in material terms — big mansions, six figure earnings from doing something they loved, finding ideal lovers and having ideal bodies, and so on — and when they got it, though they assured Salem that they were grateful and happy, he said he could sense there was still something missing.
And, of course there was. When you get everything you say you want, often you realize that it was only what you thought you wanted. This is where most people make the mistake of thinking that they should have wanted something else. This is what British psychologist Michael Eysenck called the “hedonic treadmill”: there’s always another fix, another goal to conquer, another measure of what will make you happy. A lifelong pursuit of happiness, and then you die, no matter how much you accomplish.
The problem isn’t that you wanted the wrong things. The problem is that you’re always wanting something.
Salem had been only interested in the superficialities of success. It’s not just the outer layers — the house, the spouse, the cars, the kids, the fame, the fortune — but also the layer directly underlying all of those things: the constant desire for something new, the dissatisfaction with what was already so. These were the things that Salem, in all of his campy, self-helpy life coaching, never bothered to examine until it was staring at him through the faces of his clients who had gotten what they wanted thanks to his teaching, but still weren’t happy. And they were also present in Salem’s own life: he could deliver 100% of what he promised, doing the work that he loved, and still not be satisfied.
In a way, though, learning of the hedonic treadmill gave — gives — me a sense of relief. By many traditional measures used in western industrial society — net worth, home ownership, marriage, children, influence, and power — I am not successful, and I frequently judge myself for that. On the other hand, based solely on my actions, I’m unwilling to put in the requisite hustle required to get to those high levels, especially if, as Salem and his clients learned the hard way, I would still be as unhappy with all of the things as I am without them.
Of course, I can hear someone’s objection already before I hit “publish” on this ramble: “But at least you’d have the things”. They’re not wrong, but being utilitarian, when I really delve into what the most useful results from running laps on the hedonic treadmill would be, the money is all that really matters.
I’m not gonna lie: financial security would be amazing. I still see things like home ownership and children in my future, and however I need to get there, I will. As of this writing, I’m days away from turning 37, so part of me wonders how much longer I can go on with this 21st Century Bohemian lifestyle.
Based on the results of my life to date, I am a professional dilettante. I’ve spent too much time dabbling, reading the back covers of books instead of the books themselves; registering for training for different things, but not really finishing them; relying on YouTube videos and Netflix documentaries for “research”; even embracing new food recipes and getting tired of them before I achieve mastery. It’s always this or that, then it’s onto the next thing.
Call it “shiny object syndrome” or what have you, I do have it. As a result, the title “dilettante” fits better than “writer”, “ghostwriter”, “facilitator”, “English tutor”, or other labels I’ve used as social currency.
I feel like I should end this with a few “wham” lines of sorts, so here goes.
For two years, I’ve thought of my friend Salem as the paragon of bullshitters in the world, and he’s willing to stop being a poser.
What’s it going to take for me to get real?
And if you find yourself a little too cozy and at home with the “dilettante” label, what would it take for you?
Or are you actually for real?