As I've grown older I've learnt to accept and understand my various traits, both the good and the bad. And if you're anything like me then you get to a certain point in life when you realise that some traits are simply you and that they are unlikely to ever change, no matter how hard you try to fight them.
What has been particularly interesting to observe is that many of the traits that I considered a weakness when younger are in fact some of my greatest strengths as an adult. It's fascinating how age and experience can fundamentally reshape your perception of traits that have remained relatively constant throughout your life.
Jack of all trades
As an example, when I was 12 I was obsessively reading books on how to improve my football technique one week, and the next I was obsessively reading books on HTML so I can make a website about Tamagotchis. And yet at the same time, I had a general fascination with architecture and product design, so I was also learning how to sketch and do technical drawing. And for some reason, I also really enjoyed using computers and learning about this weird thing called the Internet.
As I grew up, everyone else around me was picking defined career paths and life plans. And yet I couldn't, or at least I couldn't see a single path ahead of me. Surely it would be detrimental to my future life and career if I couldn't settle on a single area of focus?
I derive deep satisfaction from being interested in a large number of different subject areas
It's only as an adult that I now realise this inability to settle is a symptom of a core personality trait of mine and something that has been a key strength throughout my life in one way or another.
To put it simply, I derive deep satisfaction from being interested in a large number of different subject areas. And those areas of focus will change over time. I enjoy learning just enough about each of these subjects to feel comfortable with them and be able to apply them to my life in some way. However I'm not bothered about mastering any of them, I'm quite happy remaining nimble enough to float in and out of disciplines as required. And even if I don't use the skills, it's never a waste of time to expand my mind a little further.
In short, I enjoy being a jack of all trades who can take from a wide variety of skills and knowledge and apply them to something entirely different. I'm not the best in the world at any of them, though I'm comfortable enough in all of them to be sufficiently dangerous.
In reality, this manifests in all areas of my life; like learning the basics of car bodywork repair to fix dented and badly-chipped paintwork, getting comfortable-enough with electrical safety to create custom LED strip lighting in my office, or learning enough about how the UK energy grid works so I can understand a new dataset that I found.
I'm not the best in the world at any of them, though I'm comfortable enough in all of them to be sufficiently dangerous
The act of learning these things is as enjoyable as applying them to the end result. In fact, I'd argue that I find the process of discovery and learning more enjoyable.
And the best bit? I have a secret power that helps me feed an insatiable appetite for new information — another trait, one that makes all this research and learning so much easier.
It's only in the past year or two that I've learnt about hyperfocus and how perfectly it describes a state of mind that has been so familiar to me since my earliest childhood memories.
For me, it's as if nothing else in the world exists at that moment in time aside from the task at hand — I can lose hours, days, even entire weeks to hyperfocus
There are many definitions for hyperfocus, though I experience it as the unconscious ability to immerse myself so deeply into a task that I lose all sense of time and space. It's sort of like being in the zone, though I'd argue that it's more than that. For me, it's as if nothing else in the world exists at that moment in time aside from the task at hand — I can lose hours, days, even entire weeks when I'm hyperfocused.
So I need to research something? A new coffee machine perhaps? Oh, I don't simply do a search and leave it at that. No no no. I have to outline what my goal is, take detailed notes, do a deep dive on the topic, and then dig through tens (sometimes hundreds!) of browser tabs as I slowly consume all the information that I can possibly find. It becomes the only thing that matters to me at that moment in time. And by the end of it, I can be left so exhausted that I wonder if I have any energy remaining to enjoy the coffee.
If you think this sounds like a negative trait, it certainly can be. It's something that I have to actively recognise and deliberately pull myself from otherwise I can remain in a state of hyperfocus indefinitely — it's addictive and exhausting.
That negative part of hyperfocus means it's easy to phase out everything else in your life that isn't the specific task at hand. The result is that routine goes out the window and my friends and family get to see me drop off the radar for long periods of time until I resurface again.
The only way out of hyperfocus is for me to complete the task at hand, get distracted by focussing on a different task or reach a point of exhaustion
It's a contradiction, simultaneously being both my happy place and the powerhouse behind my appetite to learn, while also something that I know has a damaging impact on relationships and other aspects of my life.
The only way out of hyperfocus is for me to complete the task at hand, get distracted by focussing on a different task or reach a point of exhaustion. As I've grown older I've learnt to control it better by setting attainable waypoints for the completion of tasks, or to at least force myself to take breaks and time away from tasks so I can pause, clear my head and re-focus on other aspects of my life for a few hours.
It's both a blessing and a curse, and something I have no doubt that I'll struggle balancing for the rest of my life.
Acceptance and humility
One of the most important things I've learnt as a hyperfocused generalist is knowing where your limits are. Knowing where your experience ends, knowing if you can push it any further, and knowing the point where you should defer to the experience of others.
After all, deferring to others is yet another opportunity to learn.
You're of no use to anyone if you spend hours and days in stubborn hyperfocus because you're too arrogant or ignorant to know if you're even capable of the task at hand. Part of this is a mindset thing, and the rest comes from experience.
The ideas may not be truly unique, though what is unique is my personal experience, knowledge and areas of interest — both personal and professional
I also used to consider myself an original thinker, though I no longer think that's true — I would say most of my ideas are at least partially inspired by something that already exists, whether or not I know that at the time. This realisation has been key in my personal development around learning — celebrate the work of others and use it as a force-multiplier to better your own work.
The ideas may not be truly unique, though what is unique is my personal experience, knowledge and areas of interest — both personal and professional. No one else has lived the life that you have, so lean into that and use it to your advantage. I often find that the most useful thing I can offer comes not from my expertise, but from my lived experience and the lessons learned from my mistakes.
On the flip side, you need to accept that other people have lived their own lives and there is an opportunity to learn from their experiences and combine them with your own. You don't need to blindy defer to others, though you should always keep an open mind and be willing to learn something new.
Finally, you should also have the humility to embrace change and new ideas as they evolve or are suggested by others — yet another opportunity for growth and learning. Try not to wed yourself to the original concept that was formed by a former version of yourself with limited knowledge.
So what about you?
Perhaps you relate to these traits, or perhaps you've made a similar realisation or introspection about your own personality. Either way, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
You never know, perhaps we'll both learn something new…