THE BENEFITS OF CHOOSING JUST ONE THING.

Bharatanatyam Dancer // Image via Jim Zuckerman

When Ross and I were in India, we decided we would fill up our free time taking classes from local artisans. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, I stomped around in bharatanatyam dance classes; Ross would take an auto-rickshaw to a drum master’s home, and learn mridangam drumming techniques.

“How did your class go?” I would ask him, rubbing my sore soles.

“Um …” he would say, “interesting. It was interesting.”

That’s because Ross and I, Americans that we were, were used to entering into artistic endeavors for the sole purpose of individual expression. We were going to give bharatanatyam and mridangam drumming our signature style! Really put our personal spin on it! OWN it!

Except, we were not. That is not how bharatanatyam and mridangam drumming is done in India.

One of the main cultural differences between America and, well, the rest of the world is our very short history. Oh, we’ve got a few traditions here and there … Thanksgiving, for example. The Star-Spangled Banner. But, when it comes right down to it, we’re only a few hundred years old. Compare that to India, whose inhabitants have been practicing bharatanatyam dance and mridangam drumming for millenia. Ross and I were not, in fact, going to waltz in and become crazy bharatanatyam dance and mridangam drumming improv artists; we were going to learn hundreds of years’ worth of rhythms, step by step, marching backwards through history learning the works of all the masters before us. Because that is how ancient traditions are handed down: by devoted, rote memorization.

So it wasn’t a surprise that Ross’s drum lessons went the way they did. Here’s how a typical lesson would go at his mridangam teacher’s house:

“Ross sir, I will demonstrate to you this song. Please listen and repeat back.” (An eight-minute drum song ensues)

“Um, OK,” says Ross nervously, “does it start like thi–”

NO,”  says mridangam drum master. “Hand is in WRONG place. Please start again.”

“Ok, cool — I think I got it,” Ross poises his hand and begins, “this feels grea–”

“PLEASE START AGAIN.” Mridangam drum master is frowning at Ross.

“Oh, sorry, let’s see — um — maybe you could review the first 30 seconds or so?”

“Yes. Hands do this.” (Mridangam drum master plays first half of entire eight-minute song)

“Alright … great,” says Ross, “so we begin like this?” (Tentatively plays first few beats)

“Yes, yes … NO. PLEASE START AGAIN.”

It wasn’t trial-and-error, you see. Our teachers’ mode of instruction was: You got it, or you didn’t. If you messed up, go back to the beginning.

Maybe it’s harsh. It’s certainly not the teaching style most of us are used to. And yet … our teachers weren’t just teachers. They were masters. Their craft was their essence, the thing their heartbeats kept time to. When you watched them perform, it wasn’t like watching someone who is very good. Rather, it was like watching a half-animal, half-spirit being that channeled something large and, you got the sense, very profound. More than art. More than history. You were bearing witness to something not entirely of this  physical world.

***

Living in Austin, it’s easy to stick your fingers in any number of creative hobbies. We’re a city, but we’re a small town at heart, and the artistic scene isn’t too hierarchical (yet). Oh sure, there are masters. But they walk among us. They won’t “NO, PLEASE START AGAIN” at you; rather, they’ll calmly take your hands, place them in the general direction of accuracy, and nod encouragingly while you do your own little jam.

Because of that, and also because I think I belong to a generation of frantic skill collectors (see: Zooey Deschanel, movie star/indie rock singer/website founder/Pantene spokesperson), I have a really hard time choosing just one thing. On any given day, I yearn to master:

1. Writing

2. Yoga

3. Aerial dance

That’s a lot as it is. I’m far from mastery at any one of them. But then, I’ll read about someone else being awesome, and I’ll immediately start fantasizing about that, too:

Me: Wow, it’s so cool that Lena Dunham is a screenwriter.

My brain: Lady screenwriters are so in these days! Very now!

Me: Right?  Well, good for them. Anyway, I’m just going to sit down and write a blog pos–

My brain: Let’s write a screenplay!!

Me: What? No. I’ve never written a screenplay.

My brain: You could do it!!!

Me: Uh, no I can’t. I already have too many hobbies. So! Back to this blog pos–

My brain: Wait wait I know! You know what else is awesome right now? Having your own podcast! Let’s invent a podcast today!

Me: Nice try, but, no. Seriously, I appreciate the ideas and all but–

My brain: TOO LATE! I’m registering you on iTunes right now! Hahaha you’re going to have a podcast!

Me: Oh my God stop. I don’t even know what I’d talk about on a pod–

My brain: Maybe BOOKS or AUSTIN or GREEK YOGURT recipe ideas. Maybe you should let me do the talking.

Me: No no, I don’t think that’s such a good idea…

My brain: WELCOME TO TOLLY’S PODCAST! Today we are talking about her CAT!! Haha!

Me: —

This is honestly a near-everyday occurrence.

My friend Susan and I talk about the merits of Just One Thing vs. Many Things. She falls into the former group, and as a result, is a magical bikram yogi. She can literally bend her body in half, backwards. She is a nationally-recognized, award-winning yoga competitor and teacher, all because she decided to embrace Just One Thing a few years ago, and immersed herself in her practice wholeheartedly. Whole-bodily.

I, being a student of the Many Things school, have a ton of hobbies that I am so-so at. Some are further along than others. And some (Spanish, distance running) are just never going to progress past first grader level. That’s fine and I’ve accepted that.

However, as I get older and come into contact with things that feel like passions, real passions, a funny thing is happening.

I’m finding more and more reasons to embrace Just One Thing (or, perhaps, Just Three Things). To pursue mastery over novelty. To shut down my brain every time it says, “saxophone player!!! OMG Tolly let’s become a sexy saxophone player!” and gently turn back to the passions I’ve already chosen.

Maybe some of you know what I’m talking about.  Maybe you discovered your thing years ago and stuck with it. Maybe this whole inner struggle could be summed up as “First World Problems.” Which wouldn’t be entirely off the mark.

However, it’s been eight years since Ross and I were in India, and I feel like I’m just now beginning to appreciate the teachers we had there. I’ve been thinking about them this morning, Ross’s task-master mridangam drum teacher and my equally unforgiving bharatanatyam teacher, and also thinking about the fact that we are so damn lucky in this town to have so many instructional artists at our fingertips.

But. Cheryl Strayed has this Carlo Levi quote that I’m identifying more and more with these days:

“The future has an ancient heart.”  

Maybe I’ll keep evolving and discover something else shiny and new down the road that I want to pick up. But for now, for possibly the first time, ancientness feels like home.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kathie.sever Kathie Lebeck Sever

    homahgawd i’m cracking up reading this because this is the exact conversation i have with several friends of mine on a semi-regular basis. i am a glutton for wanting to do ALL THE THINGS and to make ALL THE THINGS. i do feel like it’s left me feeling both schitzophrenic and mediocre. just this morning on my run i was dreaming up a new blog to start. and wondering if i could take that dance class i’ve wanted to take. and learn woodworking. etc etc etc. oie. to be a master or to be a dabbler, that is the question….

  • Kellyn D

    Tolly, you have no idea how hard this hits home for me. I’ve been in this sort of existential crisis for months. I keep thinking, “Oh my God. I’m 24 now. I have a year until I’m 25. I have done nothing important. I haven’t even chosen a profession. I’ve just been dabbling in tons of hobbies for years. WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE!?”

    Recently I’ve been insanely lucky to get to travel to the UK, explore and learn. It still blows my mind that this is my life. My boyfriend asked me last night what I’m going to do while he’s in class all day. I replied, “Well, uh. I…uh…write? Read? Find some art classes in town? Maybe go to this craft show thing? Get re-vamped and find my life’s passion? And also work on photography.” He says, “Kellyn. You have got to settle down and focus on ONE thing instead of a million. What will you do when we get back to the States?” I literally have no idea.

    POINT OF LONG WINDED RAMBLE, I’m glad I’m not the only one with too many irons in the fire. I’m definitely a student of the Many Things school, too. There’s nothing wrong with being in my early twenties and experimenting with hobbies and passions. Eventually I’ll settle on one (maybe a few) thing I love but until then, I’m just going to keep exploring my options!

  • http://twitter.com/kjsouthernbelle Katie

    I hear ya loud and clear. I think I need 3 things to focus on…I may be a classic case of ADD when it comes to my interests/hobbies…slowly trying to figure my way out of Corporate America and out on my own…there are 3 things that are related that make my heart go pitter-patter.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      And what are those 3 things, my dear?

  • http://lovealamode.wordpress.com/ Rachel from Love a la mode

    Tolly you are the funniest writer! Your brain and my brain should be friends. When I saw Lena Dunham’s opening Emmy’s segment my brain was like: “Why can’t you be successful enough to appear on primetime television naked eating cake in a bathroom? She’s only 5 years older than you. What are you doing with your life? You should write a tv show. Yeah! Let’s write a series of 22 minute episodes about four friends after college in L.A. It’s GIRLS in LA!” And then I actually attempt to jot down some notes and my brain is like “This is hard. When are we going to Sushi Garden?”

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      Haha, totally Rachel. I think it goes like this — some professions, at certain moments in history, just become really glamorous and cool. Some, to me, always are (novelist, NPR show host, etc.).

      But the end result is only a small fraction of the totality of work that goes into a career, and while the Emmy segments / published book / polished broadcast is wonderful to relish in, I think it’s the day-to-day, thankless stuff that actually motors a career forward. And it’s THAT stuff you have enjoy, too. You know that when Lena Dunham isn’t being fabulous, she’s probably at her apartment, scratching her head in front of the computer screen, going: “Is this funny? This so isn’t funny. Goddammit I have to scrap that whole episode. Wait, have I taken a shower yet?” and then she showers, starts a brand new episode’s worth of dialogue, sends it off to Judd Apatow, he tears into it, she gets it back, incorporates some suggestions and trashes the rest, and smiles to herself that Emmys or no, this is exactly how she wants to be spending her time.

  • The Reading Studio

    Oh Tolly, I can so relate. I feel like I want to be something new everyday. I even take it to an extreme and try to tell other people something new they should do everyday. (many apologies to Ross and others that I project onto) Your piece speaks to me on so many levels. Thank you, deeply.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      Well Melissa, the challenge with you is that you are just so naturally talented at so many things. Which makes it hard to choose, no? (I think it’s also harder for people who have artists’ hearts beating inside of them, and as any artist knows, finding that balance between self-expression and paying-my-bills is really, really hard.)

      Personally, I think you have a real gift for listening, and for helping others discover what their true potential is. You’ve expressed this in a variety of ways before, but when I think of Melissa, I always think EYE CONTACT, and how much I feel like I’m genuinely being HEARD. Attention is a very valuable commodity in our 21st century, gadgety, text-message-dinging, other-people-looking-down-at-their-phones world! It’s healing too, and to be a healer is quite a noble calling.

  • ChelleLynn

    An interesting side effect of One Thing vs All The Things is the sorts of communities that become available to you. For years, I have longed to join the One Thing club, thinking that they had it all figured out. I’ve timidly tip-toed onto the One Thing road, and all of a sudden, the people in that club are inviting me in with open arms. And now, I sort of miss my All The Things peeps. They’re way less serious. Because, with that commitment to One Thing does come a certain responsibility to yourself – to become as close to master as you can get, or at the very least, take your craft as seriously as you can. And, that’s kind of hard some times, and makes life a lot more meaningful in certain ways, which is really really scary.

    • Tolly

      Totally, ChelleLynn. And for the record, I think your 20s are a perfect time to be an All The Things butterfly. You and @dcd6771abb85327725775b5d55b7a144:disqus have the right idea by sampling, tasting, floating in and out … and seeing which passions stick. For example, I can remember a certain point in my 20s when I found Victorian literature fascinating, and went to grad school for that. That one ended up not sticking, but the journey to grad school ended up turning me onto a local city magazine, and then I realized: “OH! City journalism! I totally dig that.”

      So for your 20s, I think it’s great to stay hungry and curious, and try lots of stuff out. I think I’m just now (age 30) at a point where I want to join the One Thing Club, and feeling a kinship with those take-the-craft-seriously folks. My yoga friends, my aerial friends, and my writer friends are (for the most part) all in different circles, but being around them inspires me, and shows me just how far I could go if I immersed myself like they did.