Now and then I obsess over a topic (or skill, or thing) and dedicate an inordinate amount of time to it. They have a secret and I must extract it—I must fill my mouth with their taste. They are often, unfortunately, fairly pointless pursuits. Then I’m sated—I’ve learned some tricks or stop being surprised—and the need disappears.
But there are a few topics for which my obsession is tidal. For them, whenever I learn, I feel my ignorance opening wider still: my learning is partly about all the things that are still unlearned; my satisfaction is grounded on discovering that despite years of effort I’m only getting started, that the secrets will not end, and that the journey will last my full life. I sometimes get weary and stop for a while—even for a very long while—but I’ve always taken up the path again.
I can think of four things that affect me in this way: writing, gardening, programming, and playing Go. In all four, learning feels only like peeling a layer, never reaching the core—and I’m extremely far from the core. In all four, I can see, study, marvel, and draw joy from the work of people that are much better than me. While overwhelming, this keeps me humble and hopeful. In all four, practice leads to a contemplative state, and insights seem to apply as much to the thing itself as to life in general.
Perhaps later on other things will come to have this effect on me—gardening is a fairly recent addition to the list, one I only started three years ago. I hope they will, though I can’t control it. But I doubt these four will go away.