On the inability to keep liking things: Confessions of a nomad of interests

What it’s like to suck at retaining interests

Riikka Iivanainen
11 min readAug 2, 2023

Sometime ago, my mom sent me a text saying that they’ll bring the binoculars the next time they visit. The binoculars? “The ones you wanted to bring to Helsinki, so you could go birdwatching.” Birdwatching?

I had no memory trace about my supposed foray into birdwatching. Or I did once I excavated my memory. A few weeks prior, I’d been to Sheep Island, a small nature reserve near my home named after the sheep brought in to graze from June to August. It has a birdwatching tower I often visit.

So there I was, sitting on the bird tower bench, sipping my chamomile tea out of a thermos flask, and enjoying the view. I wasn’t alone. An old man was peering through his massive spotting scope, and a younger man was lifting up his daughter, so she could see over the railing. Apparently there were two great cormorants sitting on a pole. The old man asked if the girl wanted to take a look — she did.

I’d never seen a great cormorant before, so I asked if I could take a look, too. The old man stepped away from the spotting scope and gave me instructions on how to operate the lens. The view came into focus: Two great cormorants sitting on a pole! It was a black and bulky bird with a brawny beak.

This was fun!

I started imagining how I’d go on day trips to nature reserves and watch birds. While I was painting my birdwatching future, I remembered seeing my binoculars — a birthday gift from when I was twelve or so — atop the fireplace at my family’s cabin. When I got home, I called my parents and asked them if they could bring the binoculars to Helsinki.

They did. And even though I’ve gone on several day trips since, I’ve never taken the binoculars with me. I actually had to check whether I still have them. I do. They’re stashed between bags and belts and jewelry boxes in my living room drawer.

This is a familiar pattern to me: I get interested in an activity. I take some action towards it. And then I abandon it (often forgetting all about it).

Here are a few things I’ve taken up and abandoned in the past five years:

  • cold exposure
  • film photography and a related Instagram account
  • tufting
  • community gardening
  • making YouTube videos
  • keeping a food blog
  • keeping a restaurant review blog
  • writing a cookbook
  • taking a poetry class and making a poetry collection
  • taking a social psychology course
  • taking a statistics course

Not that this is a new phenomenon. My interests have been flimsy and fleeting almost throughout my 29 years of life. Growing up, I tried (or thought about trying) and abandoned ballet, painting, playing the drums, tennis, weaving, and various style and photography blogs.

Ironically, I’m fascinated by the people who do one thing very well — pastry chefs, climbers, game designers, sculptors, ultra runners, writers. The people who devote their entire lives to perfecting a pistachio praline recipe or studying lichen in the forests of British Columbia.

“But becoming very good at something requires sticking with one thing for a very long time. And the only thing I seem to stick with is my inability to stick with things.”

But becoming very good at something requires sticking with one thing for a very long time. And the only thing I seem to stick with is my inability to stick with things.

The goddess of fate must have had a blast when scheming my life:

Let’s bless this person with an admiration for mastery and an inability to keep liking things. Ha ha ha ha. What a fun little nut to crack when figuring out how to live happily! Ha ha ha ha.

This is my reflection on what it’s like to be afflicted with the inability to keep liking things. A reflection on the inevitable haphazardness and confusion, but also the serendipity and adventure.

Photo by Bethany Randall on Unsplash

Keeping up with my interests

Right now, I was actually supposed to be working on a different blog post than the one you’re reading. I’d planned to write three more professional pieces, which I’d neatly laid out in a spreadsheet with my intended publishing schedule. But after opening a draft written back in March, I struggled to get going again. The fire had gone out like after a long night of s’mores and guitar music.

It’s not that I didn’t try to light it up again. I set up a timer and forced myself to type for an hour, blowing and blowing on the embers of the draft to induce a new spark. But when the timer rang, I’d barely written a sentence: The fire had gone out for good.

Because I can never tell in advance when the fire will go out, there’s a sense of urgency when I become interested in something. If I don’t do the work today, I may never do the work. Next week, next month, or next season, the spark may be gone, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

So I try to keep up, like when I’m walking somewhere with my mom and have to sprint every eight steps or so, because she’s 175 cm with long legs and I’m 161 cm with short legs, and she walks fast (we sometimes go “jogging” together when we’re at the cabin: I jog, mom walks). But sometimes I question whether I should try to keep up at all.

“I’ve grown suspicious of my new interests over the years. Whenever I get all starry-eyed about tufting, tennis or trail running, I stop and think whether it’s the beginning of a bonfire or a few feeble flames about to go out.”

Quite understandably, I’ve grown suspicious of my new interests over the years. Whenever I get starry-eyed about tufting, tennis, or trail running, I stop and think whether it’s the beginning of a bonfire or a few feeble flames about to go out.

And just as understandably, the people closest to me don’t expect me to keep liking things for very long. When I’d been eating a plant-based diet for two years — it’s been over three years now — my mom asked me, “So is this some kind of a longer-term thing now?” (She would’ve preferred it not to be. We’ve always been a meat-and-potatoes family, so being a beans-potatoes-and-veggies daughter has been a hard sell. And the question was certainly justified. My mom has seen me be adamant about eating a FODMAP diet — which meant loosing the onions and figuring out whether gluten-free lettu, Finnish pancakes, are any good — only to go back to eating “normal” food after a year or so.)

To prevent confusion and avoid annoying inquiries from loved ones, I’ve adapted my behavior when it comes to talking about my new interests, plans, and hobbies.

Managing other people’s expectations

The best way to avoid embarrassing conversations about your interests is to simply not let people in on what you’re into. You don’t need to justify your behavior when there’s no behavior to justify. No sneering remarks to respond to, no confusion to carry. It’s like having a new lover: It’s easier to keep them secret, because in a few weeks or months, they might no longer be around.

When I do tell people about a new hobby or future plan, I often intentionally manage expectations. I frame it as “nothing serious.” When I started a poetry collection course and played with the idea of making a book out of the 52 scribbles I’d accumulated while trying to make sense of my addiction to unavailable and uninterested men, I warned my friends about how the project might turn out: “It’s of course possible that when you ask me about this in six months I’ll be like, ‘What poetry collection?’” The following spring, I’d swapped Tuesday’s poetry for Tuesday’s salsa.

But when I simply mention that I have a new crush and leave it at that — which is most of the time — I get to pay the price. “But do you understand what it looks like on the outside? Only a few months ago, you were putting all your time and effort into applying to a second master’s and now you’re saying you wouldn’t accept the place even if you got it.” This is what my mom told me, when she was over for a visit this spring. She was clearly confused and perhaps also worried about my mental health.

But to answer her question: Sure, if I flex my empathy muscles, I can see how my behavior might’ve looked erratic on the outside, the key word being outside.

A sequence of random events on the outside, a (somewhat) sensible narrative on the inside

Witnessing the reactions of the people around me has taught me that if I’m not sharing my sensemaking process, my actions and decisions can seem quite incomprehensible. A story doesn’t narrate itself.

When I decided to apply to a master’s program in social psychology in early 2023, it seemed like the right thing to do for several reasons: I’d recently been laid off and felt like all the cards had been shuffled, I was taking an online course on self-determination theory (a strand of social psychology) which I loved, and the application period for master’s programs in Finland was about to begin. Was it not the perfect moment to flirt with the idea of studying something I’d dabbled in in my free time? I thought so; so did many of my friends.

But as the months passed, and I thought about the reality of being a student again, the idea began to loose its glow. I thought about needing to read specific things in a specific order and to write what I was told to write. I thought about needing to find a part-time job and cutting my income in half, if not a third. And I thought about needing to drop one or several of my beloved hobbies (dancing, bouldering, writing) due to time and energy constraints. No thanks. Learning in the confines of an institution began to appear like a bad use of time.

I also had an inkling that applying to a new masters program was somewhat of a coward move from me. Studying would allow me to avoid facing my insecurities related to working life: Did I have any relevant skills that someone would pay for? What if I couldn’t get a full-time job in my field? And even if I could, what if I didn’t have what it takes?

None of this reflection was of course visible to my parents. What they saw wasn’t a nuanced sensemaking process, but impulsivity and indecisiveness. In their eyes, I was wandering around aimlessly and wandering around aimlessly is scary. It’s just that to me it’s not that scary.

“I don’t mind hitting a few cul-de-sacs on my way to clarity. I’m used to it. And I believe it to be useful, if not necessary.”

I don’t mind hitting a few cul-de-sacs on my way to clarity. I’m used to it. And I believe it to be useful, if not necessary.

I’ve come to believe that maybe the universe wants me to have all these experiences. Maybe they’re part of my path like being robbed of all of his belongings and starting to work for a crystal merchant was part of Santiago’s path in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. By being forced to settle down for a while, Santiago witnessed what it’s like to override the voice of one’s heart: The merchant had always dreamed of going on a pilgrimage to Mecca, but hadn’t acted upon his dream out of fear.

The inability to keep liking things may be a life of unknowable twists and turns. But it’s the most truthful life I know. To not live this way would feel like a betrayal. A betrayal of myself. So I tap along and follow my curiosity. And who knows, maybe it’ll all make sense in hindsight.

“But is there really nothing that has stayed with you for longer?” you may be wondering.

The things that have stayed with me for longer

Claiming that I’m completely incapable of retaining interests would be a lie. A few things have stayed with me for longer (although you may disagree with my definition of “longer”).

I’ve been dancing for four years. I haven’t stuck with a single style — I’ve tried both multiple solo (several afro style, sreggaeton, street dance, twerk, commercial) and partner (salsa, bachata, Brazilian zouk, kizomba, lindy hop, west coast swing) dances — but I haven’t abandoned dance altogether. In fact, I tried to abandon it once after getting fed up with my afro dance teacher, but the break-up didn’t last very long: After two months, I became curious about twerk, tried it out, and joined an “absolute beginners” course.

Bouldering is another hobby that has stayed with me for longer. As I told a new acquaintance at the bouldering gym, “It’s been almost two years, and I haven’t yet broken up with climbing.” It was love at first sight: When I jumped down from my first completed route, my eyes were glistening, and my veins were full of adrenaline. I’ve been bouldering one to three times a week ever since.

I’ve also been writing for over two and a half years now — or a lot longer if I count in my “poems.” I’ve taken breaks in between, but then new stories have started creeping into my consciousness, and I’ve gotten back to it. (Interestingly, the the topic of this article has nagged me for quite a while. It first came to me about two years ago, then I fiddled with it in January 2023, completing a first draft, and now — it’s July 2023 — I’m finally writing it.)

There’s one more long-term interest: The human mind and experience. I find scholarly texts on social psychology and behavioral economics incredibly engaging, and have been reading them on and off for three years now. I’m also a continuous observer of my own mind, which this story is a pertinent example of.

It could be that I’m growing out of my inability to keep liking things and ready for a long-term relationship. But if I am, I think it’ll be a polyamorous one.

A bittersweet blessing: The privilege of diving into new worlds

As much as I envy people who’re able to stick with one thing, I must admit that I take pleasure in my impulsive disposition. I love being at the mercy of chance; I’m a serendipity junkie. Over the years (and many abandoned interests), I’ve come to see my impulsivity as a privilege.

I get to constantly dive into new worlds. I get to spend one fall with amateur poets who despite their busy lives (or who knows how busy the members of the Tuesday Poets Society are) pour their hearts out on paper and then courageously bring that paper for others to read and scrutinize. And then I get to spend the following spring learning salsa steps and going to social dance parties together with news reporters, bus drivers, and game designers.

The inability to keep liking things is a nomadic lifestyle. When the grounds have been hunted and gathered, it’s time to move on. And if it feels painful to move on, I remind myself of just how well I’ve survived each loss, wink at the goddess of fate, and sing to myself some Fred Again, “What comes next / Will be / Marvelous.”

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Riikka Iivanainen

Content designer & user researcher fascinated by the human mind and behavior. I study (social) psychology for fun and love to tell stories—even the small ones.