Harry Smith

The Remarkable Magic of Hobbies

If you haven't got a hobby, you should think about getting one. It'll trick you into learning vital skills you can use everyday.

I’ve picked up a new hobby. I’ve been leather working. It’s always intrigued me. I love the look of leather products and the feel of them. I’d been putting off working with leather because of the sewing involved. I’ve had some pretty horrific sewing experiences, and I wasn’t keen to get into the ring with it again. After a gentle reminder from my girlfriend that I was ‘a stupid boy’, I got on with it. Determined, I set out to conquer my fear of sewing.

Over the last few months I’ve taken some time to reflect on how that experience made me feel. What general benefits are there to having a hobby? For a long time I haven’t had a hobby at all. As you progress into adulthood, more and more people lose any hobby they had as a child. It slides down the priority list almost unnoticed. Rediscovering a hobby has changed my priorities about them.

Hobbies are magic. They teach very hard to learn skills in such a gentle manner that you don’t notice you are learning them at all.

Hobbies force you to think about how you divide your time. We lose time to things we have to do. The rest of it consumed by things we shouldn’t be! Starting a hobby trains execution. Execution is the often forgotten step that comes after having an idea. Rarely do idea’s become reality without a plan to execute. Time is a limited resource, and all hobbies have a minimum time commitment. You have to drop tasks that you don’t have to do, and cut out wasted down time. Skip the dishwater television and do the hobby instead.

That requires discipline, which hobbies also teach. A new hobby is equal parts exciting and frustrating. Get past the initial enthusiasm, and friction starts to arise. This feeling of sudden friction can be a stumbling block. It might not mean it isn’t for you. It’s more likely the friction of learning any new skill. It requires a bit of discipline to get past. This pattern of Enthusiasm -> Friction -> Failure comes up a lot in life. Pushing through it in a hobby is easier than pushing through it on a big project. Once you’ve pushed through a few times, you’ll find the friction starts to not occur at all.

That discipline teaches dedication to practice over results. Your hobby is fun, it doesn’t feel motivated by results (hopefully!). We’ve disarmed a lot of the pressure we would otherwise feel. But watch with care. You’ll start to see how you can carry this mindset into your other goals and projects. When I’m making leather wallets for fun, I’m not worried about how much progress I’m making. When I compare all the wallets I’ve made, there is a remarkable improvement over time. I made an effort to improve, but I did not tie it up with any expectations. I did it because I enjoyed it. If I’d looked at my results, that first crappy wallet would have deterred me.

It is an opportunity to enjoy being a beginner. When we are young, we are very comfortable being a beginner. As a kid, you play the instrument or paint the picture with no fear. There is something very pure about watching a child learn something, free from fear. As adults, we lose this beginner mind. We are not so open to new ideas. We are less comfortable at being new at things. Being reminded what if feels like to be a beginner is an important wake up call. It’s easy to stagnate on skills we are comfortable with. My hobby reminds me that even though I’m good at one thing doesn’t mean I should push down that one path. Keep curious, keep open, keep learning.

Of course, there are obvious practical benefits to a hobby. Most hobbies increase coordination, dexterity, problem solving and spatial thinking. These are skills that aren’t generally improved by day-to-day life. If you work a white collar job, these skills are likely rarely used at all. It has been surprising to me to see rapid improvements in dexterity. This has improved other areas of my life. I’ve seen big improvements in my typing speed, my knife skills in the kitchen and dealing with day to day tasks.

Immersing yourself in a hobby is immersing yourself in a new problem space. Spending time in a different domain shifts your pattern of thinking. This leads to idea genesis that otherwise might not have happened. This happens for two different reasons. Solutions to problems materialise while preoccupied with something unrelated. Taking a walk often generates new ideas, the same is true when absorbed in a hobby. The other, is changing the whole pattern of your thinking. A different problem space has different solutions. Insight begins with the fusion of unrelated topics.

If you do a lot of technical work, try a hobby that is more creative. See how that creativity bleeds into your technical work and provides huge benefits.

If you do a lot of creative work, try a technical hobby. Creativity proves an asset in problem solving.

If you work in a craft, learn something digital. Try video editing or photoshop. Use the hobby to learn some skills and share your passions.

If you work with the non-physical, find a hobby that works in the physical. It feels good to touch the product of your efforts.

I’ve found as I’ve got older there are less and less indicators of progress. Feedback loops dissolve away after school. My experience of the working world so far is that good feedback is rare. A hobby gives an opportunity to track the improvements you have made. Being able to have clear, identifiable improvements is a huge motivator. If for no other reason, if you haven’t already got a hobby, try to develop one for this reason. If you’ve struggled with feeling a bit listless, I urge you:

Find a hobby, any hobby, and dive in.

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