Don't Let Your Hobbies Die

12 Jan 2019 Gregory J. Stein

It is especially easy at the beginning of a new year to fall into the trap of the New Year’s Resolution. New goals and challenges and routines are established under the banner of self-improvement. Gyms and fitness centers become packed. Productivity books fly off the shelves. In the words of The New Yorker’s Alexandria Schwarts, we’re improving ourselves to death and in our crusade to make time for all this self-improvement, hobbies are too often forgotten.

What I've discovered over time is that many of my skills and passions have developed only through little side-projects that never see the light of day.

For me, hobbies walk an enjoyable line between work and play: I often aim to learn something or try something new. Hobbies afford me the opportunity to challenge myself and embrace failure without worry of repercussion. A couple years ago, during a self-imposed redesign of this blog, I came across Robert Bringhurst’s fantastic book, The Elements of Typographic Style. Captured by his prose on the art of typography and font design, I started exploring and my website became an outlet for experiments in typography. My exploration grew to include other types of graphic design, and I’ve been experimenting with design software and creating vector art ever since. Mastery has never been the goal: learning something new and having an outlet for my creativity are their own rewards. But despite the independent nature of my exploration, making high-quality graphs and figures became easier and the quality of my technical presentations at work has clearly improved.

My foray into design is far from the only instance of this, and many of my hobbies have even shaped my career. In college, my penchant for translating my physics homework into computer code landed me a job as an undergraduate researcher. Many of my colleagues have similar stories: their fun little projects would start to occupy more and more of their time until it would make its way into their work or somehow start shape the way they thought about a problem. For most of my hobby projects — even those tangentially related to my work — I rarely feel as if I am building skills that I’ll ever use again. And yet, time and again, I have found a strange usefulness out of them: perhaps a colleague wanted to know if anyone had used an obscure programming library or get recommendations on some software for X, Y, or Z.

In the preface to his book What The Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell reflects “…it took me forever to realize that writing could be a job. Jobs were things that were serious and daunting. Writing was fun.”

I’m not advocating that we should all take up new hobbies with the sole intention of developing skills useful for our careers — lest “hobbying” become a new class of New Year’s Resolution. To be clear, for every hobby project of mine that has had a clear positive impact in the wild there have been another five or ten that yielded no extrinsic rewards (so far). But the combination of the satisfaction I get from freely exploring a new idea and the occasional long-term reward make me feel as if I am constantly growing.

In The Mundanity of Excellence, Daniel F. Chambliss argues that “excellence is a compound effect of mundane actions”. My hobbies are nothing if not mundane, but — as I strive towards excellence — I can’t help but notice that they’ve shaped my mental models and how I approach new problems at work. My most recent project involves playing around with Blender, the open source 3D modeling and rendering software. I have no idea if any of this will yield any skills that prove useful to my career someday.

But, of course, that’s the point.

A yet-unnamed creation of mine, made with Blender and voxel-editing software MagicaVoxel.

As always, I welcome your thoughts (and personal anecdotes) in the comments below or on Hacker News.