tl;dr: Exactly one serious hobby will keep you at the top of your game
In a previous post, I talked about how playing the nerdy card game Netrunner has made me better at what I do professionally, which is running my startup Trinket. I’ve come to believe that finding exactly one serious hobby to pursue mastery in is a powerful tool for balancing your life and becoming more effective.
Pick your serious hobby deliberately and it will round out your skill set while providing balance to a demanding schedule. Peter Thiel divides personalities into Athletes, who are natural competitors, and Nerds, who are creative explorers. We all fall somewhere along this spectrum but most endevors require a blend of these traits. Serious hobbies are perfectly suited for helping you blend.
You may already have the perfect blend of traits for your goals. If that’s the case, ignore this post! Some people are naturally blended and some careers require a personality on one side or the other of the spectrum. But personally I’ve found that I need to develop my competitive side to be good at my job. A nerdy but very competitive card game was exactly the balance I needed. The balance you want will likely be very different, and I think there are guidelines that can help you find the right fit.
But first let’s talk hobbies.
What is a Serious Hobby?
Let’s break down each word.
What’s a Hobby? I define it as a specific activity, other than your primary pursuit, that allows you to develop mastery. Running around your neighborhood is not a hobby. Marathon (or 5k) running is a hobby. Reading books is not a hobby. Becoming an expert in the history of German Existentialist thought is a hobby. It should be something that stretches you while also providing a needed break from your primary pursuit.
What does Serious mean? Serious in this case has to do with how you treat the hobby with respect to the rest of your life. Do you get up early in the mornings to do it? Do you block out time during the week for it? Set aside time on the weekends? Do you prepare for your hobby? Read up on new techniques or trends in it? For a Serious Hobby, the answers to most of these questions should be yes.
Serious Hobbies have an almost professional feel to them in some ways. A good test for a Serious Hobby is whether it’s deep enough to sustain your full-time attention if someone were to pay you for it. Watching movies? Nope. Writing reviews of every detective movie ever made? Yep. Playing solitaire? Nope. Playing poker? You bet. The depth here is the key.
So a serious hobby is something that you engage in multiple times a week with a goal of developing mastery. The kind of mastery you’re shooting for varies depending on your personality type, which we’ll discuss below. But first let’s talk about why you should have exactly one Serious Hobby.
When I say exactly one, I mean it. If you’re at the top of your game in your primary pursuit, adding anything to your weekly schedule will already be a major commitment. If you drop your Serious Hobby you’ll have more time but you’ll lose the benefits of developing mastery. If you get excited about hobbies and switch to a new one every month or so you’ll be unlikely to get the benefits either. And if you try to have more than one serious hobby at once you’ll be wasting time by either diminishing your bandwidth for your primary pursuit or being unable to get truly serious about either hobby.
So: have exactly one. ☺
So how would you know if a hobby is a good choice for you or not?
Choosing your serious hobby
Photography a bad choice for my Serious Hobby. Why? Simple: I’m already a nerd.
Let me elaborate.
Peter Thiel divides personalities into Athletes, who are driven to win at winner-take-all games, and Nerds, who are driven by dreams of unbounded success. I think this division is apt but would clarify it slightly:
- Athlete types might also be thought of as professionals. Their success criteria are pre-established and they are motivated to achieve them
- Nerd types might also be thought of as artists. Success to them is a large and wide as their imaginations or intellect can make it
An athlete/professional attitude is often required in business, finance, grant-writing, (some) engineering, and other professions that involve binary outcomes. The nerd/artist type is most at home in creative roles, design, research, and, of course, art.
Which type are you most like?
Most people have some blend of these two traits but favor one over the other. I suggest that your serious hobby should come from the opposite category to help balance your personality.
If you’re an athlete/professional type, find a nerdy/artistic pursuit you can enjoy. Some might enjoy gardening, photography, or playing music. True to your winning tendencies, you’ll probably practice your hobby aspiring towards some sort of ‘best’: perfect pitch, the perfect roses, or the perfect macro shot of that flower. And that’s OK. These hobbies will stretch your understanding of what success is and help you see possibilities outside the well-defined success you’re used to.
I’m a nerd/artist at heart. I’m enchanted by the possibility of unbounded success that I’ll have a major role in defining. That’s why I started a startup. It’s also why I love photography, which encourages me to wander off in the woods and explore. Who knows what I’ll come up with. But, increasingly, I need to Play to Win. Whether it’s closing investment or signing partnerships, the goal is well-defined and binary. I need a hobby that requires me to win in a winner-take-all game. Netrunner has tuned out to be perfect for that.
An important consequence of having exactly one hobby: Actively avoid all hobbies except for your Serious Hobby. Most of us have several hobbies we remember fondly. I really miss film photography. But picking photography as a serious hobby or trying to do it un-seriously would be a huge mistake.
Photography, for me, is extremely time-consuming. From shooting trips to developing film to selecting proofs to printing, it is absolutely something I could spend 100% of my time on. That means it’s a candidate for a Serious Hobby, but it’s a bad choice for my Serious Hobby because I’m already nerdy/artistic (see below). It’s also a bad choice because there’s just not enough time for me to do the kind of photography I love with the other commitments I’ve chosen.
This doesn’t mean don’t do other things for fun. I love making fresh pasta with my wife, for instance, and we continue to do that or watch movies, or any number of other random fun things in my free time. But, crucially, these are one-off activities, not sustained hobbies that demand regular participation.
Your Serious Hobby needs your time. Plan out multiple times each week to prep for or engage in it. Where will this time come from? If you’re like me, your schedule is already packed.
Look for something you spend time doing to relax but provides little other value. Is it watching Netflix? Reading fiction on your Kindle? Whatever it is, choose to give it up in favor of a regular commitment to your Serious Hobby. If you’ve chosen your Serious Hobby correctly, can should provide a similar level of relaxation and release as these other activities while at the same time giving you the benefits of focus and mastery.
A caveat here: there’s nothing wrong with relaxing and watching Netflix. You will have to commit to a serious hobby to get the benefits, though, so consider for yourself where that time should come from.
One thing to not give up: time with your family or close friends. Make sure that these people who care about you know when and where you’ll be doing your Serious Hobby so they can support you. And then spend the rest of your time with them.
Every month or two, consider taking a weekend to do your hobby exclusively. Unbroken stretches of time are the best for developing mastery, especially when you’re beginning a hobby.
Between restorative time with people you love and time spent on a hobby that’s developing qualities that are making you more effective, your time spent on your primary pursuit (i.e. your career) will become more productive and more effective. It will also help you avoid burnout, which is key to staying at the top of your game indefinitely.
The Top of Your Game
Remember, this entire post is about how a Serious Hobby can help you stay at the top of your game. This means times when you’re working harder than you ever have and your life is able to sustain a primary pursuit at the highest level. This won’t be all the time. If you’re an undergraduate exploring your interests, taking time off from your career to see what’s next, or contemplating retirement, then this advice will likely fall flat. In those scenarios you’ll likely want a diverse set of activities.
And not everyone needs a hobby to help them reach the top of their game. If you’re already there, keep doing what you’re doing.
But if you’ve found, like I have, that you have room for a primary pursuit (Trinket), a family (my lovely wife), and one other thing, make that other thing a Serious Hobby that balances out your personality and helps make you a better, more balanced person.
Thanks to Leo Polovets for helpful comments on an early draft of this post.