I've always hated the question, "What are your hobbies?" Anytime it comes up, my mind immediately cycles through all of the things I was once interested in, but never followed-through on—playing piano, bee-keeping, knitting, beer-making—and I feel less-than for wasting my leisure time on less skillful pursuits. I could have been learning piano concertos or apiology, but instead I was reading, hiking, watching T.V., and cooking (all at a mediocre level, mind you). Usually I deflect the question with a self-deprecating joke, "Does spending time with friends count?" Because, in my mind, a hobby is something that's relatively niche and takes a specialized skill, like building model airplanes, competing in IronMans, or solving Rubik's cubes.
Take drinking craft beers, for example. It's a pastime I love, but would I call it a hobby? Not unless I was studying to become a certified cicerone. It's the same with running. I love it, but I'd never go so far as to call myself a "runner." That's a term reserved for the truly dedicated who wake up every Saturday morning at 6 a.m. to knock out ten miles while the rest of us sleep. But here's the kicker: It turns out I've been completely missing the point of having a hobby.
Nowhere in the dictionary definition of the word "hobby" does it imply any sort of skill. Rather, a hobby is "a pursuit outside one's regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation." That's it! If you're anything like me, you're probably taking a mental checklist of all the hobbies you abandoned because you "weren't good enough at them."
In a recent op-ed piece for The New York Times, Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu argues that "the pursuit of excellence" has all but killed off the humble hobby. These days, we may not even take up knitting for fear of being bad at it. He writes,"Our 'hobbies,' if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be." By using success and skills as the sole measurement to validate our hobbies, we're actually denying ourselves the joy they're supposed to provide.
In her self-help book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert rebrands "hobbies" with the new, exciting term, "creative living," which she defines as "living a life that's driven more strongly by curiosity than fear." As an example, she provides her friend, Susan, who took up figure skating when she was 40-years-old, after being off of the ice for decades. Gilbert writes:
Three mornings a week, Susan awoke before dawn and went skating.... And yes, she loved it, even more than ever, perhaps, because now, as an adult, she finally had the perspective to appreciate the value of her own joy... Please note that my friend did not quit her job and move to Toronto to study 70 hours a week with an Olympic-level skating coach. And no, this story does not end with her winning any medals. In fact, this story does not end at all, because Susan is still figure skating simply because skating is still the best way for her to unfold a certain beauty and transcendence within her life.
At the end of his op-ed piece, Wu offers a nearly identical example: "What if you decide in your 40s, as I have, that you want to learn to surf? What if you decide in your 60s that you want to learn to speak Italian? The expectation of excellence can be stultifying." Their conclusion is the same: If you pursue hobbies for the simple pleasure of doing them, without an end destination or "goal" in mind, you may actually find yourself more fulfilled.
Earlier this year, I learned this lesson first-hand when Jonah and I started taking weekly Spanish classes together. In college, I took Spanish but dropped it as soon as I fulfilled my language requirement. As a freshman, I wanted to be in the top of my class—I thought growing in with a family of native Spanish speakers would give me an edge—but frustratingly tripped over the conjugations and grammar I was unfamiliar with seeing on a page. When I signed up for Spanish classes earlier this summer, at a language school without any grades or competition, I was surprised to discover that I actually enjoyed it. Sure, my ultimate goal is to be able to speak more confidently with my family in Guatemala, but I'm really doing it for the inherent joy of learning a language. It's been months now, and I still wake up excited to head to class each Saturday morning.
When I came across a gorgeous knitting and crocheting Instagram last year, I must have visited the website, which sells DIY kits, a hundred times. But each time, I abandoned it thinking of the inevitable dropped stitches and crooked lines. A few weeks ago, I bit the bullet. I purchased a scarf DIY kit, sat down with the instructions, pulled up a few YouTube videos for safe measure, and proceeded to very slowly knit some impressively mangled neckwear that only vaguely resembled the original inspiration (when I squinted). But hey, I had fun doing it—and that was the point.