I don’t know an awful lot about American history, but I’ve always looked up to Benjamin Franklin, or at least the idea of Benjamin Franklin, because he was espoused as a great polymath. A founding father of the United States of America, Franklin was famously good at many things such as writing, science, politics, and being a clever, quotable person.
Unlike many other famous political figures, Franklin does not have a Controversy section on his Wikipedia page, which leads me to believe that he was probably also a reasonably nice guy.
Benjamin Franklin, polymath and presumably a pretty good guy
One of the overarching goals in my life is to be a well-rounded person. I loosely define that as being very good at multiple things and not being bad at many things. That also means having a few hobbies / passion projects that you’re excited to work on.
Having multiple outlets of ambition seems like a good way to spend more of my time productively without getting bored.
I consider people like Sam Hinkie (sports, analytics, business), Childish Gambino (music, acting, directing, writing) and Caribou (music, math) to be interesting role models that embody this sort of cross-functional expertise.
There’s not really a particular deadline for me to become well rounded, but I have to pick a few outlets soon and start investing time if I ever want to be truly good at them. I’m not a huge 10,000 hours devout, but I mean, even if you apply a huge margin of error, it’s still something like… 5,000 hours.
Up until I graduated university, I put all my time and proverbial eggs into one basket. I focused wholly on pursuing academic success and being a finance boy scout.
I don’t regret that intensity because my risk profile was way different back then, but now seems like a good time to experiment with new ideas.
In the wake of my mid-20s, I find myself becoming less interested in pure career advancement and more interested in nourishing my life with new and novel pursuits.
Wikipedia describes Ben Franklin as a leading writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, Freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.
I’ll settle for 2 or 3 descriptors.
I think it would be nice to have one art-related hobby that helps me cultivate self-expression and one physical sport / exercise-based hobby that helps me combat my feeling of mortality.
What Makes a Good Hobby?
I thought it would be helpful to try to define what a high-utility hobby looks like to me. It might seem a little robotic and overly systematic, but I think it’s practical to examine the characteristics of a potential hobby in order to maximize the enrichment it brings into your life.
In my opinion, a high-utility hobby has the following characteristics:
- Offers Gradual Opportunity for Improvement and Progress
- I want to pick something with a very high skill cap, so that the pursuit of mastery becomes an enriching side quest and a lifelong journey.
- A hobby that involves practice or a recurring time investment would let me convert some ambient, lazy free time into fun productive time.
- I find that my brain gets a little tired after doing the same task for more than 2-3 hours. Having an enjoyable and stimulating hobby is a good way to engage a different part of my brain while still being somewhat productive.
- Active Social Community
- I find that interests with strong, active communities tend to make skills more enjoyable and easier to learn. I’ve definitely found that having a good friend with the same interest helps accelerate your friendship and your skill development.
- I’m amazed at how many friends I’ve made from being an NBA fan. Talking about basketball is the most consistently enjoyable small talk I can have with a stranger and is generally much better than hearing about how someone’s fund is doing.
- I also want an interest that will help me meet people I otherwise wouldn’t. I think I suffer from hanging out in highly uniform friend groups (Asians, business students, and… Asian business students) and could benefit from different perspectives.
- Continues to Develop / Has Periodic Events
- I think it’s ideal if there is a news cycle associated with your interest (e.g. sports events, quarterly updates, new albums coming out, annual product releases, etc.). This means that your interest is constantly developing and it gives you things to look forward to.
- Opportunity for Creation, Performance or Sharing
- I think there is a very natural joy to create things that others can also enjoy and benefit from – I imagine this has to do with the fundamental human desire to propagate a legacy.
- It’s a little vain, but I don’t want to be good at something that others won’t understand. I want to be able to share my successes with others and for them to say “nice, man”.
- Accessible and Non Seasonal
- Ideally, my interest would be easily accessible and something I can rely on throughout the year. This is because I’m kind of lazy when it comes to commuting and I want to be able to still do extended travel while doing the hobby.
- I think to ensure that you can consistently practice and enjoy your hobby, you want to minimize the friction associated with doing it.
- In my mind, the most accessible kind of hobbies are digital, because then you can do them anywhere and they’re independent of any conditions (which is particularly good if you’re say, under quarantine).
It probably goes without saying, but it is necessary to have some genuine interest in your hobby. You need to find an activity at least a little fun in order to climb past the initial learning curve.
But we’re all going to have very different biases and dispositions, so I excluded that from the list.
Evaluating Popular Hobbies
Now that we have what I think is a reasonable set of criteria, I wanted to evaluate a bunch of different hobbies. I went through a few lists of hobbies (1, 2), picked a personal top ~20, and then marked yes or no based on if they fulfilled each criterion. I then loosely categorized them by my current attitude and current time investment towards them.
In doing this, I had a couple of observations:
- All conceivable hobbies I can think of offer an opportunity for advancement and mastery. There aren’t many things with a super low skill cap (maybe like… tic tac toe).
- Although not all hobbies are inherently social, there are active Internet social communities for almost all of these hobbies. I think the distinction is still important though, because there’s a big difference between reading through an online forum and meeting with live humans weekly.
- What I personally really need is to find a good sports outlet. And I think the considerations for picking a sport weren’t captured in my criteria (because they almost all have the same boxes ticked).
Applying a Growth Mindset
It can be really embarrassing to be bad at stuff when you’re an adult.
It’s not comfortable being seen as a beginner and honestly, if you’re a busy person, it can be super frustrating to squander your minimal free time struggling up a learning curve.
I find this to be very true with the arts. A beginner’s art is so obviously terrible and we interact with so much high-quality art that pursuing an artistic interest “this late in life” sort of feels like an enormous waste of time.
But I’m a stubborn believer in the growth mindset, which posits that you can develop most skills by applying conscientious and purposeful practice. That notion has helped me appreciate the process more and enjoy learning for the sake of learning.
I mean, I think I love the result way more, but a lot of successful people seem to praise the process, so I will too.
I like reminding myself about heroic consistency, which is described below in productivity book Peak Performance:
Don’t aim for consistently heroic efforts. Aim for being heroic at consistency. Heroic efforts take a huge toll emotionally, physically, and cognitively. Not a sustainable thing to strive for. Consistency compounds over time. Good enough over and over again makes you great.Brad Stulberg in Peak Performance
I love the idea of heroic consistency because it gives me the hope that with enough effort or enough period of time, I’ll be able to accomplish all of my goals.
The hardest thing in the pursuit of mastery seems to be not giving up.
But picking the right things to pursue is also very hard.