Two things recently (and no, this column isn't about cars): the waiter at the restaurant last night noticed my car magazine, and told me about his vintage car. It's a 1969 long-bodied Mercury Comet, perfectly restored. His mechanic father, who died when he was 16, gave it to him when he was 13. He said he treasures the car, drives it sparingly and shows it off a few times a year, and will never sell it. He plans to pass it on to his own son.
Then, on a car forum I visit, there's a guy who's been offered a fixer-upper '68 Triumph Spitfire for what looks to be a great price, and he's been agonizing for three weeks over whether to buy it. Most people asking such questions are just looking for encouragement from others to do what they really want to do anyway, but not this guy, at least not so far. He's gotten plenty of "go for it!" responses, if those were what he needed.
My take is that his indecision bespeaks ambivalence. He's engaging with the wrong decision: he's trying to decide "Is this such a good deal that I'd regret passing it up?" rather than "Is a restoration-project Spitfire a thing I want in my life?" I know some really happy chaps who have restored old cars and who maintain and drive them, but you've got to be clear that it's something you really want.
The first guy is very clear about what he has and what he wants to do with it and why. The second guy isn't.
It put me in mind of some ideas I developed when I was at Model Railroader magazine. We were developing Russ Larson's "World's Greatest Hobby" campaign to help promote model railroading (the name was my idea, if you'll forgive the own-horn toot. Milwaukee photographer Francis Ford's son, whose name I think was Tom, a designer at the company, did the logo.) For those of us who have "hobbies and interests," a lot of times we have lots of them. My notion was that some concerted sorting, prioritizing, and clarification is never a bad thing. So here's an exercise:
- Over a period of several days to a week, write down all your hobbies and interests. These could be anything from hang-gliding, to eating out, to reading about the Civil War. Anything that appeals to you, from an occasional activity to a consuming passion, from a twiddling time-waster to a full-on avocation that earns part of your income.
- Prioritize the list. What do you care most about? What do you keep coming back to again and again? What things do you waste your time on that could really be better spent doing other, more satisfying things?
- Several times over a period of weeks or months or even years, re-prioritize the list. I don't know about you, but if you're like me, whatever you're interested in at the moment is going to assume a place of false importance (a type of recency effect).
- Eventually, identify the persistent top three, as your "core" hobbies or interests.
- Think about committing more to your top three and less to the others—whether it's money, effort, time—or just "mindshare," a.k.a. "emotional involvement." Can you increase or improve your involvement in them? Can you focus on them in a way that makes more sense for you, or that gets at the central reason why they appeal to you?
- Also think about "clarifying" your top three interests. "Refining," is another word that might fit. More about this below.
Note that this process—identifying your three "core" interests or hobbies—is easier the older you are. Why? Because they're the things you keep coming back to again and again. Not that this matters, but for me, it's 1. Photography, 2. Books and reading, and 3. Music listening and stereos. These are far from my only interests, and at certain times maybe one or the other wouldn't even make the top ten, but they're the three things I consistently keep coming back to again and again. I'm only really deeply involved in one of the three, but I respect my interest in the other two and have found just the right places for them in my life.
The idea of clarifying is to put the interest or hobby in its proper place in your life, relative to your means and talents. All hobbies and interests are beset with "received" models of how to go about participating in them: If you're into boats, say, then the conventional wisdom says you must own a boat; and if you own a boat, the bigger it is the better; etc. But is the conventional wisdom really right for you?
The problem with these received ideas is that they'll lead you down paths you might not actually want to go down. For instance, depending on the ideas you expose yourself to, maybe you'll come to believe that if you're a purist your boat should be a sailboat, and if you're a purist about sailboats it should be a wooden sailboat, and if you're a purist about wooden sailboats it should be a Herreshoff, but you can't afford a restored Herreshoff so you buy an imitation, and...so on, down the line. You might end up with a boat you can't actually afford, or that you don't actually enjoy sailing, or an unrestored hulk in the storage area of a marina, or whatever. And before you know it you're not really enjoying your boating hobby and questioning in the back of your mind whether it's really right for you.
My idea is to really look hard at why your three major hobby interests interest you—what form your interest really takes. A few examples: a person whose interest is fishing might really like tying flies; a person whose interest is gardening might really most enjoy the colors of flowers. I think you're going to be happiest if you realize where the locus of your interest really lies, and indulge that*, and let the other notions go. If you really love flowers for their colors, maybe you can get into an area of horticulture where that's a central issue, like hybridizing tulips. Or maybe you can invent other ways to enjoy what you enjoy, like touring gardens in other places or other countries.
When I was at Model Railroader I met a guy who had a very extensive layout, and participated in operations (the involved game of operating the model as if it were a real railroad), but he was very clear about what he most liked about the hobby: all his friends were model railroaders, so it organized and enriched his social life; and he enjoyed building model buildings, so he tried to do some of that every day. He did the other stuff the hobby consisted of too, but he really put a lot of energy and focus into those two things. Happy guy, by the way (although more than a bit eccentric: he had a crossing signal in his yard, and his wife answered the door wearing an engineer's cap). There's no actual rule that says that if you love guitars you have to be a guitar player. The connection does stand to reason, which is why it's part of the culture's standard assumptions, but the two are not necessarily connected. Some people just love guitars.
I've been working with and for photographic hobbyists for a quarter of a century now(!), and, believe me, I've seen it all. There are a thousand ways you can be interested in photography. Generally speaking, the people who are clearest about what they really like and most realistic about what they want to get out of the hobby are the happiest. Oddly enough, it doesn't always involve taking pictures.
Concentrating on your priorities can free you of the shackles of unexamined assumptions, and that can be liberating. I'm 100% clear, for instance, that if I bought an unrestored old car, it would hunker sullenly in the garage until I returned to dust, guilt-tripping me every time I looked at it. No thanks. Free yourself of the ideas that don't actually fit you, even if they're "supposed" to be central to the hobby.
Of course, an important part of prioritizing is making realistic adjustments according to your means and talents. One of the sorriest sights in American life is coming across a lost soul who believes the old myth about persistence, who's been voluntarily head-butting the same brick wall again and again for his whole life. I might have mentioned a guy I know who's been "trying to make it" as a musician for twenty-five years with no appreciable success. It's distorted his whole life, and caused his loved ones a fair amount of pain. Appraise your talents realistically. Really look hard at what you can realistically accomplish and what you can't. Not everyone who's into drama and acting can be George Clooney or Meryl Streep. And if you don't have the talent and the connections and the experience and the good looks, no amount of "persistence" is going to "pay."
The same goes for money and resources. Rod Stewart is a train fan...and owns his own vintage steam locomotive. A real one, I mean. He drives it. Neil Young is a toy train fan, and he not only has a vast toy train layout, but he owns part of Lionel. Jay Leno loves old restored cars, and he has a staffed garage/museum stuffed with millions and millions of dollars worth of prized vintage cars.
You probably can't take your hobbies that far. But you probably can participate in some way that makes a lot of sense for you. Maybe you can take a ride on a steam locomotive, perhaps in a different part of the country or the world, once a year; maybe you can own one really outstanding Lionel train (the best ones aren't cheap, believe me); and maybe you can own one restored old car. It's very likely that that you can't participate in your hobbies and interests at the level of unlimited resouces; but that's okay, because it's also very likely you can participate on a level that's sensible for you, now, with your actual, real-world resources.
If you spend some time really thinking about what you like and why you like it, it can really open up your life. This does sometimes involve rejecting the common received ideas about a hobby and/or giving up some possibly dearly-held fantasies, but it's also potentially a very creative process: few things are more empowering than clear, realistic goals, and if you figure out what you really want out of the hobbies and interests that are most important to you, you stand a much better chance of getting what you want out of them—namely, real satisfaction.
*Aren't you glad I refrained from writing "focus on the locus"? Except...oops.
"Open Mike" is a series of mostly off-topic posts on any old thing that Yr. Hmbl. Correspondent feels like writing about. They appear on Sundays.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Clay Harmon: "The hobby thing is interesting. There is a corollary that comes to mind about hobbies: Never, ever attempt to choose someone else's hobby, no matter how well-meaning the motivation.
"My encounter with this a few years ago came about when I had returned from a lake kayaking excursion with a few friends. I am a competent, although by no means an expert paddler, mostly because I paid attention at Boy Scout camp forty years ago. Some friends invited me out for a pleasant afternoon of paddling around a local lake. I returned and my wonderful spouse inquired about the day and I indicated that it had been great fun.
"Next Christmas, a new flat water lake kayak appeared in my garage. I used it once or twice and then it hung on the wall and served as a home for spiders and leaves that blew in under the garage door.
"The fact is, when time was available, I always defaulted to the hobbies I initiated and enjoyed: photography, running, hiking and rock climbing.
"And the under-used kayak on the wall served as a point of friction for almost ten years.
"The lesson I learned is this: if you have a spouse as wonderful and caring as mine, you must make it a point to grump and complain about any leisure activity that you participate in that does not absolutely light your fire. Otherwise you will have a dusty kayak casting a baleful eye on you every time you back your car out of the garage."