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Sunday, 18 March 2012


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Mike—Perhaps you could write a follow-up article about those poor lost souls who wander through life, trying many hobbies, without ever finding fulfilment?

I intend to pass on my Leica M3 to my son Anton when it turns 100 - that would be in 2055, when I'm 86 and he's 46. He would probably be able to find B/W film and chemicals in some dusty corner of the Internet, or whatever it will be called by then...

Mike - For thirty years photography was my only hobby and I supported it with wedding/portrait/commercial work. When at age 55 I got a job as a photo illustrator, I changed hobbies, to model railroading. Now approaching 75, I read you regularly, but spend much of the day "working on the railroad". Thanks for the Off-Topic posts. Larry Canaday

Photography, book/reading, music/stereo: 3 reasons I keep returning to this site; one stop shopping for my similar interests.

My ways of engaging these 'hobbies' has, however, changed and evolved over the years. Fortunately I determined my passion for collecting vintage photos and books early enough in my life that I could afford to indulge. That would not be possible today. One reason to go through this exercise sooner than later.

I went through something like this in college (when, as you say, I had less observed history of how I actually interacted with my hobbies). At the time I was involved in at least 5 things that some people make their life-long core interest (and never mind side trivia like wanting friends, perhaps a family, caring about what you eat short of the point of considering being a chef professionally, enjoying wine short of the point of considering that as a career, enjoying literature without wanting to write or study it professionally, and so forth).

It must have done me some good; I haven't played Go in years, haven't taken any martial arts classes or done any fencing (foil). Still taking photographs (about 1000 yesterday), still working with computers, still reading science fiction.


Haven't read the post other than the first sentence. Which car magazine????



Very nice article, especially the part about the "received" models. I like electric trains, got my first HO set at age 12, and have been fiddling with them on and off ever since. But I never was into "model railroading". Never was into all the scenery, prototype modeling or "operations". I just like to watch trains run.

Problem is, there is no magazine or forum for people like me. If you're not into the full blown modeling thing you don't fit in and forum members make fun of roundy-rounders. But that's ok, I don't need validation from them.

My current "layout" is a loop of N-Scale track near my computer with a few engines and about 20 freight cars. Some kind of train is often running and it satisfies perfectly my "train itch" and doesn't deflate my wallet.

Nice bit of writing, you nailed it perfectly.

Damn you and your timely posts! Just yesterday I went out to the local city center, a sea of green clad young people. Photographic opportunities were everywhere, but I could not muster the courage to raise the camera and press the shutter release, or ask anyone for permission to take their picture. And I have been beating myself up over it since; telling myself I need to try again, and again. And this wasn't the first time. That darned Kirk Tuck makes it sound so easy -- and he says he's shy!

Sigh. What was that about persistence? I am overdue for some re-evaluation...

This will be good!...I'm looking forward to reading the comments on this piece. No wonder I go to TOP the first thing in the mornings.

Amazing! I followed nearly this same prescription a few years ago after looking at the piles of "how-to X" books I'd acquired for the many things that piqued my interest.

What did I discover? Over the past 20 years my "hobbies" have turned into businesses (3D rendering & panoramic photography) and my business has turned into an enjoyable hobby (photo editing/retouching). Go figure...

Didn't know you were at MR. I had my first published photograph in MR on the August 67 or 68 cover (tail end of train in a cut as seen from inside the wood framed tunnel the consist had just departed).
Remember getting a very nice letter from Linn H Westcott. Payment was $50 and it immediately went into the kitty for the purchase of a Nikon F. In my case I was doing work to support my expensive photographic hobby :-)

Perhaps we need a term for "things we like to dabble in" as opposed to hobbies, which I see as "things we have a passion about enough to devote real time to for the sheer enjoyment." I like to dabble in astronomy but have no interest in building/owning/running an observatory, regardless of how minimal. That "real time" aspect helps cut down my list.

I have a list of interests as long as my arm. To assign priority numbers to interests would be to list whatever I am doing today as #1. If there wasn't some satisfaction involved I simply wouldn't do it. There are days or weeks when item #38 might take top billing then get dropped for months.

I seriously question that making lists with subheadings would "open up your life". Assuming I liked pizza and preferred pepperoni would such a list lead me to becoming a pepperoni maven, bypassing all other flavors or even the pizza under the sausage? This can be like the subspecialist who knows more and more about less and less. How dull.

As to photography I have enjoyed cameras for decades but now find the electronic gadgets and processing are of diminishing interest. I now get most joy out of looking at the final products- typically those of others if they are better at it than I. But I still take the occasional photo.

Good post; highlights the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

I run a bush-walking group and find that some people are only "fair weather" walkers but they join the group to participant in the lunch we have at the end of each walk i.e they are more interesting in the socialising than the fitness aspect of the group. And that's fine!

"Haven't read the post other than the first sentence. Which car magazine????"

I had the latest issue of "Octane."


"But that's ok, I don't need validation from them. My current "layout" is a loop of N-Scale track near my computer with a few engines and about 20 freight cars. Some kind of train is often running and it satisfies perfectly my "train itch" and doesn't deflate my wallet."

You've got the key, sounds like, at least as far as that hobby is concerned--you've found the right level for you.


Paul in Az.,
You've described the perfect dilattante, which is okay too if that's what you really want. But I think you should do my exercise. Couldn't hurt; might help.


A '69 Mercury Comet? Isn't that the same car as the Gran Torino that Clint Eastwood's character had in the movie by the same name. Be careful not to ever tread on that waiter's lawn.



As you stated you had an enduring interest in stereos ... I don't know if you've ever visited this site? Whether one is into DIY audio, or not, the site is well written (I should write Danish as well as he does English) and very informative.


An interesting post that goes against the "fine line between a hobby and mental illness" received wisdom that many hobbyists seem to accept uncritically (even though they joke about it). Perhaps some of them would benefit from your rational method for self-evaluation.

Photography, hiking, and "digital darkrooming" are my 3 majors. 49 years for the photography, 14,000 miles for the hiking and ??? hours on the computer. Mike, you are right that the older you get (69 here) the more you really know what you want in life. Yet, even at my age, I can get side tracked. Music (72 lineal feet of LP's) was once #3 but the big stereo is gone. It was interesting when I was younger, I found many who loved both photography and "high end" audio.

You worked at Model Railroader? For money? *Insanely jealous*

He-he too funny. I was just about to move on when you wrote, "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." Up until that sentence I was thinking that this post had nothing to do with me.
From say 12-30 years of age I pursued music as a passion with the idea that I could make a go of it and I did pretty well. But once it became obvious that I would be stuck in the eternal hell of only playing bars [not my thing as I don't drink] I decided to move on. That's when photography took hold and for the better part of 30 years its been good to me. I've traveled the world covering events at the Vatican with Pope John Paul II & the National Prayer Breakfast with Bill Clinton to shooting in a factories in Beijing & South Africa and then some. But along the way [around the time I turned 40 and my first marriage was ending] I picked up a guitar and then a few more guitars and then I got back into playing the bass [my first instrument] and today I find myself either playing & writing music or photographing musicians not as a professional but as my "hobby". Its good to have something to balance things out and its nice that these two interests can play off of each other.

Is reading really a hobby ?

Enjoyed this post hugely.

It reminds me of advice that I got about launching a blog. List five of your fears, five challenges and five interests, and choose from that list.

By the way, far be it to tell another person what should be in their top three, but I'm surprised 'Writing' didn't make it into yours. Did it feature at all?


Thanks a lot for that, Mike. Here's another county heard from: I read all the time. If I haven't got a book in my hand, or its electronic surrogate, something's wrong. I get paid for some of this book-holding, but it's more like they pay me so I can buy books. So it has always seemed strange to me that people should describe 'reading' as a hobby. I accept that some of us do it only occasionally, in the absence of other engagement. Some don't do it at all. And where I live now, in the Northeast of England, there are many for whom a 'book' means a magazine.

But I suspect that for a lot your readers -- there's the key word! -- and for you as well, reading is not exactly a hobby. I suspect it's something you couldn't really do without, and I don't mean reading the newspaper. What do you think?

And then there are some for whom photography is the same. But for me, photography is definitely a hobby, even though it has transformed the way I frame the world I see.

My hobbies tend to run in roughly seven year cycles - playing/coaching soccer, cabinet making, photography, and playing music. This doesn't count writing articles on topics related to my profession; I try not to mix vocation and avocation. What impresses me about some people is their ability to stay active and productive in several interests at once. I've returned to several hobbies after a long layoff and have found it isn't like riding a bicycle (another "hobby" when I was very young.)

Having several interests comes at a cost - literally - although maybe you end up spending a certain amount every year even if you've been focused on just one activity.

Another variable is age. I am no longer doing soccer due to patella tendinitis. And moving large hardwood planks around the shop is looking less and less attractive.

As someone with many interests besides photography(among them vintage cars, model railroads, and guitars) I agree that focus is important. "Return of investment" is one parameter that I use - focus on and allocate more money to something that you can and will enjoy regularly.

Hmm, OK. I was going to add a 4th one for you Mike, namely writing as it encompasses the grander tasks of editing and idea gathering. I understand it's what you do, not necessarily who you are and this wasn't a "love what you do" article necessarily.

Like many people I've mixed hobby+vocation sometimes. I started selling as it relates to a hobby (stereos, incidentally) and what a mistake that was. I recall an early mentor, a sales manager saying, "A salesman is never out of job." Meaning, if you can sell [anything], you can always eat.

My problem was I only wanted to sell one thing (stereos), not *anything*, and wasn't effective despite being intensely interested in the subject. Whoops, no Plan B there.

I've since been extremely gun shy about "ruining" my dearest hobbies to the realities of work-related activities. As I enter middle age, I now acknowledge I need a middle ground however, to go back a little somehow, and can no longer fathom working just to pay bills. I need to love what I do, and my hobbies must be a part of it. I'd be in a very different place today if I could do most of the last 25 years over.

This is my first time to comment at TOP. This post is so relevant to my life and personality (especially the bit about being a purist). I have a bad habbit of taking up a hobby or interest, going full-blast for a few months aquiring all the accoutrement necessary (or perceived to be), and then dropping it like a ton of bricks.
I tend to justify all this by saying I fully employ Seth Godin's concepts in his book "The Dip," that I know when to quit...but I'm probably just fooling myself.

I've had countless false-starts and blind alleys in my hobbies & interests over the years, some of which (cross-country skiing, long-distance bicycling) I've aged out of, and others I wasted far too much time and money on before realizing they didn't interest me after all. I've settled on three (photography, book collecting, and landscape painting) that I still find deeply satisfying and compelling, more by attrition and blind luck than any organized process.

I totally agree with Jeff on this one; sometimes it's better to start early, even if your hobbies & interests aren't completely determined. You never know where things are headed.
I began collecting finely printed letterpress books about 25 years ago, and at that point stumbling across a really terrific find on the dusty back shelves of little antiquarian bookstores in small towns was a frequent event. The serendipity and the 'thrill of the hunt' made it lots of fun, and you could assemble a really excellent collection for very little money.
The Internet has changed all that. Nowadays every person with a computer has access to all the books out there. Even tiny rural 'used and rare' bookstores put their stuff online. Serendipity has lost out to pure capitalism. Now the best books go straight to the fattest wallets. The only skill required is the ability to pull out the plastic. The wonderful small town antiquarian store nearest to me closed their storefront operation 5 years ago and placed their entire inventory on-line. No more browsing in person.

Sigh. I'm officially old.

Thank you, Mike, for this fantastic article!

An interest in photography can easily be combined with another hobby like cars, trains, gardening, travel, or SCUBA diving.

Do we get to combine our photography hobby with another one to count as one of the three top choices?

...for some reason, I know an inordinate amount of professional photographers, and I mean real professional photographers that derive their entire living from taking pictures, that are into hand guns as a hobby...it has never been explained to me by any of them, and I'm beginning to believe it has something to do with the love of fine machinery, as they don't particularly seem to be a bunch that are getting their concealed carry permits or go to the range all the time...seems like they just like looking and fondling the stuff and taking it apart, re-oiling it and putting it back together...hmmm...

I also know a bunch of hard core gun nuts and they all collect watches...?

It's vintage folding pocket knives for me...3-5 bucks at any yard sale...and you can put 100's in a cigar box...

To the guy who is planning to restore a Triumph Spitfire: I wouldn't bother. This generation of British sports cars were what I grew up with (I drove but never owned a Spitfire). It shared, with its siblings (the Herald and the distinctly more interesting 6 cylinder 2L Vitesse), slightly feminine good looks and a terrible rear suspension - an early independently sprung system where the near side tends to fold inwards when pushed to extremes, initiating vicious oversteer (Trans: extremely "loose" handling.)
The BMC equivalents at that time - the Midgets, Sprites and MGBs - are far superior cars in most respects and with a little tweaking can be persuaded to perform very respectably, particularly the MGBs. Better restoration projects, I'd say. Although personally I like a modern, reliable, preferably diesel powered car. I got all that sports car stuff out of my system years ago.

"So it has always seemed strange to me that people should describe 'reading' as a hobby."

Well, books is really what I meant. Book printing, bookbinding, book collecting, book design, fine books, rare books. My involvement in the hobby is not very deep (because my pockets aren't) but it's something I've always been interested in. I have a modest collection of photo books (combining two interests) and a few nice books beyond that, but it's really more an interest than an activity.


"I'm surprised 'Writing' didn't make it into yours. Did it feature at all?"

I don't do any writing as a hobby. Just this, but it's what I do for a living.


"I have a bad habbit of taking up a hobby or interest, going full-blast for a few months aquiring all the accoutrement necessary (or perceived to be), and then dropping it like a ton of bricks."

Adam W,
That might be something different. Might be more closely related to OCD and acquisition compulsions (which I also suffer from, fortunately fairly mildly). I'd suggest the book "Stuff" by Steketee and Frost; a good read, and might be relevant to you. (Just a guess, of course--ignore this at will.)


Very good take on the care and feeding of hobbies. I worked my way through owning, maintaining and using sports cars and a sailboat. Although I enjoyed most aspects of all of them, I passed through each phase as time, money and interest dictated. Differently said, I guess my long term interest in each wasn't strong enough to offset the dictates of time and money. Now that I am older and amongst other things consider comfort level when taking on anything new, I've locked in on photography, woodworking, reading and music. All of these have been lifelong interests and manage to coexist harmoniously in my life. God help me, I still love wooden sailboats and vintage British sports cars, but no longer lust to own them; these days I just enjoy the aesthetics.

An aside: some years back I sold a line of books that my company had published, to Kalmbach and had a very nice telephone relationship with Bob Hayden. During the course of our chatting, I once mentioned that I had done some HO train stuff as a kid and still remembered the great ads that the long extinct Varney company used to run. He was kind enough to send me one of the last copies of a book that they had done on John Allen, who was the fellow that did the layouts used by Varney for the ads. I still marvel at those pictures.

I took a seminar with Bob Hayden and Dave Frary in Houston, and it was the single best experience of my brief career in model railroading. Splendid guys and superbly knowledgeable. It was really interesting for me, since I'm not a model railroader. I truly enjoyed the weekend.

The John Allen layout is the stuff of myth, although I guess a bit overexposed in the opinion of some. Sort of model railroading's Ansel Adams, or Moonlight Sonata, the one big best thing everybody loves. That book is a treat...such a pity it's out of print.


I like your point about the "conventional wisdom" of how to participate in hobbies. Given the mention of model railroads in this discussion, I always found it irritating that the general populace never understood my interest in trains. Not model trains, but full-size trains. A hobbyist can own and operate every other form of mechanical transportation: a car nut can obviously own and drive cars. A boat nut can own and sail boats. A plane nut can own and pilot planes. Okay, among the latter two, it'll be a sailboat vs. an ocean liner; a Cessna vs. a 737, but they can still own and operate a full-sized object (vs. a model) within the category. But with very limited exceptions (e.g. museum volunteers, private varnish owners), train nuts cannot own or operate full-size trains. So when I told people I was interested in trains, they figured I must mean model trains, because that's the only kind of train an individual can own and operate. But for me, that had nothing to do with it. I liked watching trains, understanding them, classifying them, and yes, PHOTOGRAPHING them. That was my hobby, but few could seem to understand how something could be your hobby if you couldn't own it, operate it, build it, collect it, or otherwise control it. Obviously you do.

Two points people should consider (if they are to follow your suggestion) are be honest with yourself about your skill level and what are you trying to achieve from your hobby.

Far too many people make claims about themselves because they can afford something. We've all encountered people who call themselves photographers just because they bought an expensive camera. Or people who think they are good drivers (or should be professional racers) just because they bought an expensive sports car (though natural selection does help thin that herd). Life is not a computer game and buying an item doesn't give you the skills to use it. So be realistic and honest with yourself about your skills. So if you buy a Leica and also learn how to use it, learn about light and composition, take classes, study other photographers etc with the aim to become a real photographer then that's great.

Also many people seem to undertake various hobbies out of greed rather than passion. For me a hobby should be about passion, a way to relax and enjoy something in your own way. My number one hobby is stamps. It's probably a dieing hobby since post offices do their best to not use stamps on mail and hardly anyone these days thinks to ask the post office to use stamps either. It's common to encounter people on the forums who have just taken up the hobby again after a gap from their childhood. The first question they tend to ask is "how much is my childhood collection worth?". They are then disappointed and even aggressive when told its worthless. The assumption by these people is there is a lot of money to be made in stamps and that with a couple of hundred stamps there must be at least one worth millions. The reality is you have a far greater chance of winning the lottery than finding a stamp worth a fortune.

So be open minded about why you are taking up a hobby. You'll spend money and time in acquiring items and reference material for your hobbys. Over time you will learn and maybe find yourself drawn to specific aspects about the hobby to focus on. Over time you'll gain experience and wisdom. Maybe this will lead to some form of recognition or success naturally, or maybe not. Enjoy the journey your hobbies take you on.

Mike's hobby is not writing; writing I suspect produces incomes so that's out the window. Model railroading (still do a bit of that), steam powered anything from boats to railways to automobiles to musical instruments.

Cinema pipe organs both their repair (which is problematic for somebody of my height
to doodling at the keyboards to listening on Canadian designed and built audio equipment.

And buying, selling and riding motorcycles with sidecars for about ten years until I found the devices are dangerous when the operator is inebriated.

Photography was in there at one time but of late have lost all desire to be directly involved. Maybe 'cause Kodachrome has expired? And desire to be the first with an image, the digital age and the internet has killed that as well!

Photography's fallen to a rather distant third for me. It's so far in third that it's possible I may have to admit to myself that I really don't really do it any more.

To be honest, I've never really pursued it with much all that much devotion. There have been a few pictures I've taken that have given me a lot of pleasure, and I like to think that I can shoot a little. But It's never been compulsive like the other two, bicycles and coffee.

This was a great read! I am currently trying to figure out what direction to take my photography hobby. This article was very helpful. (not to mention entertaining!)

Methinks the hobby of many people I know is taking up new hobbies.

I count myself lucky to be among the (almost) untalented. My multi-talented friends can never decide what to do next, but since my only talents are drawing, painting and photography, the decision is made for me. There are enough decisions to be made in what and how to draw, paint or photograph to keep me going for a long time.

Plus One for Roy and the Spitfire comment! In my 20's I owned a Triumph TR-4 and Triumph GT-6 MkIII, both cars I loved, both were complete messes, although at least the GT-6 looked decent for the time I had it. My near bankruptcy due to the expense of running the GT-6 on a 25 year olds income (and having to ride the bus for 18 months to recover), is what pushed me into Toyota, way back in the mid-70's, and I've never looked back. People wax on about the handling attributes of sports cars, yada, yada, but what I learned long ago was that there is no better primary attribute in a car than starting every morning and never breaking down!

Broke now, but when I was flush in the past, I looked fondly on picking up and old Spitfire or TR to work on in a heated garage someplace, but then slapped myself awake from that dream. Unless you are a grade A machinist, or know one that can cut you a deal; the need to remake almost all of the drive train parts in far better materials than they were originally made in, or than you can buy them in now as replacement, would be a daunting task. Sorry, but consider the end result. Money and sweat equity spent in restoring what when finished, could only be considered a shiny new POS!

Great post Mike.

As a teen, I started learning chess and get some degree of mastery, but chess is something that consumes the same brainy resources that math and calculus, and I need to study on that times.
On those same years -I live 30 years on a communist country, an actual one in fact- people travel to space and I started to love star gazing.

Bye chess.

And there was no single way to build a telescope, and none sells one. So, I deal with optics, math... Chasing a DIY for a telescope. So I became engineer and start doing computing science.

Today, almost 40, I am a consultant and live abroad. So I don´t play chess, but love chess books. "Stockpiling" sounds right here. Also I love astronomy, and own some telescopes.

And sure, sometimes what I like most: turn to my country (long time living far from it) and take long trips all along with my camera and make "pictures of Past": places where I used to star gaze, study math, build telescopes and be a teen

And show my wife and my "little" daughter (almost a teen now), where stars can be spotted and photographed.

Interesting to see some of my interests reflected: folding pocket knives is one of them. Many moons ago, the trumpet....if I think of all the time and energy and cash I spent on that hobby! And then there was a long period of work, only. Since ten years it's both film and digital photography. This said, if I would, again live in a country with affordable golf -we move around a lot, I'd take that up in a second: as complicated and interesting as making photos.




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