There’s one question that I ask people, particularly working parents in their 30s and 40s, that often has an unexpected reaction. It’s not unusual for female executives in particular to be speechless. Indeed, it can stop them in their tracks after I have let them run with a narrative about work issues and the conundrum of “what I want to do next”. Some have even burst into tears. The question is innocuous and is delivered with genuine curiosity rather than any loaded judgement. And the question is: “What are your hobbies?”
After gathering themselves together, an eventual response is often “I don’t have time for those” or “if I had time, all I would want to do is have a cup of tea and a lie down” (females). Or it’s something like, “I’ve just bought an amazing Harley Davidson and I just don’t get to ride it enough” (males). I hate to be so gendered about this, but frankly, it’s the truth. But rather than going into gender inequities in the household — as much as I’d like to — I want to dig a little deeper into the unexpected benefits of the simple ‘hobby’.
Hobbies aren’t taking the kids to the beach or museum. That’s called life. Hobbies are a personal folly, indulged in purely for pleasure. In my late 30s, my Harley-riding, classic car-restoring, vintage toy-collecting husband had the audacity to venture into this territory with me. He commented, with a look of concern, “gosh, you don’t seem to have any hobbies”. As I was wiping his blood off the kitchen knife I held, the same one I used to make lunch for our unruly children, I realised he was right.
So I embarked on a campaign of devoting an evening a week (Tuesday to be exact) to toy with how I wanted to play. It was like relearning how to walk. Fast-forward 15 years and my own array of hobbies are vast and eclectic, but it all started with dabbling in mahjong, which I still play competitively with the zealousness of a kung fu master.
The benefits of hobbies are pretty obvious but there are a few particular aspects that became really apparent when I recently did a beginners course in pottery. (A Christmas present from my husband, who must still be concerned. I guess he can’t pick up the nuances of my now hobbied life while he’s glued to the underside of his classic car.)
I walked into Selwyn College, which for years has been running an amazing programme of community education — I know this because 40 years ago, my mother taught their Japanese night classes. The soap makers were ushered one way and us would-be potters another. A remnant of my arrogant executive self whispered, “OMG has my life come to this”, before I got over myself. Here I was, with a really ethnically diverse group of Aucklanders, who all wanted to get elbow deep in wet clay, a great leveller.
Lesson #1: Hobbies are inclusive and connect people via things other than status. (I’m excluding polo, golf, and sailing – these aren’t hobbies, they are leisure pursuits for the wealthy.) Before long I realised I was probably bottom of the pottery class. I could tell by the hesitant way the tutor approached my wheel and kept encouraging me to go back to square one (or ‘centering’ for those in the know). and in fact ‘centering’ is a great analogy for what hobbies actually do. For a start, no-one was remotely interested in my fabulous career or newly renovated apartment.
Lesson #2: It’s a good wake up call for the ego. I might have been good at writing essays at uni, but I am shit with a lump of clay. I presented something to the tutor; he suggested it probably wouldn’t make it to the kiln. (My final efforts pictured here.)
Lesson #3: There are multiple intelligences and bodily intelligence is often forgotten. In our leadership work, sensing with the body — somatics — is where a lot of the more advanced leadership development is heading. Many give their bodies a thrashing at the gym, but the integration of mind, body and spirit is actually the underpinning of advanced levels of conscious leadership. I realised my mind, body and spirit were clearly a little out of sync. As I was co-ordinating the foot pedal and working the clay on the spinning wheel with slippery hands, an emerging object kept appearing, then collapsing. The harder I tried, the more quickly my mental energy cancelled out the result.
“It’s not a bloody race”, the more enlightened part of my ego whispered. And it followed that the more I surrendered, the more I was present to the moment, things started to come together. And then, as tends to happen, when we are not seeking it, an answer to a work issue I was struggling with was able to break through my thinking mind.
There is a lesson in there about hobbies helping you dial down the thinking mind to allow a deeper intelligence or knowing to come through. But finally, and most importantly, it is about community, and how the individual communes with the world around them.
When The Hobson first started, it was because our editor was deeply interested in the concept of community. It is the one part of the publishing industry that is on the rise as people turn away from print. As we become more disconnected through technology, little community groups and community education become all the more important.
They get us out of our controlled environments and especially, they get us out of the echo chamber of social media. Real communities remind us we are human beings. So, out of interest, what are your hobbies?
This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of The Hobson Magazine.