Relevant Complexity 2) Hobbies

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Until last year I absolutely didn’t get ‘hobbies’. Now I am persuaded hobbies maketh the man. The big mistake in life, I reckon – observing overwork, depression and recession hitting even the most high powered of my friends – is to have your work completely define who you are.

As Aristotle said: All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.

Sure we all have to earn a living. And if a trick of fate and a twist of ability take us to major responsibility, so be it. But a wider reading of Aristotle suggests no man can be ‘excellent’ who only works; much less ‘happy’.

Who we really are is often better indicated by what we do for leisure and pleasure. Of course being a ‘wage slave’ doesn’t always leave much space or time – and in antiquity, for most, there’d have been no time for leisure or pleasure at all.

But what we ‘freely’ do is a window to a person’s soul. Or perhaps better – as a typing mistake just suggested – a window to a persons ‘souk’: the bazaar of stuff we do and like.

A lot of hobbies are conventional: sports, music, walking, reading and none-the-worse for that. Some are apparently bonkers. I know a man who has laboriously constructed a scale railway in his back garden which his own daughter is forbidden to touch.

Some hobbies are sociable – choirs, ensembles, ramblers. Some are quite solitary – stamps and the myriad forms of collecting. Some border on sociopathic – travelling football fans notably. But what they all have in common is they endlessly fascinate the aficionado and generally bemuse the disinterested onlooker.

Of course once you spot it, the driver is ‘complexity’. Hobbies enable us to collect deep knowledge, unique complex skills and relevant (at least to obsessive) complexity. Hobbies are Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ par excellence – high challenge met with high skill.

“Who scored the winner against Scunthorpe in 1974?”, “What was the printing error in the 4d Commonwealth Games commemorative stamp?”, “What’s the winter plumage of that bird?”, “Can you play Schubert?”, “Is that a class 47 locomotive?”, “Is that a Bordeaux or a Burgundy?”

All of of these bring ‘flow’ to the expert. They are validated, either, by one’s personal appreciation of oneself or the appreciation of the ‘community’ of expert practitioners, fruitcakes and obsessives who share our particular interest.

But the art of life – and hobbies – I think is to weave together our passions with the other things we care about: family, friends, communities. There is joy to be had in literally any hobby – with practice we progress and develop mastery of its complexity.

As Aristotle said: ‘Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. [Or maybe a hobby?].

But there is also a trap – eccentricity and sheer oddness. The trick is in making at least some of our hobbies cohere into ‘relevant complexity’ so they define and develop us as much as our work does.

A friend described how he and his teenage son seek the ultimate ‘fried breakfast butty’ every Saturday. It’s about the only thing which always brings them together; relevant complexity. Building a garden railway, for me at least; irrelevant complexity. Writing for pleasure, relevant; long stints staring at the telly, irrelevant.

Albeit, as Aristotle said: different men seek after happiness in different ways, I think sewing (or knitting for my other half) ‘relevantly complex’ hobbies into the fabric of our lives is essential to properly embroidering life’s rich tapestry.

As Aristotle said of education, but might have said of hobbies if he’d read Csikszentmihalyi:

Education is [Hobbies are?] an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.

And

Education is [Hobbies are?] the best provision for old age.

But, of course, who am I to say. As the great Greek also points out:

Happiness depends upon ourselves.

And the fact I am secretly proud that I know what a Class 47 locomotive is, shows the perils and pleasures of hobbies. Keep it relevant.

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