Irrelevant Complexity 1) – Odd Jobs


‘Relevant complexity’ is my theory of everything: satisfaction and joy arise from the pursuit of complex, worthwhile and comparatively challenging pursuits.

Art history, particle physics, the raising of children, the preparation and enjoyment of good food etc etc – all relevantly complex.

You need to learn, improve, occasionally triumph – and sometimes feel you actually know almost nothing – to achieve the satisfaction of mastering relevant complexity with a good degree of skill.

Then there are hobbies. Same effect Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ – as one become adept or expert but some risks: becoming a bore or solitary obsessive. I have achieved ‘flow’ by hoovering well, even cleaning a fridge. But these are not monuments to my life’s work or relevantly complex pursuits I’d want defining who I am.

What’s in? An eclectic and erratic list: cooking, relevant; gardening, chore. Writing, relevant; drawing embarrassment. Cleaning the fish tank, chore (and only tolerable if I’m left to do it properly) odd jobs, drilling and hanging things source of great irritation and angst. Why?

Because it’s hard to get odd jobs right. Our walls are rubbish, you only ever do a thing once – so you make maximum mistakes, never get the chance to practice what you’ve learned. And the smallest thing can take disproportionate time for a disappointing effect; which then stares down at you in reproach for years. Aaargh. Irrelevant complexity.

My latest botched odd job stares down at me here:

Curtain derailed
DIY failed
Drooping drapes
In awkward shapes
Lots of screws
And hacksaw blades
Variety of fixings
Wobbling and fiddling
Scarcely blocking the sky
Humble pie.

But every cloud has a silver lining. After three separate wasted days on and off up ladders, with hacksaws, at the DIY shop, I definitively gave up in a huff on our lounge curtains.

Then a miracle intervened. My beloved took to the ladders, took up the drill and made it all hang together. Perhaps she found it satisfying enough that she might become Oddjob now… Fingers crossed.

To Do List


In the last couple of years I’ve become a big advocate of hobbies. Hobbies maketh the man. I like a good to do list too. Hats off then to Leonardo da Vinci – ultimate Renaissance man and top polymath – for his splendid to do list of 1510:

1) Obtain skull
2) Get books on anatomy bound
3) Observe holes in the substance of the brain
4) Describe jaw of a crocodile

Sadly there was no ‘App for that’ in 1510 – the parchment (above) being the iPhone ‘Notes’ of his day. Leonardo sets the bar high for a Bank Holiday weekend. Certainly beats cleaning the fish-tank.

Postscript: turns out on Leonardo’s own holiday list were: chalk, wrapping paper, a pane of glass, nutmeg and describing the tongue of a woodpecker. Perhaps he did his fish-tank the week before.

Relevant Complexity 2) Hobbies


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.


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.


Reading Csikszentmihalyi on a family Bank Holiday in sunny France, I was reminded of the tyranny of progress and performance. 

Not that it was Csikszentmihalyi’s fault. We’d been talking with friends the night before going away about learning musical instruments and the merits of lessons and regular practice. 

Now I firmly believe that the best way to improve at anything is to practice regularly – the action of water on a stone is gradual, but inexorable. I have also learnt that the best way to practice anything regularly is to integrate it your daily routine. The problem is there are only so many hours in the day. What to do? More, less often?

I remember from my time working in advertising in France in the 1990s that people have predictable daily and weekly habits. But we do not generally form monthly habits and signally fail to form fortnightly habits. This gave rise to the unspoken rule, never buy an an Ad next to a monthly or worse a fortnightly TV show – they never pull in a regular audience and generally fail. Even if they are well liked once, people forget to tune in ever again. We are creatures of routine.

So where does that leave us with practice, hobbies and busy lives. My conclusion is the only practical options are dedicating daily or weekly slots. My daily slots are all pretty much full: kids, work, kids, eat, dishwasher, potter briefly, bed. 

The brief evening pottering – which recently was when I walked our ageing dog – is the remaining ‘purposeable’ slot. But a few minutes spinning the wheels, albeit aimlessly, seems a very small concession to relaxation. It’d take something ‘light’ and ‘fun’ to fit in edgeways in that small nook in a way that didn’t feel like a chore. 

The ukulele used to be that thing. And for nearly a year I played five songs nearly every night and went from hopeless and tuneless to strumming comparatively competently. Then the dog got incontinent and the habit got broken. So I could go back to the uke. But here’s where the tyranny of progress kicks in. Our friends feel I should have lessons, improve, look to play publicly or at least in private duets and preferably drop the four strings and migrate to a proper six string guitar. 

Phew. Where’s the eudaimonia in all that – the pressure to rapidly improve my skill to meet the challenge of musical excellence feels most unappealing. I said ‘no thanks’. They looked at me like I was mad – what’s the point of strumming the same five songs and never playing them with, or for, someone. Where’s the progress, where’s the performance. The point though – I think – is I quite enjoy it as a personal exercise for me, for ten minutes at night. The simple challenge I set myself is met by my rudimentary and very slowly improving strumming skill: producing modest, low-impact, private, musical ‘flow’.

Separately, on hols I was congratulated twice on my French – one woman said “Vous parlez très très bien Monsieur”. Another asked me if I was a French teacher in England. 

I had given up keeping up my French. I’d given up listening to ‘intermediate French’ audio magazines I subscribed to when I first came back from France. There were no opportunities to match my once reasonable skill with any worthwhile challenge at home. Talking about nothing much in French, just to speak French, seemed pretty pointless. And over time I felt myself going backwards which made matters worse.

But ‘flow’ in French has returned. Family holidays now provide me the perfect opportunity to navigate the modest but important challenges of travelling, accommodating, feeding and entertaining my little family. And they seem quietly impressed and genuinely grateful for my efforts. Now I have a stage on which to perform, some modest (daily?) investment in progress and improvement suddenly seems worthwhile – I’ll be looking at what the web has to offer for ‘intermediate French’ these days.

‘Flow’, progress and performance are closely intertwined, so much Csikszentmihalyi amply demonstrates. But I conclude the recipe and mix aren’t always the same. There are things we do well, some we may do very well and many we could do better. I believe good day-to-day ‘flow’ lies in accepting that not everything we do has to be excelled at. Sometimes the only audience that matters is ourselves.