Einstein, as everyone knows, was an extraordinary physicist. What isn't as well documented, though, is Einstein's sailing expertise, or lack thereof. Einstein had a clunky 15-foot sailboat named Tinef, Yiddish for worthless or junk. People who watched him sail were convinced that his boat's name mirrored his sailing skills. But that didn't stop Einstein from pursuing one of his favorite hobbies.
In a NY Times article, Robert Rothman, owner of Long Island's Rothman Department store, recounts Einstein's love for sailing even though his skills were subpar at best.
Rothman was barely twelve when Einstein visited his father's store in the summer of 1939 looking for sailing gear. By then, news of Einstein's mediocre sailing skills had already spread across the town. Recalls Rothman, "You had 30 people around here who'd tell you they rescued Einstein when he capsized and towed him and his boat in."
In another anecdote, Rothman said about Einstein, "Once, he sailed to the store from his cabin and got lost. The police found him and called, saying there was this hairy guy wandering the beach asking for my father."
But his weak sailing skills didn't seem to trouble Einstein. Unfazed by his sailing mishaps, or the fact that he didn't even know to swim, he relentlessly pursued his hobby for over fifty years. And there was one primary reason for his dogged pursuit: he loved being on his sailboat.
The joy of hobbies
For many, hobbies are usually the bright spot in an otherwise dull and monotonous existence or a break from a stressful one.
The word hobby can be traced back to the 13th century when it was used to refer to a toy horse or a hobbyhorse. Soon the word came to represent any activity pursued for pleasure.
The intent of a hobby is that it should be an activity that involves neither a productivity nor a profit motive. The point of a hobby is to spend time immersed in doing something without feeling the need to be efficient or effective. This means it's okay to pursue a hobby without a goal in mind.
Spending time not purposefully
An incomplete drawing, a half-built set of shelves, or an unfinished book are perfectly justified ways of spending time because, ideally, hobbies are activities we do for their own sake. In today's hyper-productive, make- every-second-count culture, that notion of doing something without a purpose seems rather quaint and, dare I say, wasteful.
We often tend to derisively mock people's hobbies. We wonder how numismatists (coin collectors who gave themselves a fancy-sounding name so people would take them seriously), soap carvers, or chemical element collectors (people who make it their life's mission to collect as many elements listed on the periodic table as they can) spend precious time and resources chasing after seemingly meaningless pursuits.
But, by laughing others' hobbies off, are we simply masking our own insecurities about not having anything fun to do in our lives?
Why do hobbies refresh us?
Hobbies have a special place in our lives because they nurture us. But we do have to acknowledge a sobering fact.
Hobbies are a bit of a luxury when your basic needs have been met. Finding time to fly kites is hard when you are working two jobs to feed your family.
Camping may be fun for a while, but as a way of life, it can resemble homelessness.
But once our basic needs are met, it is time to embrace hobbies. Carol Kauffman, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, clarifies why hobbies, especially the ones we love, make us happier.
When you're really engaged in a hobby you love, you lose your sense of time and enter what's called a flow state, and that restores your mind and energy.
In other words, hobbies help us live more.
That said, it helps to be cognizant of the line between a hobby and a job.
The temptation to turn a hobby into a job
As people get better at their hobbies, they encounter the temptation of turning their precious hobby into a job or at least a side hustle. In the gig economy we find ourselves in, the pressure, if not the desire to monetize, can be hard to escape.
But not every homemade piece of craft needs to be sold on Etsy.
Based on anecdotal and personal evidence, I can tell you this: the first thing that's likely to disappear when you turn a hobby into a job is the element of fun. Ask any recreational athlete who decides to turn pro. The activity can quickly go from something you want to do to something you need to do. And before long, you may be looking for a new hobby!
Another misconception about hobbies is the notion that you need to be good at your hobby to enjoy it.
It's okay to suck at your hobby
As in Einstein's example at the beginning of this article, the point of the hobby is not to worry about your performance.
If there's one writer I can't quote enough, it's Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Here's another one of his gems.
Burkeman writes about hobbies:
A good hobby probably should feel a little embarrassing; that's a sign you're doing it for its own sake rather than for some socially sanctioned outcome." To pursue an activity in which you have no hope of becoming exceptional is to put aside, for a while, the anxious need to "use time well." It's about, he says, the "freedom to pursue the futile.
I can attest to what Burkeman said. The bliss when you feel you have the freedom to pursue the futile is unparalleled.
Productivity lifehack: the wrong reason to pursue a hobby
Time magazine published an article in 2014 about an SF State University study on the "usefulness" of hobbies. The article was titled "Being Creative Outside of Work Makes You Better at Your Job."
According to the study, "creative experiences can have implications beyond relaxation after a hard day, and can actually help people with their day-to-day duties, like problem-solving."
Hobbies may help us get better at our jobs, but if the reason we take up hobbies is to get better at our jobs, then I think the point of the hobby is lost. Hobbies shouldn't be productivity lifehacks in that sense. It's like trying to meditate in an Uber because you want to avoid conversation with the driver. There are better reasons to meditate and better excuses for not wanting to talk to your uber-driver.
The not-hobby hobbies
There is no dearth of hobbies to pursue. Our creative endeavors can range from the mundane— reading, writing, and playing sports to weird or weirdly exciting pursuits such as collecting snowdrops or dissecting frogs. The common thread here is the "doing."
Passive activities such as binge-watching entire TV seasons don't quite make the cut as a hobby because the only doing when we passively watch TV is switch our brains off. In her book, "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time." author Brigid Schulte writes:
Research has found that, with the flick of the TV's remote, our thinking brains shut off. Within thirty seconds, we lose our sense of self, and our alpha waves become no more active than if we were staring at a blank wall.
That said, here's a hobby idea: Staring at a blank wall for long durations. Believe me; it takes a while to develop that expertise.
We are embroiled in a culture that emphasizes the need to use our time in pursuit of either productivity or profit. Why bother attending tap-dance classes if the beat eludes you, or why dabble in pottery if you don't plan an Etsy storefront? But the point of hobbies is just that. When done right, hobbies can break the monotony of our existence. There is a lot of bliss in doing something guilt-free purely for the sake of it without needing to get to an end result.
After all, the best things in life are the little things.
If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there'd be a shortage of fishing poles. Doug Larson, 1926-2017, American columnist