My friend is showing me a photo on his phone.
We're at a dimly lit restaurant and I have to squint to see the screen. There it is: a picture of a picture. The second picture being a poster, to which my friend has taken coloured marker and scrawled words of encouragement for two other friends of his who are participating in a dance performance.
It suddenly occurs to me how meta all this is.
I'm writing a story about hobbies — specifically, my efforts to develop some and become a more interesting (or less boring) individual. Meryl Streep knits; Warren Buffett plays the ukulele; Marissa Mayer bakes. Those guys definitely have busier lives than I do, meaning I've got no excuse for being hobby-less.
The other night, my friend and I had spent an hour talking about my story — all the hobbies I could try and whether or not they "counted." Apparently, my friend had been so inspired that, after we'd parted ways, he'd gone straight to the crafts store so he could design a sign for the friends who were dancing — which is itself a very countable hobby.
"Wow!" I tell him, pointing to the picture of the picture. "I love it!"Already I feel more interesting, even if all I've done is serve as a hobbies muse. Tomorrow, the real work begins.
In the process of writing this story, I spoke with life coach and author Susie Moore, who told me about a "tragic" experience she has all too often. She'll ask clients what brings them pleasure, or joy, and they won't know how to answer. All they do aside from work is work out, sleep, and go to the bar, Moore said.
Admittedly, though I could easily relate to Moore's clients, joy was not my primary motivation in experimenting with four different hobbies over the course of a month. Instead, I wanted to be less boring. When people ask what I've been up to lately, I wanted to not have to rack my brain, only to turn up a week-long vacation I took last summer.
Jaime Kurtz, an associate professor of psychology at James Madison University, agreed: "Nobody wants to hear how busy you are," she told me. "I find that's so tedious. We're all busy." Instead, Kurtz said, if you're passionate and excited about something you're working on, that will inevitably draw people to you.
My foray into hobbies began with crayons. One evening after work, I trotted over to the Barnes and Noble in my neighbourhood and asked a salesperson, not without a bit of sheepishness, to please direct me to the adult colouring books section.
I'd heard about this trend a few years ago — apparently, colouring could be the perfect antidote to the kind of stress and anxiety most grown-ups experience every day.
But at the bookstore, it took me only a few minutes of leafing through the options to realize that grown-up-style artwork — full of hypnotic patterns and geometric shapes — is decidedly not for me. Instead, I chose a fairy-tale-themed colouring book, designed by Eriy. It's gorgeous; the artist used the tip of a toothpick (a toothpick!) to create the designs, and the front flap of the book reveals a map of the entire kingdom.
Back home, I plopped down on the couch and brought life to Sareine Alley. After an hour, it looked like a low-budget version of Candy Land. I was delighted.
Later that week, I'd speak to Laura Vanderkam, an author and time-management expert, and she'd tell me that one of the benefits of having hobbies as a modern professional is that you make visible progress on something, which is inherently gratifying. Indeed, as soon as I'd tired of colouring, I'd snapped my own photo and stopped just short of proudly texting it to my mother.
A few nights later, I was at Paper Source, picking out stationery for letter-writing purposes. By this time, I'd learned that half the fun of hobbies is preparing to do them. A butterfly-themed set spoke to me (also, it was about half the price of the next cheapest set).
The last time I'd sent a snail-mail letter was at sleep-away camp, where I wrote on the top bunk by flashlight, encircled by moths, and described my latest turn on the "Blob." This time around, I was stumped. I'd already told a college friend that I was planning to write letters and promised to send the first one to him — but what to say? "Hi, work is fun, NYC is hot, today I had peanut butter?"
Eventually, I decided to write about my feelings. There's something about putting non-metaphorical pen to paper that makes it easier to emote than typing onto a digital screen. I wrote another letter, to another college friend. More feelings.
A few weeks later, I received a text from the first friend I'd written to, with an invitation to hang out. "I think your letter made me nostalgic," he told me over Chinese food, "and I realized how much I missed you."
This was a curious turn of events. Every expert I'd spoken to about the benefits of hobbies had mentioned expanding and strengthening your social network as one of the biggest. I wouldn't have identified letter-writing as the most social of all hobbies out there, but apparently, it did the trick.
By far, meditation was the most frustrating hobby I tried. Whereas coloring and letter-writing are pretty straightforward, there's no clear sign that sitting and breathing is "working." I didn't feel any Zenner than I had before I'd taken up a meditation practice, so I assumed it was not.
But maybe I was doing it wrong? After using the guided meditations on an app called Insight Timer for weeks, I decided to try an early-morning meditation at my local community centre, thinking the group energy might change things. It did: Now I could look around during the 30 minutes of silence and see who else was getting restless.
I did strike up a conversation with a fellow meditator on the way out one day — like me, he found the practice surprisingly difficult. It was nice to feel some camaraderie.
Mostly though, I liked the idea of having a meditation practice.
One Sunday morning, a friend and I sat by the Hudson River and shared a pair of headphones while listening to a Headspace meditation. Already, the temperature was creeping into the 90s, but the path along the water was crammed with runners huffing and puffing their way to a natural high. I smirked inwardly: I'm working out too, folks, but the body part I'm training is my brain.
Typically, when people inquire about my hobbies, I mention that I'm an avid baker. This is a lie. While I do find baking remarkably therapeutic, I only do it a few times a year. This experiment seemed like a prime opportunity to make good on my word.
After browsing hard-copy cookbooks and a series of food blogs, nixing every recipe that sounded too complicated or too simple, I settled on blueberry mini-muffins. So cute! So nutritious!
Yet, five hours of shopping and mixing and scrubbing later, when I retrieved the minis from the oven, it was no small disappointment to see that they were misshapen. More like an abstract rendition of a traditional breakfast pastry. Undeterred, I brought them into work the next morning, where my ever-supportive coworkers oohed and aahed over the unexpected treats. (Thanks, guys.) Later that week, I moved onto a cauliflower pasta recipe that had been categorized as "easy" by The New York Times. Not so, NYT, not so — at least not for this amateur.
Though only a few ingredients were required, I super-stressed myself out trying to time each step so that neither the vegetables nor the seasoning burnt to a crisp. In the end, I wound up microwaving a tasty but woefully lukewarm batch of penne, into which the cauliflower had invisibly disintegrated.
Next time, I'm ordering pizza.
Towards the end of this experiment, my editor asked if there were any hobbies I'd continue. To be honest, I'm not certain: Maybe all, maybe none. Certainly, I was delighted to talk about my newfound hobbies with anyone who'd listen, which was sometimes incentive enough for me to spend the evening baking or colouring.
But there were also several evenings this month when I chose to browse social media and fall asleep on the couch instead of, say, writing letters or meditating. Without the pressure of an impending deadline, who knows if I'll find the energy to live my best life? Then again, Vanderkam made a point that's worth repeating: "We tend to draw energy from things that we enjoy, so it's really about getting over that initial hurdle." That is to say, maybe if I pulled out a pen and started writing a letter, I'd be less inclined to fall asleep on the couch.
Ultimately though, the only person I'm impressing by being awake and trying to have fun is, well, me. I don't think you need a hobby to be interesting — but I suspect you need a hobby to feel interesting. (Click to tweet, thanks.) The past month showed me I have interests — and maybe even abilities! — other than producing words. And really, that's all I needed to know.
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