If you want to be a better person, find something to do outside of work

As a child, I watched birds. While other boys threw themselves into communal sports or sealed lifelong friendships at sleepovers, I spent my weekends alone on the quaggy, wind-barracked reaches of South Coast estuaries, or dragging my long-suffering family around the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Arundel. I pursued birdwatching with the bloody single-mindedness that only a child can muster, and my life, and the lives of those around me, were shaped by my obsession.

Now, attempting to find a way to live as a thirty-something, no longer willing or able to indulge in the hedonistic follies of my twenties, birdwatching has again filled a hole in my existence. Whereas once I identified myself by what I did–my job–now I’m defined by a pursuit that is willfully unproductive.

I spend hours sitting in bird hides these days. Often I am alone; sometimes there are other birdwatchers there with whom to share brief, sublime moments of connection as a bird drifts into view, is identified, noted, and departs; once my daughter came with me, but was bored after 10 minutes, and I had to take her home. Then, alone again, I sat and watched as the hours crept by, until the day grew dark and I could go home. For me, birdwatching has provided the answer to a conundrum that haunts modern life: how to fill our days.

Our hobbies tell a great deal about us and our world: about how we choose to present our lives to others; about the burdensome, expectation-freighted nature of free time; about our slippery relationship with the exigencies of productivity in late-capitalist society. Hobbies are a corner of our existence over which we have the impression of control, a sphere in which we feel we can achieve a kind of mastery usually denied to us in our wider personal and professional lives. In All the Names, José Saramago says that hobbyists act out of “metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe, which is why, using their limited powers and with no divine help, they attempt to impose some order on the world.”

The history of the hobby

In 1899, the Norwegian-American social theorist Thorstein Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. In the book, he famously coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” but also outlined the development of the concept of leisure time. Leisure pursuits, Veblen argued, derived from models established in pre-Industrial societies, where the aristocracy chose economically unproductive professions and pastimes–warfare, hunting, religion, art–while the lower classes performed productive tasks–manufacturing and farming. With the burgeoning of the Victorian middle classes, conspicuous leisure became another form of social emulation, so that having a hobby–being deliberately unproductive–denoted elevated status.

 One of the by-products of industrialization was free time for the growing middle classes to fill. Veblen also tracked the way that leisure time began to play a part in conceptions of identity. In the past, all but the aristocracy had defined themselves by what they did: “since labour is their recognized and accepted mode of life, they take some emulative pride in a reputation for efficiency in their work, this being often the only line of emulation that is open to them.” With one of the by-products of industrialization being free time for the growing middle classes to fill, people began to seek companionship and self-definition in their leisure pursuits. From identity being dictated by what a person produced, we began to conceive ourselves through pastimes which privileged the pleasure of production over the value of the product.

The idea that people are shaped by their hobbies pre-dates the nineteenth century, though. In the first epistle of his Moral Essays (1731), Alexander Pope said that if you really want to know someone, you must find out their “ruling passion.” How they chose to spend time that was theirs, Pope argued, told deeper truths about his largely upper-class readership than the role that birth or society had foisted upon them:

SEARCH thou the ruling passion; there, alone,
The wild are constant, and the cunning known
The fool consistent and the false sincere
Priests, princes, women, no dissemblers here.

Another eighteenth-century author, Laurence Sterne, came to the same conclusion. In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759), the Don Quixote-ish Uncle Toby spends his waking hours building miniature fortifications and re-enacting battles with toy soldiers. Toby’s monomania sends the eponymous narrator off into a meditation on the nature of hobbies (which he refers to as “HOBBY-HORSES”):

“A man and his HOBBY-HORSE, tho’ I cannot say that they act and re-act exactly after the same manner in which the soul and body do upon each other: Yet doubtless there is a communication between them of some kind … so that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of the one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other.”

We wish to be known for that about us which rises above the merely productive.

Nostalgia for the useless

It’s the designedly unproductive nature of hobbies, I think, that means they are so often archaic or nostalgic, backwards-looking. Think of stamp-collecting and home-brewing beer, or the medieval war-games of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

 Something only needs to become useless for it to attain the nostalgic aura that draws the hobbyist. In Hedonizing Technologies: Paths to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure, Rachel P. Maines of Cornell University lists a range of nostalgic leisure activities from needlework to pickling, noting that even such a seemingly productive pursuit as coal mining has its leisure-time enthusiasts (although she notes that hobby coal miners “must receive the same safety training as professional coal miners.”) She also points out that, once railways in the UK and the USA signalled the end of stage-coaches as a means of transportation, coaching became a popular hobby. Something only needs to become useless for it to attain the nostalgic aura that draws the hobbyist.

I begin to consider my own birdwatching in this light: as unproductive, nostalgic and self-revealing. I don’t consciously conceive of my birdwatching in Veblenian terms, as a way of filling the hours freed up by technological advances, or as a mode of self-identification and social self-elevation, and yet, as I shell out for the latest pair of binoculars (Hawke Sapphires, since you ask), or engage in passive-competitive discussions about the birds I’ve seen and the miles I’ve travelled to see them, I’m aware of myself as conforming to a type: the obsessive hobbyist.

 Jean Baudrillard noted that collection-mania is most often found in “pre-pubescent boys and males over the age of 40.”  A few years ago, I interviewed Kevin Wheatcroft, a Midlands businessman and the owner of the world’s largest collection of Nazi memorabilia. Walking around the vast Leicestershire, UK estate on which he stores his collection (among the highlights are 88 tanks, nude sketches of Eva Braun by Hitler, the doors to the officers’ mess at Auschwitz), I was struck by the force of the compulsion that drove this otherwise unexceptional man. He knew everything about his hobby, pursued it with a relentlessness that bordered on unhealthy (notwithstanding the subject.) In his essay on collecting, Le Système des Objets (1968), Jean Baudrillard noted that collection-mania is most often found in “pre-pubescent boys and males over the age of 40.” Wheatcroft, who’s in his late-50s, typifies the latter cohort–obsessive, completest, and deadly serious about his hobby.

Remembrance of things past

This seriousness seems central to understanding the function of our hobbies. We bring to bear upon the objects of our obsession energy, time, and money, often to the exclusion of other more pressing demands. If we think of Baudrillard’s division of collectors into the young and the old, we might account for the seriousness of the older collector by noting that often the nostalgia involved in a hobby is to do with the wish to reanimate an earlier incarnation of the hobbyist. I’m aware of this with my birdwatching (and might, by-the-by, note that ornithology is a form of collecting: we collect and file our avian encounters). I am always in touch, when I am birdwatching, with the figure of myself in short-trousers, aged eight or nine, lying in a field on the South Downs and staring wonderstruck into a swallow-strewn sky.

 Our hobbies should be a form of dissent, a radical expression of our individuality, a celebration of doing things that we’re not obliged to do. There’s something rather sad about figures such as Jon Hornbuckle and Claes-Goran Cederlund, numbers one and two in the (self-certified) list of the world’s leading birdwatchers by numbers of species seen. Both have notched up well over 9,000 of the 10,000 or so species in existence, devoting their lives and their resources to the pursuit of twin chimeras: the (im)possibility of completion, and–and here I’m perhaps interposing my own experience in my diagnosis of Hornbuckle and Cederlund’s pathological pursuit of birds–the search for the originary joy of birdwatching: that all-consuming passion that seizes control of the child as they discover the thrill of their obsession. What the older hobbyists, with their expensive gadgets and expansive budgets, don’t realize, it that it was the very amateurishness of their early pursuits that made them joyful, and all the obsessive hobbyist is doing with their seriousness is imbuing leisure time with the drudgery of labour. Hobbies should be the space in which play-time finds expression in the adult world.

Hobby as dissent

Reading Veblen strips hobbies of much of their pleasure. You suddenly catch a glimpse of yourself in the third person, tending your bonsai trees, or knitting, or perusing your collection of Cape of Good Hope triangle postage stamps, and you recognize that you are merely conforming to the exigencies of economics, indulging in conspicuous leisure as a way of tying yourself ever-tighter to the capitalist machine. You work in order to make enough money to indulge your hobby, the obsession grows deeper and more compulsive, and requires more time than you have, more money than you can earn. Leisure time is tainted by its symbiotic existence with labor.

 Tom Sawyer said that “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and… Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” There’s a different interpretation of hobbies, though. We’re increasingly recognizing that Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs got it wrong when it relegated hobbies to a distant corner of “self-actualization” (the fifth and least important of the needs.) Hobbies are of central importance to our psychological well-being. A recent study by Kevin Eschelman at San Francisco State University found that workers recovered more quickly from the demands of their working lives if allowed to indulge in hobbies in their free time. Similarly, Google discovered that its 20% rule–allowing employees to spend 20% of their work time pursuing projects of their own choosing–led to more focused, productive employees.

Even these examples fail to break the linkage between labor and leisure time, though. Tom Sawyer said that “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and… Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” Our hobbies should be a form of dissent, a radical expression of our individuality, a celebration of doing things that we’re “not obliged to do.” In a world in which our work lives and non-work lives are Venn diagrams with ever-growing areas of intersection–part of me dies every time I read a Twitter profile that states that the user’s views are not a reflection of those of his or her institution–hobbies should celebrate their independence from labor.

Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac, put it beautifully, and it’s a quote I shall take with me, along with the wellington boots, the binoculars and the Collins’ Guide, each time I go birdwatching:

“Becoming serious is a grievous fault in hobbyists. It is an axiom that no hobby should either seek or need rational justification. To wish to do it is reason enough. To find reasons why it is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry–lowers it at once to the ignominious category of an ‘exercise’ undertaken for health, power, or profit. Lifting dumbbells is not a hobby. It is a confession of subservience, not an assertion of liberty.”

home our picks popular latest obsessions search