“Beware of turning hobbies into jobs.”
In chapter 5 of Steal Like An Artist, I sing the praises of the good-old fashioned hobby, the thing you do outside of work, for fun. “A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy. A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.”
Since I wrote that over half a decade ago, things have just gotten worse in America, and as steady jobs keep disappearing and the market continues to gobble up the culture, the “free time” activities which used to soothe us and take our minds off work and add meaning to our lives are now presented to us as potential income streams. (“Make money doing what you love!”)
This week Ann Friedman wrote the piece I’ve been wanting to write, “Not Everything Is a Side Hustle.” Like me, she grew up in the Midwest, “practically born with a glue gun in my hand,” and she now practices a kind of “general craftiness.” Her new thing is deviled eggs (a personal favorite of mine):
For the past few years, I’ve been bringing these eggy experiments with me to barbecues and potlucks, where, through a mouthful of mayonnaise, someone will suggest that I start a deviled-egg catering business. It is a tempting idea (I could call the business “She-Deviled”!). And I know that people are suggesting egg-entrepreneurship as a compliment—their way of saying, “These are so good I would pay for them!”—but I take the implication seriously. At a time when Etsy shops and craft fairs and food trucks are decidedly mainstream, every domestic hobby is at risk of becoming a side hustle. I don’t want to boil and slice eggs for money. Messing around with a stand mixer or a sewing machine is fun for me because it’s not work. Personal pleasure is what makes a hobby a hobby.
I’m encouraged by Anne’s spirit, and I’ve been seeking other inspirations out there, examples of people who are out there happily practicing and protecting their hobbies. Oddly, one of my favorite inspirations is fictional and foreign: the BBC series Detectorists, in which two friends go rambling around the countryside with their metal detectors. Director and actor Mackenzie Crook says he got the original inspiration for the show from thinking about hobbies:
I’m fascinated by people and their pastimes and their hobbies, the way people their free time. It seems to me like it’s a very British thing. (I don’t know if it is.) The way people can just immerse themselves and get obsessed by subjects that to a lot of other people would seem like a dull way to spend a weekend. I wanted it to be an affectionate study of people and their pastimes. I decided on metal detecting as a good… you know, there’s lots of metaphors there for what they’re really looking for in their lives.
Spoiler alert: a hobby which at first seems to simply be about seeking fortune in buried treasure turns out to be more about the hunt and spending time with your mates. I love how the show celebrates people doing something that everybody else thinks is a complete waste of time. In one episode, the character Lance talks about how a hobby is better if people don’t understand it: “What you want is for your partner to shake her head, roll her eyes, and look at you and say, ‘You and your hobbies.’”
George Carlin said he didn’t have hobbies, he had interests. “Hobbies cost money. Interests are free.” I think you need both, and I wonder if Crook’s hunch about the British being better at hobbies is true — it certainly feels true to me. As our empire crumbles, we would do well to observe how citizens of former empires enjoy a nice pint, a ramble, and a bit of tinkering.