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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

My Little Manifesto on Hobbies (or in defense of quitting)

I overheard a conversation the other day at work where two guys are making chit chat and one asks the other what kind of hobbies he has. The guy pauses and finally replies, "I guess I don't really have any hobbies. Work and kids are my hobbies."

That was the saddest thing I've heard in a long time.

Merriam-Webster defines a hobby as "a pursuit outside one's regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation." I like this broad definition because it means just about anything can be a hobby. My own definition would be to engage in an activity that requires some skill or expertise just for the enjoyable hell of it. Advanced proficiency is optional.


When Hobbies are Good for You

Hobbies come and hobbies go. Flying was one of my first adult hobbies. For a few years after getting my pilot's license, I flew all over Georgia and South Carolina in a rented Cessna 172. That is until the money ran out and the credit card bills came due. Still, until that happened, I lived for Saturday mornings when I could book my former instructor’s plane from 9:00-11:00. Mornings were best for flying, with clear blue skies and gentle breezes, way better than Georgia’s sweltering afternoons when the humidity bubbled up and turned the cockpit into an oven.

Until online gaming dried up the player pool, I was an avid board gamer. I'm not talking about light and fluffy games like The Settlers of Catan, but the detail-saturated strategy games put out by Avalon Hill in the 70s and 80s. You know, the ones with 100-page rule books and two thousand tiny little cardboard game pieces. My buddies and I whiled away many a weekend in my best friend’s basement playing games like Imperium Romanum, Axis & Allies, and Panzer Leader, to name a few.

Later, when I lived in southern Arizona, I bought an 8-inch telescope and explored the cosmos from home. Dark skies, a rural setting, and low desert humidity all made for fantastic stargazing. Our house, a cozy little A-frame tucked away in the foothills of the Huachuca mountains, had a spacious deck on the second floor. On clear nights, I’d lug my telescope out onto that deck along with my sleeping bag. There I fell asleep gazing up at the Milky Way. I’d then wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning and point my telescope at whatever planets were available.

And I'm not going to lie; seeing the cloud bands of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn or the ice caps of Mars from my backyard was a sublime experience. Jupiter’s swirling clouds of many colors looked like a Van Gogh painting. Saturn’s odd cant to the side, with its rings forming an oval around the gas giant, gave it the appearance of a pale eye staring back at me. And Mars, mysterious Mars! Most of the time, it was but a little red disk, not worth much attention, except, that is, during Earth’s biennial flyby of the Red Planet. Then it would briefly reveal its secrets. For a few short weeks, I’d be able to make out some smudgy details on the surface as well as those icecaps.

Those are good memories.

But sometimes, life gets in the way. Poverty killed my flying hobby. A lack of players and the rise of computer gaming quietly ended my board gaming days. City living with its bright lights took the fun out of astronomy. That said, they were terrific pastimes while they lasted.

However, that's not always the case. Hobbies were not always about dreamy stargazing and scenic solo flights. Sometimes I had to break up with my hobbies because they were bad for me. Mistakes were made. Errors in judgment occurred that I’m not proud of.


And When Hobbies are Bad for You

Case in point: Years ago, I decided I wanted to ride horses. I'm not sure why, but it seemed like a good idea at the time, probably because it was cheaper than renting Cessnas. I volunteered to be a cavalry trooper with B Troop at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Historically, B Troop was the cavalry unit that operated out of Fort Huachuca during the nineteenth century. They patrolled the southern Arizona border with Mexico and mixed it up with the nearby Apaches. Today's B Troop is meant to keep those traditions alive with public re-enactments, parades, and riding demonstrations—no experience was required to join.

One only had to attend riding school every Wednesday night for a couple of hours, plus an hour or so each day tending to the horses. When the instructors thought you were ready, they gave you a riding exam. If you passed, you were in. If not, then back to Wednesday night riding school until you were ready. Each person was different, and some zipped through the training.

Others didn't.

Unfortunately, I struggled mightily during the bare-back riding phase of training, especially riding an ill-tempered former Mexican racehorse named Charlie. Charlie was my assigned horse. He also became my nemesis, with a spine like a Stegosaurus and the disposition of a honey badger. Galloping around on Charlie in Wren Arena with no saddle and stir-ups meant more than a few nasty falls and once even a concussion. We never really bonded, he and I, and I'm pretty sure he could sense my fear.

But I was stubborn, and even though the novelty of riding horses had long worn off, I was going to finish what I started, goddammit! And I did, finally, after a long year of perseverance, make it into the Troop. That was a proud moment, but after that, I only lasted six months. It didn’t feel like a hobby anymore, but more of a chore, and when hobbies become chores, it's time to move on.

You win, Charlie, you bastard.

That debacle taught me some lessons about hobbies, that there are at least two very different kinds: First, are those hobbies in the purest, most authentic sense of the word. Remember my definition that a hobby is an activity that “…requires some skill or expertise just for the enjoyable hell of it.” Astronomy, flying, and board gaming were hobbies by that definition. They were pursuits I truly loved doing.

But I could be a vain and stubborn fool!

The second kind of hobby was the type I got into because I liked the idea of how I would look doing it. I call these vanity hobbies or those hobbies I pursued in the hope of appearing a little more interesting to the outside world.

Riding in B Troop, for example.


Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Hobbies

What I learned from this experience is not to dive into a hobby simply to impress other people. Trust me; if that’s your motivation, it will quickly dissipate, and then you're just going through the motions, secretly looking for an exit ramp. No, do a hobby because you genuinely enjoy it, even if there's not going to be much social capital in it. Either way, you'll learn early on what your true motivations are.

I see this misplaced motivation all the time when people out of the blue decide to study a foreign language. They've seen someone else do it well and think, "Geez, man! I could do that! I will do that! I'll look like a genius ordering dinner in Mandarin!" So off they go, downloading language apps, buying phrasebooks from Barnes & Noble, and sometimes even hiring a tutor. So far, so good, but learning a language is hard, really hard, and sooner or later, the novelty wears off, and the reality sets in.

Usually, six weeks and $300 later, when they're hopelessly lost in verb conjugations and noun declensions, well, then it's not a hobby anymore, but a chore. Only the crazy few who actually find this hobby pleasurable and intellectually relaxing continue any further. I'm one of them. For everyone else, it's time to reassess. Time to find a new hobby. Time to take the next exit ramp and leave Charlie behind. He would want that.

Take it from a pro: sometimes it's okay to quit.

I liked the idea of riding horses, looking all badass or whatever in my ill-fitting cowboy boots and 100% cotton cavalry trooper uniform that also doubled as a portable sweat lodge. But the reality is I didn't enjoy riding a malevolent horse for hours on end in the southern Arizona sun, especially when no one was around to be impressed. All I got out of it was a sore ass and a bruised ego. Not surprisingly, I came to loathe Charlie, and I'm pretty sure the feeling was mutual.

I liked the idea of being a cavalry reenactor, though, and telling people with a calculated nonchalance that I rode with B Troop felt kind of good, I guess. So, I persevered, partly out of pride, partly ego, but mainly because at some point, my idea of a hobby had become a kind of sunk cost trap. I had spent so much time getting to where I was; how could I quit now? What a waste! What would my friends say? Quitters never win and all that.

I did, however, do just that. I quit, and it felt pretty damn good.

Still, hobbies remain an important part of my life. These days I enjoy writing, running, and keeping up on my languages. I’ve always worried that if I didn’t carve out some time for myself to engage in an activity not tied to an obligation, and one that's just for me alone, I’d risk eventually losing that self. Like the guy with no real hobbies at the beginning of this essay, life would end up a predictable pendulum swinging back and forth between the false choice of work and home and back again.

It's the life equivalent of mashed potatoes.

I didn’t want that.

And I didn’t get that.

Personal Photo - Telescope Next to the Debris of Other Past Hobbies



April 2021

Paris France


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